A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

In this guest post author and journalist CG Blake reflects on his ‘pantser’ approach to writing
Pantser: A NaNoWriMo term that means that you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ when you are writing your novel. You have nothing but the absolute basics planned out for your novel.
(source: Urban Dictionary)

Author Lisa Cron wrote a thoughtful piece over on Writer Unboxed on January 10, 2013, that got me thinking. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, I highly recommend her latest book Wired for Story, a guide to how writers can use storytelling techniques to trigger the brain’s natural ability to read stories.

Cron’s post on Writer Unboxed focused on the technique, advocated by Anne Lamott in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in the classic work Bird by Bird, to “let it all pour out” when writing a first draft. Cron posits that Lamott’s point has been widely misinterpreted. Lamott was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell. Having said that, Cron proceeded to discuss why the “let it all pour out” approach does not serve the writer well.

“Let’s face it, it’s much easier—seemingly liberating—to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go,” Cron wrote.

Read the full post

Cron recommended nine tips to avoid the trap of flying blind and ending up with an incoherent draft. I won’t repeat them all here, but four of these tips in particular resonated with me:

#2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.

#4. Know the over-arching problem your protagonist will face.

#5. Know your ending first.

#8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.”

As an unabashed pantser, I should have taken exception to what Cron wrote, but as I reflected on it, she was dead-on. It’s fine to “let ‘er rip,” but here’s a cautionary note: a writer must think his story through before putting a single word on the page. So here are the things I always work out before I sit down to write:

  • Premise: what is the story about?
  • Protagonist’s goals and obstacles. These should be made clear to the reader as early in the story as is possible.
  • Antagonist’s role and ways in which the antagonist will thwart the main character.
  • Major milestones in the story. What are the events that will drive the story forward?
  • Major conflicts. How will these be set up and developed and resolved for maximum impact?
  • Ending. Even if you change your mind about the ending (as I have done during the final stages of a first draft), a writer cannot reach a destination unless he knows where he is going.
  • Theme. Though this is sound logic, I nearly completed the first draft of my first published novel, Small Change, without having any idea what the theme was. It came to me in a quote by the main character’s mother that I wrote almost unconsciously (it must have been there all the time in my brain). It was one of those ah-ha moments a writer experiences.

I give a lot of thought to the points above before I start to write. I prepare a three to four page outline listing the major events of the story in narrative form. Then I let ‘er rip.

If you want to take a deeper dive into outlining techniques, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel.

If you are a pantser, how much thought do you give to outlining?

CG Blake is an author with more than 30 years of writing and editing experience. His first novel is Small Change. 
 


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10 Comments

  1. 28 July 2014 / 11:08 pm

    Thanks so much for this post and the link to Cron’s article! I am a Pantser myself and while I have a general outline of action for my first novel, it is in jumbled notes in a notebook or on my computer. I will definitely sit down now to merge those so that I can feel a bit more in control of what my characters are doing.

    • 29 July 2014 / 10:22 am

      Stacy,
      Thanks for your comments. I wish I could be more of an outliner, but I have to write to discover my story. Everybody has a different approach. My intention with this post is to suggest that even we pantsers need to think about things like the premise, the MC’s goals, etc., before sitting down to write. Not everybody agrees with that, but I’ve found I save a lot of time if I at least think through these issues. Thanks again.

  2. Lauren
    29 July 2014 / 2:52 am

    It’s Anne Lamott, not “Lamont.” Have you even read the chapter in “Bird by Bird” that you pretend to interpret for us?

    She made herself very clear, and she is far from imposing all the rules you want to impose. She says: “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.” And she goes on in the same vein. Nowhere does she say anything close to “know your over-arching problem your protagonist will face” or anything else even close to your prescriptions

    I say writers should work in the way that works best for them. Don’t be telling me that what works for you should work for me, too. And don’t be enlisting Anne “Lamont” to support your theory when she doesn’t.

    • 29 July 2014 / 10:16 am

      Lauren,
      Sorry for the typo. My intention was to offer advice, not rules. And the second quote in your comment was form Lisa Cron, not Anne Lamott. I’m assuming people read blogs because they want to learn something. I blog because I want to share what I’ve learned, not tell people what to do. There are lots of blogs out there. Take the advice that’s useful to you. I clearly offended you somehow and I’m sorry.

      • Lauren
        29 July 2014 / 11:46 pm

        Yes, I know that was Cron’s advice. But the way it’s written here, you make it sound as if “Lamont” would support that, but she doesn’t.

        What offends me is that you obviously haven’t read the “Lamont” material you reference. And that you stated this: “Lamont was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell.”

        Actually, she does advocate diving in and trusting the process that something that will emerge. So your statement is just plain wrong.

        The “pantser” method works for many people. If you have something to teach here, fine. Again I say, advocate whatever you want. Just don’t enlist Anne “Lamont” to support your and Cron’s argument, when she very obviously doesn’t.

        Oh come on, a “typo” is when a mistake happens once. When the same error happens three times in a piece, it’s because the writer didn’t check his facts (or doesn’t know what he’s talking about). Own up. Have you read “Bird by Bird?”

    • 30 July 2014 / 3:24 am

      Lauren,
      It was my mistake and I own up to it. I didn’t check the spelling of Lamott’s name. My bad. It was an egregious error on my part. The “Bird by Bird” reference was only incidental to my main point. As a pantser, I have wasted a lot of time and effort by not thinking through major story, character, and structural issues. I have done NaNo three times and I have won each time, so I consider myself a skilled pantser. Each one of my NaNo novels has required major rewrites that could have been avoided if I had done a little preparation in advance. I understand that’s not the point of NaNo, but the lesson has stayed with me. I will never be an outliner, but I do put more thought into the story before I write. I know that everyone is different and writers should, as you say, work in the way that works best for them.

      I read “Bird by Bird” many years ago and found it very useful. When I read Cron’s piece, it resonated with me and I wanted to share my thoughts on it. I have a busy day job that requires me to work 60 hours a week with heavy travel. I don’t need to blog. I do it because I want to share what I have learned with others, especially new writers. I don’t expect a “thank you” or a pat on the back, but I must say I find your tone harsh. Again, if I offended you, I sincerely apologize.

      Chris

  3. margaretpinard
    30 July 2014 / 12:51 am

    Sounds like good homework for a pantser like me! I’ve been adding on levels of outlining/ preparation in each of my three novel drafts, but still nowhere near a Plotter… it’s too thrilling to discover as I go, so I wouldn’t want to lose that magic. 🙂

    • 30 July 2014 / 3:09 am

      Margaret,
      Thanks for your comment. I like to discover as I write, but I also have come to realize I need to think things through beforehand. Good luck with your work!
      Chris

  4. 3 August 2014 / 4:05 am

    This is very helpful advice. I am prone to diving headfirst and not knowing anything but slowly I come up with ideas for the plot. My problem is then turning my little ideas and moments into a cohesive story. These tips will help me out a lot!

    • 3 August 2014 / 6:55 am

      Thanks for your comments, Su. I used to do the same thing and I often found myself doing massive rewrites. I still consider myself a pantser, but I do spend a lot of time on sturcture, story arc and character development before I dive in. Thanks again.

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