Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why the Devil Wants You to be a Pantster

The devil is in the business of making sin look attractive. He wants you to think that the risk/reward ratio is in your favor. That’s why he wants all writers to be Pantsters. These are writers who write by the Seat of their Pants!

In this the Devil is being quite devilish because a great many of the problems writers encounter stem from Pantsterism.

The Allure of Pantsterism

Say you’re a novelist. You have this wonderful idea for a novel. You can almost ‘see’ it with your mind’s eye. Everything fits perfectly. It’s an ideal story. You can’t wait to open your laptop.

But…do you outline your story? Do you lock-in all the pesky details so that no loose ends can derail your story?

Of course not!

Doing that would stifle your creativity. After all, you want your story to be spontaneous! You want to dazzle and delight your readers. Something written from an outline would be cold, dead, and uninspired long before the writing was completed. Better to write by the seat of your pants. After all, as Tony Hillerman wrote, “if I don’t know what is coming next, the reader sure won’t.” Tony was also the first to admit that he had many half-completed manuscripts in his home. These half-manuscripts were excellent. They made great reading because they set up a conflict which Tony could not realistically extricate himself.

But…but…Tony Hillerman was a great writer! He wrote many best selling books!

That’s true. Tony was a great writer, perhaps the leading Pantster of all time. He was able to make Pantsterism work – some of the time. The question is: are you as good as Tony Hillerman?

The Price of Pantsterism

Remember how the Devil likes to make sin look attractive? Well, pantstersim makes everything look wonderful as you start your writing journey. All options are open. You have maximum freedom. Your novel is free to be as wonderful as any novel ever written. Why, with a little exercise in ‘creative visualization’ you’ll be motivated to write the next RITA winning romance.

Then something happens.

As you start to write you begin to hear an annoying sound. It sounds like doors slamming. What you hear is the sound of your options slamming closed with each choice you make -- with each sentence you write.

Soon that fuzzy but wonderful HEA ending that you visualized at the start of your novel is no longer quite possible. Given the choices you’ve made, that great ending won’t work.

Then Comes Depression

First, there’s writer’s block. Surely you and your CPs can figure a way out of your dilemma. Rewrite and make more choices. Ah, but those choices close more options requiring new rewrites. Next depression sets in. Doubt prevails. Maybe the story really wasn’t that good. If Tony Hillerman can write himself into a corner, I sure as heck can. Perhaps I should just start a new book. I have this idea that is much better. Yes, I should start a new novel. (The Devil smiles and tells you that a new book is just the thing. Once again you can see the wonderful novel you dream of writing.)

Your Guardian Angel Speaks

“Don’t be a Pantster. Plan your book. Make a detailed outline this time. Then you will know in advance if your great idea will actually work.”

“But, Angel, what if I can never come up with an outline that works? What if in the final analysis I can’t come up with a solid plot for a publishable novel? What if outlining kills my creativity?”

“Then you will discover that your idea won’t work before you spend months or years on a project guaranteed to frustrate a saint.”

“But you're not a writer. It just doesn't work that way. I won’t even know my characters until the book is half written. Outlining won’t work until I know the characters.”

“It’s a simple matter of who’s the boss: you or your characters.”

“But my books are character-driven. My characters really are in charge.”

“And do they make good bosses? Do they make good choices? Do they deserve being in charge? Or…could it be that you’ve abdicated your responsibility as the author?”

“What do you mean?”

“It is far easier to let your characters write your book for you. Of course, you have given your characters ‘free will’ so the book’s failure is their failure and not your fault as an author.”

“So Pantstersim is the work of the Devil?”

“The devil makes Pantsterism look attractive. He lures you into a beautiful swamp and then when you get hopelessly lost he gives you a wonderful justification for giving up and starting over. Pantsterism will always seem more attractive. It will always seem easier and more fun. It will always generate the greatest hopes.”

“So you would have me plot my stories? You would lock me into a straightjacket of uncreativity and take all the joy out of writing?”

“No, I would have you spend your time on WIPs that have the best chance of being successful. Plotting is hard work and it has a price. But then it’s your choice: "You can pay the price now, or you can pay it later.”

