From Plotter to Pantser (Writing Update)

If you had told me a couple years ago that I would forsake my meticulous outlines, I would have never believed you. Writing a story is analogous to an old sea voyage. You can start with the nautical charts ahead of time or you can set out on the seas and see where the wind takes you. I’ve recently discovered the latter works better for me.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “pantsing” refers to writing on the “seat of your pants.” You have some idea where you’re heading, the general premise, but you shun outlines and character profiles—two things I’ve relied heavily upon this past decade.

It started with my story “The Clairalient.” I spent hours outlining this story, getting every detail right, every character as strong as I could. But when I sat down to write it, I felt constrained, spending more time trying to synch my notes to the narrative than telling a story. The result was a mess. I had to change something.

Around this time, I re-read Stephen King’s memoir of the craft, On Writing. It had been years since I last picked it up. In it, he champions pantsing and describes the unplotted story as a fossil to be unearthed. I think I scoffed at this the first time I read it, set in my ways. But this time, what he said made sense. I was determined to try it out.

I wrote my next three stories without outlines. The only direction I had was a one-sentence premise, beginning with “What if …” Two of these stories might be the best I’ve ever written. The characters were fully developed without a single word of profiling. The natural progression was far better than anything I could have plotted. And the endings? I would have never thought of them in a million years had I been outlining.

I don’t think I’ll ever plot a short story again. Novels and novellas however? I’m hesitant. It’s one thing to keep track of a story when it takes three or four days to write it, but a project that takes a month? Two months? Three months?

The main reason that I was such a dedicated plotter was my memory issues. I felt that if I didn’t lay it all out, I would lose it forever. This, however, might not be true. The first two novels I wrote (at age 14 and 19) lacked any outline.

I wrote the first one before my memory problems. But the second one, I wrote during some of my worst cognitive troubles. It was over 90,000 words, took months to write, and ended up as a half decent story—and to be honest, one of my most imaginative.

The only way to find out is to try it. I’m hoping to write a novella this winter and I plan to pants the whole thing.

Slime Is a Dish Best Served Cold

Moon snails feature heavily in this story (via Wikimedia Commons)

You may remember my impassioned post about this story last month. I was afraid that after all that trumpeting, it would turn out to be horrible. Instead (as I said above), it’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written.

I edited it in a few drafts—I’m trying to stop over-editing my work—and sent it off to a couple beta readers. So far, I’ve heard good things. The biggest problem now is deciding where to send it. It’s not quite horror, not quite bizarro, not quite fantasy.


I’ve had an image in my head of a tendril of ink escaping a picture and attacking the unsuspecting. With this image and a “what if …” premise, I started writing this story. In the end, it was about 4700 words. Every day, I couldn’t wait to sit down and write.

Though I have not read it over, I think it’s some of my best characterization with an ending I love (I’ve always struggled with endings). Fortunately, it fits firmly in the horror genre. I like to wait several weeks before beginning my edits and that’s killing me.

Untitled Hornet Story

I’m currently working on a horror story about one of the things I fear most: wasps. This combined with the horrifying fact that hornets can shoot venom over a meter will hopefully create a chilling story. It’s set on the same island where much of my work takes place. Again, I’m pantsing it.

It’s become a perfect example of what an unplotted story can become. When I first started writing it, I had visions of hornet venom throwing people into a homicidal rage. But as I wrote it and learned more about the characters, I saw the perfect opportunity for a tale of body horror. Surprising myself with my own work is one of the most rewarding parts of pantsing.

It took a decade of bumbling to come to this conclusion. I wish I had been brave enough to try it out earlier. Not only is pantsing improving my writing, but it’s also making the process much more fun.


2 thoughts on “From Plotter to Pantser (Writing Update)

  1. Pingback: What I Read – June 2022 | Zé Burns | Blog

  2. Pingback: Training for a Novel (Writing Update) | Zé Burns | Blog

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