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On Fighting With Pants: Why I Don't Call Myself a Pantser Anymore

Image: Rodion Kutsaev

When I was ten, I came up with an idea for a novel. It would be kind of like The Secret Garden. Well, actually, it would be a lot like The Secret Garden, except that instead of a garden there would be a magic library, and I myself would feature in it as one of the characters. The whole idea glowed like nothing else inside my head and I was so, so excited. I sat down with my favorite journal (the one with pink roses on the cover and gold edged pages) and I made an outline, just like I'd been taught at school. I wrote it out as a series of numbered events, starting with an earthquake as event number one, going all the way through to the happily ever after, one number after another, as tidy and logical as any ten year old's Mary Sue wish fulfillment story could possibly be. But as I was writing it out, something strange happened.

It broke.

Making the outline had done something to my novel, something I couldn't quite explain. It had turned the story all thin and wispy and faded; it had drained the magic away.

I abandoned my broken story and wrote other ones instead. I never, ever wrote outlines – because this was certain doom – but I kept a vague sense of the chain of events in my head and did my best to keep track of where they were going and what would happen next. Sometimes something worked, and I had this glorious feeling while I was writing, like I was on a Japanese bullet train racing along at full speed towards the inevitable. But most of the time I got tangled by one thing or another and wandered off to watch videos instead, and the story would lie unfinished in a notebook or linger as a half typed page in my noisy old typewriter* for a while, until I finally shoved it in a drawer and sat down to write something else.

Fast forward a decade or so.

I was still missing something and I wasn't sure what it was; to be honest, I'm not sure I'd even noticed that it was missing. I was fine at short stories and passable at poetry, but my brain yearned towards big events unfolding gradually, towards characters with long stories to tell. I wanted to write novels, dammit. So I took the characters who meant most to me, and I wrote thousands and thousands of words about them which went nowhere in particular, with characters talking at great length with other characters and explaining things and then explaining them again, because I had thought of better words the second time around. And then I'd follow that up with a similar scene where everyone talked at great length about some expository thing that would later turn out to be completely unnecessary, and then someone would explain everything from the previous scene again, because I had thought of even better words. I daydreamed about writing particular scenes, so I wrote them. And then I rewrote them. And then I rewrote them again.

I wrote far more words than any novel could possibly contain, but I never seemed to end up with a novel. Just pieces that never quite fitted together, some of them glowing, but most of them convoluted and confusing. If only I had one of those logical brains! One of those brains which came up with tidy plot diagrams and then stuck to them! But then, I was better than that. Plot was all action, and action was something that happened in Dan Brown novels and those movies with lots of hand-held camera where everything blows up. Plot was just not my thing. Plot was too overwhelming; all I needed was a vague thing to move towards and I was away. Because I was a pantser. A pantser with her pants on backwards most of the time, but a pantser all the same. I made lots of notes in no particular order. I wrote muddly, novel-like things. And then I trunked them because they were too messy to fix. And then I wrote other muddly novel-like things. And it went on. And on.

The problem wasn’t pantsing. And it wasn’t plotting. It was the distinction I had drawn, the idea that there was only one way to outline and it was always logical and tidy and far too ultra-organized for my disorganized brain. The idea that if I knew too much about a story it would be like stripping it naked, and it would lose all its beauty and all its mystery and somehow become unwritable.

Because the thing is, I'm not a pantser. I love the Japanese bullet train feeling too much, the sense of a story travelling swift and sure towards its destination, even when I'm the only one who knows the destination. In my trunked almost-novels, the difference between the scenes that glowed and the others was that the glowing scenes built towards something. They were the fleeting moments when the tension grew and I could sense the train's wheels thundering down the tracks as it traveled from one station to another, and I could tell what most of the stations were meant to be, both the ones that had passed and the ones still to come. It turned out that stories gain more magic, not less, if I knew what they were moving towards and how they would get there, and sometimes that meant outlining, because outlining didn't break stories after all. Often it made them stronger than ever.

But strictly speaking, I'm not a plotter either. I need to spend time with a story before I can sense which route it should take. I need to come up with vague ideas, and vague ideas about how to string the vague ideas together. And sometimes, even when I'm a long way into a project, I need to try new routes I never anticipated before. If I sit down and try to plan out everything too soon, before I've had time to get to know the thing I’m planning, I end up trying to build tracks over unstable ground. I need to daydream. To explore. Sometimes I need to knock all the stations down and pull all the tracks from the ground, and then try again.

I am not a plotter. I am not a pantser. I am a ten year old daydreamer, I am a teenager, I am an adult. I am a a gardener, and I am a dog digging holes. I am someone who follows the rules, and I am someone who rebels. I am a muddler, a navigator, a destroyer, a repairer, a teacher, a student, a tour guide, an explorer, a passenger, a train driver.

What kind of writer are you? And how did you become that way?

*My parents gave me a typewriter for my ninth birthday. An actual typewriter. This is one of many reasons why they are the best parents in the world.

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I'm a mix of both, too (at a school visit once, after defining pantser and plotter, a kid called me a plotser). My first few attempts were also strangled by the outline, so I swung a bit to the other extreme. I'm an intuitive writer with lousy intuition, which means I have to think and think about structure while I'm finding my way and not really understand it until its done.

    It's not efficient, but I learn more with each book. We'll see what the next ten years bring!

  2. Both here too! I keep an open mind but I jot down little lists of rapidly-approaching plot points I want to hit as I go. I've never felt overpowered by an outline but I have sort of lost interest after making one. I felt like I had the whole story out of my head so I wasn't as interested in actually writing it again. But when I've tried to just wing it page after page I have a tendency to write a lot of nothing happening. So the sweet spot for me is definitely somewhere in between.

  3. I love the idea of not having to choose to be one or the other, but whatever works. I like to plot the H out of a new story now, but then give myself the freedom to change it as I go if needs be.

  4. I am whatever hybrid you described. A fully detailed beat sheet or structured story outline will never be for me, but I consult plotting maps before hand and write my own notes. I develop character personalities, setting, and pull research from my setting to create plot elements. I have a destination but not all the in-betweens plotted out. I tried that and my story was one hot mess; the organic storytelling fought with the pre-determined plot and it's now still shelved.

  5. For flash fiction I'm very close to the discovery writing end. For non-flash short fiction I'm about one-fifth of the way to the outlining end. For novels I'm right around the middle of the scale.

  6. I'm definitely a mix too! I think I'm more like a plotter in my mind, but I never put it all on paper in any kind of outline - that would drive me nuts! So, I'm more like a pantser when I'm getting it from my head to the page.

  7. Though I'd say I come down more on the panster side, I do stop at about 25k to plot the middle. I usually start with a clear idea of the mood/feel of the ending, though. Glad to see so many mix writers. :)

  8. I've always been a pantster BUT I am trying to do a little more... structured writing. I'll freewrite the direction I want to go in scenes. Then a few days later I will go back and read the notes and see if it still makes sense. If it needs editing I'll cross out that scene and dream up another.


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