Why I Stopped Pantsing

Both of us are hard-core outliners. When we write our novels, either alone or together, we plan them out thoroughly ahead of time. This means that, in the grand, Manichean division of fiction writers, we are aligned with the planners, rather than with the “pantsers” (i.e. those who write by the seat of their pants, or make it up as they go).

It was not always thus.

When we started our first four books together, we had a sort of an outline: a spreadsheet listing the scenes we had planned for each of our four POV characters. We did that so we could divide up the work between us. “I’ll do this scene. Do you want that one?”

The descriptions of these scenes were pretty minimal, like “Susan meets John.” So we pretty much got to write as much or as little as we wanted, provided that by the time the scene ended, Susan had, in fact, met John. Having never done this before, and having no real idea of the scale of the entire project, I tended to overwrite my scenes. One three-day battle sequence, for example, went on for more than 20,000 words in its first draft, even though the only really important thing that happens is that one of our POV characters sees a relative of another POV character get killed. In our latest revision, that battle now takes about 6,600 words, which is much more in line with its importance in the story.

After we finished the first draft of the Quartet, I spent two years working on a solo project, which was the “autobiography” of a minor character from the Quartet. It grew in the telling considerably, to three volumes and over a million words. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written, and it’s probably the longest thing I ever will write.

The first volume of this autobiography covered the minor character’s early life and then her involvement as a spy in the events of the Quartet. I made that part up more or less off the top of my head. As long as I had her show up in the right places and the right times to meet the POV characters from the Quartet, I could have her do whatever I wanted in between.

Then that first volume ended, and I had to make up the whole rest of her life.

I had ideas about what would happen to her and her friends, but I had a nagging sense that unless I worked it all out beforehand, I would forget something. I realized that I had made all sorts of “promises” to the reader—vague allusions to future events—and I had to make sure that those things actually happened somewhere in the book. I had to keep track of all the other spies she serves with in military intelligence (dozens and dozens of them) and all the various places that she is posted (from one end of our imaginary world to the other).

I realized that if I kept going by the seat of my pants, the book would require vast amounts of revision to patch all the plot holes. So that’s when I started making outlines—serious, detailed outlines.

Instead of “Susan meets John,” I would write, “Chapter 33: Aug. 25. Susan goes for walk in rain, meets John at the market. Description of market. Description of John. First meeting, but both know George. Susan remembers a story about George, tells John, who finds it funny.”

This worked pretty well for a while, but even so, I started to notice that my overwriting problem would invariably crop up whenever I had to write a particularly important or dramatic chapter. I would get about halfway down the second page and find that I was still describing the market, and John hadn’t even appeared yet. So I started assigning word lengths to the different sections, like so:

Chapter 33 (Aug. 25)

  • Part 1 (500 words): Susan walks to the market in the rain. Description of market.
  • Part 2 (600 words): Susan meets John at the vegetable stand. They’ve never met before, but each knows the other by reputation. Description of John from Susan’s POV (she’s clearly attracted).
  • Part 3 (600 words): John mentions George, whom they both know. Susan remembers a funny story about George, tells John, who laughs.

Now of course, when I went to write this chapter, “Part 1” might have ended up being 442 words or 763. But the point is that I had a firewall to keep me from getting carried away with the things that didn’t really matter, or neglecting the things that were absolutely crucial. Notice that in this example, I’ve left quite a bit of space for Susan’s description of John. I’m basically telling myself, “This is really important to the story. Don’t skimp here.”

When I started outlining like this, I discovered a happy side effect: 600 word sections are about as much as I can write on an average lunch break (while still leaving time to eat). And I always knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I never had to sit there thinking, “What happens next?” I had already worked out the content; I just needed to worry about the wording.

Later that year, we decided to do NaNoWriMo for the first time, and I discovered that this kind of outline was perfect for writing quickly. Even if the end product was 50,000 words, rather than a million, it still helped to break it down into small, manageable chunks.

So that’s how I became an obsessive outliner. I have nothing against people who write by the seat of their pants, but I’m glad I’m not one of them anymore.



9 comments on “Why I Stopped Pantsing

  1. […] with our local NaNo group, so it will literally be Midnight.)  I doubt I will have time to do the kind of outline J described for my entire novel, but there’s no way I’m going to try and write this sucker by the […]


  2. Very insightful, J! I’m curious to know what prompted you to write on this topic.

    The details of your example illustrate the wisdom and experience of a composition teacher. Your stripes are showing! 🙂

    Basically, along with its preventing the need for excess clean-up, (I think what you’re saying is that) outlining solidifies your literary vision and clarifies your story’s direction, or both. Clearly, at 50,000 words one week into NaNo, you have ample vision in advance and little trouble inventing the details, which it sounds like you’re assuming most fiction writers have also. Maybe so.

    From the perspective of my more unformed writerly position, however, I’m beginning to think pantsing is a crucial starting point, or periodic exercise, in a budding writer’s development, especially when you’re new to the long-form fiction format, which I am.

    At this stage of my experience, if I plan meticulously before doing any free writing, I find the planning process obstructive to invention, making writing feel too much like work, taking the fun out of it, and adding undue pressure to produce. Any ideas I might have written seem to evaporate.

    The planning approach seems to work best for those who already have a specific vision, clear goals, and lots of ideas and experience with format and technique. So, maybe it’s something some “pantsers” can switch to once they explore and experiment sufficiently to establish those prerequisites for a project’s foundation.

    Until then, I think I’ll focus on letting it flow from the seat of my pants, or the skin of my teeth, or the tips of my ears, or from wherever raw creativity emanates.

    The cool thing is: It seems as if every method has its place or time, that each way has a home.


  3. Reblogged this on C. L. Tangenberg and commented:
    Check out JS Mawdsley’s insights on pantsing vs. planning a novel.


  4. […] The Queen’s Tower, because I didn’t have time before NaNoWriMo began to indulge in the Extreme Outlining we typically do.  Now, I know a lot of WriMos who think we’re crazy for the amount of […]


  5. […] about how this problem arose, and it’s primarily due to the lack of a proper outline (you know, the kind we’ve talked about where we put word lengths on each section of each chapter).  If you plan for […]


  6. […] Yeah, we’re pretty sure we haven’t learned anything new about outlining by blogging about our extreme version of it. But there are few topics we love quite so much as outlining. Beginning next week, we’re […]


  7. […] you’re going to write. I would never say out loud that those people are wrong, but I’m sure thinking it as hard as I possibly can. Particularly if this is your first NaNo, you will almost certainly have […]


  8. […] kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that […]


  9. […] is all in keeping with one of the longest-running themes of this blog: why planning is better than pantsing.  S and I have found that the more you plan, the easier the actual writing becomes, and the less […]


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