Girl with a lantern finding her way through a dark forest

Figuring it out as I go: on pantsing with anxiety

One of the questions that comes up in writerly circles is: are you a planner or a pantser?

Planners like to know exactly where their story is going before they begin. They’re the writers who create outlines, spreadsheets, scene planners, character maps, etc ad infinitum.J. K. Rowling? Definitely a planner. J.R.R. Tolkein, with his volumes of world history and mythology, his carefully crafted languages, was possibly the ultimate planner.

Pantsers prefer to just sit down and go, and let the story fall as it may – in other words, they write by the seat of their pants.

There’s a lot more appeal, to me, in being a planner. Planners have plans. They know what they’re doing. If they get stuck, they can just look at their plan and figure out where they need to go next – or, if that’s not enough, they can do some more planning. Right?

No knowing where I’m going

Not knowing where I’m going is very unsettling for my poor brain. It gives the weasels far too much to gnaw on: What if I get stuck? What if I write myself into a corner? What if I waste a bunch of time and effort on material I don’t end up using?

(The fact that it could just as easily be described as a waste of time to spend days or weeks struggling to plan out details that I’ll throw out or change completely when I come to the actual writing? *cough* Entirely beside the point.)

So I try to be a planner: I look up articles on story structure, copy out online templates for plotting scenes, go to workshops on character building, and generally agonise over my complete inability to figure out what I’m doing in advance.

How should I know?

I want to have a plan before I start writing. I turn my ideas over and over in my head, trying to map out where my story is going and what scenes will get it there, even though most of my planning bears little relation to my finished product. I agonise over character profile questionnaires, even though coming up with the details they require is a lot like pulling teeth.

How tall is your character? What colour is their hair? What kind of relationship do they have with their grandparents? Well, how should I know? I haven’t really met them yet!

However much I try to plan ahead, the simple fact is that most of the details of my stories won’t come to me until I actually sit down and start writing them.

Things I don’t know

Here is an incomplete list of things that I regularly don’t know about a story before I begin:

  • Characters’ names. Even my main characters rarely have names before the final draft. Occasionally a name will just shout out to me, but often finding the right names for my people is the hardest part or writing them.
  • Characters’ genders. Avoiding or subverting gender stereotypes is important to me. Perhaps as a result, it’s not uncommon for a character to start out one way, only for me to discover as the story progresses that I like them better if they’re something else.
  • Characters’ personalities. Of the two main characters in my most recent story, all I knew about the point-of-view character going in was what I thought was going to be his major personal struggle (but, as it turned out, was only one struggle of two), and all I knew about the second character was they they were the love interest.
  • Plot. Sometimes I know how my story starts, but not how it ends. Sometimes (more rarely) I know how it ends, but not how it starts. Sometimes I know where my story starts and ends, but I haven’t a clue what events will happen in the middle to get it from A to B. I have to write to find out.

Can a pantser be a good writer?

My biggest fear is that this inability to know where my story is going before I start, this making it up as I go along – this pantsing – means my writing must be shallow. Predictable. Clichéd. After all, writing something original and thought-provoking must take planning, right?

But earlier this year, in the aforementioned pursuit of being actually a planner after all (if I can just find the right way to go about it), I attended a world-building workshop by author Jane Rawson. She opened by saying, very frankly, I don’t really know why I’m here. I don’t plan my worlds out in detail in advance. I don’t have a whole world mapped out in my head. I start writing and see what questions I need to answer about my setting, and I answer those questions. (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, mind you)

Jane Rawson’s writing, from what I have seen of it, is neither shallow, nor predictable. It’s certainly far from clichéd.

Margaret Atwood is a pantser. So, a lot of people suggest, is Stephen King.

Atwood’s notable quote, which is hidden behind a paywall in the original article, reads as follows:

When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small… The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.

So I may be a pantser, but I’m a pantser in good company.

Learning as I go

My Facebook page header is a quote by American novelist E. L. Doctorow: Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

It’s there because that quote spoke to me as soon as I saw it.

Every story I start, starts from nothing. Every time, I have to begin anew by overcoming the fear of not knowing that this story will be, and find the faith to start writing it anyway and find out.

Perhaps that, then, is how I shall think of myself. Not as a pantser, making it up as I go along, but as an explorer: filling in the blanks, discovering the secret twists of geography that connect up the known in unexpected ways, mapping out the fine details of places and people previously only half-glimpsed from a distance. Learning as I go the true shape of the thing in my head, by the act of writing it down.

Image source: Pixabay
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