Weekly Musing: Don’t Pants Me!

Before I became a fiction writer, or an attempt at one, I never realized there were the terms outliner and pantser. The first term, outliner, makes sense to me. Someone who outlines before writing. I come from a background of writing research papers and essays so I have always used an outline. The other term, though, pantser, I didn’t even know what that could possibly be. It refers to a writer that flies by the seat of his pants when writing. In other words, doesn’t plan things out too heavily before throwing down words. And there are books and articles about the pros and cons of both and is a question that a lot of writers get about.

Needless to say reading there is a debate on which one is more beneficial for a writer was an eye opener. When I got more serious and interested in writing, I combed articles and websites about the writing process itself. For decades I had it in my mind that writers had to be some of the most organized people to produce stories that follow some kind of structure. I believed writers were one of the smartest groups of people on the planet not only to come up with the characters and stories but to add in symbolism, subtext, metaphors, similes, etc. It’s why I never seriously considered taking a stab at fiction writing before. Years of analysis in English classes instilled awe in me. I’m smart but there’s no way I’m that smart. Granted, we were reading good books, the classics, which by far don’t represent most fiction. Nothing could be further from these assessments. In fact, the more I read and learn, the more I realize the reality is the complete opposite.

At first I thought it would be better and easier for me to have a story mapped out before I ever put pen to paper. However I quickly realized this caused a great deal of doubt and anxiety in me. I have a very organized mind and in order to think, I need to be able to compartmentalize ideas. But outlining felt so forced and a less than organic way to produce a creative work. Outlining works great for me for papers and essays because of the inherent logical nature these types of works require. Creative works, perhaps not so much. A thought floats into your mind, better grab the closest piece of paper and a writing tool. Don’t be afraid to stop what you are doing if dialogue, a line, or an idea pops into your mind. Write it down before it flies away.

I also realized that if the biggest draw of fiction writing for me is to tap into a creative side that had long been suppressed, outlining and thinking too much about a piece before composing the rough draft is counterproductive. So for short stories, which are primarily what I’ve been writing, I pants it. I sometimes brainstorm ideas for a story before I start writing, mostly if I’m composing something that is supposed to follow a theme. For the most part, I usually just have a small idea of what the story is going to be and get to it.

A funny thing I’ve noticed, though, is I seem to be a bit of a hybrid of outliner and pantser. When I get to a good stopping point for the day, my brain has already thought several steps ahead. That’s where the world’s greatest invention comes in: The Post-it Note . (Not my actual handwriting. Those are way too legible to be mine.) I scribble what I see happening next because I won’t remember 5 minutes later. I slap the notes on the page. This isn’t the say I actually follow the notes. I do sometimes but as I begin a new day of writing, I try to be open to what the characters want to do. Yes, while to a certain degree I may be ‘God’ of a story, it really is the characters that drive and I’m just the schmuck that jots it down.

While I think pantsing is good for me, I can’t see myself giving up outlining ever. I’m just so organized and used to that nice sense of order. It’s my comfort zone and because I want to ultimately write novels, in particular historical fiction novels, an outline approach makes sense. Too many characters, places, and plots to just wing it. I need that focus of ideas and research at least for a rough draft. But I need to be open to the directions the characters take me so I can’t see myself holding steadfast to that outline.

What I’ve learned about the outlining vs. pantser debate is that it is all about what works best for you as a writer. Yet it is a great idea to try outlining if you are a pantser or pantsing it if you are a staunch outliner. I’ve also learned that for me, it just depends upon the project and my mood. There is no right or wrong way to approach creativity.

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