Pants Fu: Writing Without a Net

Writing by the seat of your pants is not for everyone. It’s easy to write yourself out on a limb, usually to about two-thirds of the novel in my experience, and then find out you’ve no idea how to get your characters safely to the ground.

National Novel Writing Month is coming in November, and for me, that’s the time to celebrate pantsing. I try never to have an outline before I start Nano – but I don’t have to fully wing it, and neither do you.

For most pantsers, novels start with either a single, powerful scene image or a premise that’s really exciting, or both. Those are great, and often give you some insight into your characters. And the characters can give you the first hints of what’s at stake, and then you know where you want this novel to start and end. If you take notes on every single step that gets them from start to end, then you have an outline. That’s a perfectly valid way to write a novel, and for some authors it’s the only way! But for me, I often feel a bit like I don’t need to write the book anymore – I’ve already told the story, in outline.

For me, National Novel Writing Month is about community, good writing habits, pushing your limits, and following the wild, passionate call of the art in your soul. It’s less about disciplined slogging through an outline’s steps. So for me, Nano is all about the pants. But too often, I don’t finish the story – caught out on that limb.

If you’re a pantser, here are some things you can do to make it more likely you’ll actually finish the novel.

Put in the background work ahead of time. Have that idea, that unifying image, and start building, not the storyline, but the world. If you’re a speculative fiction writer, world building is incredibly important, but if you’re writing in the here and now, every character has their own world view, and that’s their world at the start of the book. Know what it is. World building is the bone structure of a story, holding it up and making sure it has a shape that works.

Build your conflict. Know what your characters are going to have at stake, what they believe that will turn out not to be true, what differing beliefs they have that will clash. Know what their end goal is, even if you’re fuzzy on how they’ll achieve it. Conflict is the heart of a story, beating away – with a strong heart, the plot will be able to flow.

Limber up those fingers. You’re going to be writing almost 2000 words a day in November, if you join us for National Novel Writing Month. Get in the habit of writing 1000 words a day now – about anything except the novel you plan on working on in November. Good work habits, practice, and discipline shine like sunlight on your body of work, keeping it alight with cheer, confidence and fearless hope, so that nothing stands in the way of your story.

With these elements in place before you begin, the most dedicated pantser may just find that when those characters are chased up their tree and out on that limb, it turns out that they can fly.




One thought on “Pants Fu: Writing Without a Net

  1. After every novel I write, I’m always surprised at how little the rough draft resembles the outline. As I go along, invariably I come up with better ideas that leave me wondering if I’m wasting my time with such detailed outlines. I think this NaNo, I’ll follow your lead and pants the novel. Though it will be a cheat, of sorts, as it is the third book in a series. A lot of world building has been done, and I have momentum behind me already.

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