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Confessions of a Pantser


For anyone unfamiliar with writerly jargon, there's often said to be a divide between 'plotters' and 'pantsers'. Plotting or 'outlining' means mapping out the book, chapter by chapter and often scene by scene, before writing. The writing world is full of people giving advice on character arcs, three-act structure, four-act structure, you name it. There are apps and products you can buy that are supposed to help you through the process.


And then there are the pantsers, a term presumably derived from 'flying by the seat of your pants'. You could just as well call it making it up as you go along. I'd just like to share here that when I type 'pantser' on my phone or iPad, autocorrect tries to turn it into 'panther'. I've whole-heartedly embraced the idea of being a panther.


The curious thing is that I have done a lot of outlining in my non-fiction. The Expanded Guides I did for Nikon cameras (plus one or two others) had to be planned page by page; I would submit of page plan for approval before the contract was finalised, let alone before I started writing. I'd also have a full list of photos I needed to illustrate the books.


Walking or cycling guide-books have an obvious self-imposed structure anyway, but some, notably the walks guides I did for the AA, give you a strict template: so many words for general intro and background, so many for the stage-by-stage route description, with very little wiggle room. It usually wasn't big hill-walks that were a problem to fit into 450 words as much of it would be 'follow the path along the ridge to the next summit'. The tricky ones were lowland walks where you might have lots of field boundaries and changes of direction to account for in a relatively short distance.


You can see, then, that I've plenty of experience creating detailed outlines and writing within them. However, I've never done that with fiction. A few years ago, having repeatedly seen apparently authoritative advice that outlining is the only way to write a novel, I tried to give it a go.


It was a miserable experience. I could not do it. As soon as I started to put down the bare bones of a scene my brain would start filling it in. I wasted far too much time and energy before accepting that, as a fiction writer, I was an irredeemable pantser and that was the end of it.


I should have known all along. I'd seen plenty of references to successful authors who don't outline. Lately I've been collecting a few examples. Google "I write to find out what happens', and you'll find loads of authors saying just this. I'm pretty sure I've seen it attributed to Neil Gaiman, but he's not on the first couple of pages in the search results. In any case, this line seem to me to sum up why being a pantser is fun. Scary fun, sometimes, but that's okay.


I was prompted to think about this again recently. I've just had a birthday and my partner gave me a fabulous present, a copy of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin. As regular readers will know, Le Guin is my favourite author and a massive inspiration. I've read all the Earthsea novels several times before, but it's great to have them in one volume. Along with the fine illustrations by Charles Vess, there's also some new material, including a lovely Introduction. It's here that I read these lines, referring to the first three Earthsea books:


“None of them was closely plotted or planned before writing; in each of them much of the story came to me as I followed what I wrote where it inevitably led.”


As I followed what I wrote where it inevitably led… This strongly resonated with me. When I began Three Kinds of North, though it wasn't called that then, I had a few elements; a sense of the setting, the remnants of the shattered moon in the sky, and the idea of Dawnsong. So who were the Dawnsingers, how did the moon get broken, and what was the real meaning of Dawnsong? I could not have given a clear answer to any of those questions at that stage. I wasn't even sure whether I was writing SF or fantasy or some hybrid form.


I did, however, have an immediate sense of Jerya, her enquiring mind and the frustrations of hearing, far too often, 'it's the way things are'. It didn't take me long to see that she needed to get drawn in to the world of the Dawnsingers, but that she'd bring her own sometimes sceptical gaze to bear on it. This gave me the idea that she was going to be significantly older than the usual new recruits to the Guild.


I didn't have much idea what was going to happen beyond that. Even when I introduced the character of Perriad, for example, I had no idea she was going to end up as the main antagonist. That was another thing I found out in the course of writing the book.

And then, just the other day, a contact on Mastodon led me to an interview Terry Pratchett, another of my favourite authors, gave back in 2000. Here he says:


"Writing a novel is as if you are going off on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree."


This is so perfect I'm tempted to print it up big, in a nice font, frame it, and hang it on the wall. That's how I write fiction, and I'm not going to apologise for it. If I can see the other side of the valley, great; if not, maybe I just have to set off knowing it's out there somewhere.


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