Join NAPP: the National Association for the Prevention of Pantsterism.


  1. Sorry, Vince, but I respectfully and completely disagree. You will NEVER turn me into a plotter. And yet you have said right here on this blog that you liked my books. "Pantsing" works best for some writers. Plotting works best for others. Don't lay needless guilt trips on us. Let each writer find his or her own best way to write.

  2. Okay, fine, so I am in league with the devil. There are worse things. I could be a Red Sox fan.

  3. Well Vince, I'm a convert to plotting for exactly the reasons you've mentioned. I've written myself into so many corners, a rat couldn't find his way out of that maze.

    The solution? Missy's wonderful blog on Alicia Rasley's workbook, The Story Within. Page by page, she makes you identify traits about your character, things you'd never think of, but turn out to be vital.

    If you'd asked me last year if I was a pantser or plotter, the answer, hands down would have pointed to the seat of my pants.

    But after plotting through the novel that sold, I'd say this author with a bad case of midlife ADD needs a road map through the mountains.

    Great post!

  4. Hi Myra:

    This is meant as a humorous post!

    Of course I love your books! Books stand on their own. The reader does not know which writing method the author used (unless the author tells the reader.) Besides, someone who uses extensive spread sheets would seem to me to be somewhat in the plotting camp. : )

    Tony Hillerman’s new books were always the ones I looked forward to coming out the most. However, because of his ‘misfires’ his books always took too long to come out. In fact, the Hillerman ‘waits’ were so long that a ‘cottage’ industry popped-up with other authors filling in the gaps between Hillerman books with similar Navajo mystery stories.

    I don’t expect to convert any Pantsters but I would like to be beacon for the other POV. I would like to influence beginning writers because I do believe that the Pantster path to publication takes many years longer than plotting does. As a pilot it just seems that it is the seat of the pants pilots who are always getting lost, running out of gas, and landing on freeways. I like the idea of a flight plan.

    Thanks for your comments.


  5. Hi Tina:

    Pantsters are not in league with the Devil. They are more like that fiddle player that challenged the Devil to a fiddle contest. You know the one that Charlie Daniels signs about in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? It’s OK to do but it is kind of risky. : )


    P.S. You’re right about being a Red Sox or Mets fan.

  6. Hi Audra:

    Thanks for your comments. I have not read Alicia Rasley's workbook, “The Story Within” but I have it on my list to read. I just bought “Hooked” and am reading James Scott Bell’s book on ‘plotting’ right now. I’ll review all three books on this blog.

    I think plotting is like learning to read music instead of just playing by ear. If you can play by ear, great but there is a lot to be said for being able to read music.

    Thanks again,


  7. Oh mylanta!

    All this talk, so much talk, about such things as pantsing, not pantsing, plotting, not plotting, Mets, Red Sox....

    Oy vey, I have such a head!!!

    You all hush, be quiet now, we'll have no more of this talk, this nonsense, this arguing before supper! You'll get agita, you've already given me agita, and I'm not even Italian. Or Jewish, Or from Brooklyn.

    Vince, Vince, Vince, my friend, you see, you get my friends all up in arms, they are now plotting...

    Ah, yes....

    But it's your demise, my good friend. ;)

    Not their books!!!

    As another pantser, I'm totally on the "who on earth takes time to sit down and plot a book OR reads books about writing books????"

    Write. Write. Write.

    So now I've insulted all o' youse!!! ;)

    Laughing and not plotting in upstate,


  8. Hi Ruth:

    You're the greatest! I think you could write anything, anyway you wanted to, and it would get at least four stars!

    I agree: everybody should keep writing. I don't want to take anyone away from their writing. Especially pantsters! What’s that about an ‘idle something’ being the Devil’s workshop – or was that about a workshop on plotting? I’m not sure. I’ll have to look at my outline. : )


  9. cough, cough...[kissup]

  10. Hi Tina:

    I see it as a form of admiration -- very similar to the way I admire your amazing posts weekend after weekend. I just love witty creativity. I can’t help it. : )


  11. You are such a character. Admirable too.