How to Wing It, Literarily

Yesterday a friend asked me if I had any advice on writing without an outline. I’m a panster. For anyone who doesn’t know, writers are typically divided into two camps – plotters and pansters. A plotter knows everything down to the last detail. They have pages and pages (and pages) of outlines for the series, the novel, the current chapter. They know what everyone will wear in X scene. They are generally impressive creatures with a long-term battle strategy.

Pansters, like myself, cannot work this way. The way we write sounds either whimsical or downright ineffective to most people, especially hardcore plotters. “How can you work that way?” “I could never do that.” “Don’t you need /some/ kind of outline?” are all things I hear regularly when I’m asked about writing. The answer: No.

Once I have The Story in my head, I start writing. I don’t need an outline. I can’t use an outline – and believe me, I have tried and tried again to be a more organized, structure-oriented writer. “It’s supposed to make me more efficient,” I’ve wailed, staring at a notebook full of detailed plotting notes. But the truth is, for a true panster, overthinking your novel can kill it.

I generally find plotters and pansters are people who approach life differently – plotters are destination-minded, pansters are journey-minded.

I need a vague idea of the ending when I begin a book, but it may change several times during the story and take me completely by surprise because I don’t need the destination to be solid. The development of my characters is more important to me, and that takes time and I need to be surprised. The less I know about my characters when I start, the more I unravel along the way and the more natural it feels for me to write it.

However, I don’t believe pantsing is any easier than plotting. It has downfalls, like hitting a metaphorical wall and sitting back, wondering how on earth you’re supposed to fix the mess you’ve created for everyone. It means not being able to continue until that one detail clicks in your head, because everything else rests on it. It means spending much of your writing time thinking, instead of referring to pre-thought-out notes. It means having writer’s block – something I’ve noticed is less frequent in plotters. (There are those who completely wave aside the concept of pansters altogether, viewing us as flighty, un-dedicated beings without the backbone to sit down and plot out a story. The truth is, we get just as much done as plotters; we simply have different ways of going about it.)

So, now that we all know what pantsing is, I have a little advice I’ve gleaned over a decade of writing and making mistakes.

Go with your gut. This is incredibly important when I’m writing. If there’s something I really, really want to write, something I know I need to write, it needs to be written. Whether it’s a novel or simply a plot point – when I ignore these deep-seated twinges, I regret it. Every single time.

Write when you feel like writing. One endless difficulty in my life is that I never just have ‘creative energy’ – it’s always a very specific type of creative energy. If I feel the need to write, I can’t turn that energy into drawing energy, even when I try. When you feel a surge of writing energy, write if you can. If you can’t physically get to paper or a computer, let your mind do some writing instead. There is no shame in writing when the inspiration strikes, because inspiration is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more you have. Inspiration takes work, and is well worth it.

•  Because we work more from inspiration than notes, let yourself be inspired. Watch things. Read books. Listen to music. Go somewhere new and pay attention. Sometimes I wonder why I can’t just sit in my room for days on end and keep up an endless supply of inspiration. Inspiration needs to be stimulated, and you don’t get stimulation from doing nothing.

Don’t put limits on your book. You are free (within moral boundaries) to write anything you like. Don’t be afraid to add X character because ‘he doesn’t fit’ or let the plot take a sharp turn. Remember, there’s a good movie about aliens and cowboys and people liked it. Besides, it’s a first draft – not the end of all things.

That said, don’t write with a ‘first draft’ mindset. I used to, and it resulted in many novels that ‘needed a lot of rewriting.’ Did they ever get the rewrite? Not most of them. Write well. Write tightly. Give everything your best effort, because we pansters don’t like the thought of rewriting, revising, and editing and so going back and doing all those things seems like a very daunting task that results in abandoned first drafts. Write your first draft like it’s the last draft, like this is the version that’s going to hit shelves. (Note: In the first draft, I don’t mind things like typos or some awkward sentences because the act of technically editing doesn’t daunt me that much. Figure out what does daunt you, and do your best to thwart it in the first round.)

Have beta readers who give active feedback. Not the beta readers who leave your chapter sitting in their inbox until they can get around to it – the readers you know will react to each chapter. This kind of encouragement is incredibly helpful and spurs us to write better and better, knowing a real person is out there waiting to see what happens next.

Plot. Sometimes I need to sit there and figure out what happens in a certain chapter. Sometimes you can’t blindly push through and you need to take an extra step – BREATHE. It will be fine. Nobody will slide in and take away your panster card.

Remember – half the great writers you know and love are, or were, pansters. If they could do it, so can you.

“I met a lot of things along the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.”

— J. R. R. Tolkien,

in a letter to W. H. Auden 7 June 1955


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