Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Secret Life of a Pantser

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

I was talking with another writer one day and, from her first question, I knew I was in trouble. “How long does it take you to outline your novels?” she asked.

“I don’t,” I said.

She sputtered like a Volkswagen with a bad spark plug. Finally she said, “How do you even write? Do you just sit down and start typing? Don’t you have to do a massive amount of rewriting?”

I had to think about it. I’ve been pantsing for so long, it’s hard to remember the time when I didn’t. But it came back to me. The eight drafts of my outlined first novel. My characters hijacking the plot in the outlined second book.

“You know,” I said. “I do just as much rewriting as I did when I outlined.”

I expected her to jump to her feet, point her finger at me and shout, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!” Fortunately, she didn’t. Her eyes did glaze over and she shook her head as if getting all the marbles back in place.

We settled in with fresh coffees and I explained how this pantser works.

I don’t just sit down and start typing. I don’t recall ever meeting a pantser who does. Before I begin, I have a good idea of my characters, my story world and the plot. This includes the main characters’ goals and the major obstacles they will face in achieving them.

These start as thoughts I keep in my head while they percolate. After a while, it may look like they’ll bear fruit.

For me, this means they come out of the basement and start acting out the story. Usually when I’m about to fall asleep. This can go on for a couple of weeks. Or months. When they keep hounding me is when I start to put things together.

I’ll begin with what I call a free write. It’s a document where I record all the thoughts the characters have told me. This is usually about one page, single-spaced. It’s free form, writing as the thoughts come to me.

I’ll work on this a couple of times, refining and clarifying. I mark areas I may need to research.

And then, when the characters are jumping like kids in a bounce house, I start writing the story. As I write, the characters reveal more of themselves, their background, their view of the story world, their goals and what they’re willing to do to achieve them.

My friend asked if I write the story from beginning to end based on that one free write.

No, I told her. I periodically print out the entire novel to that point, usually every fifty pages or so and read it through. I’m looking for consistency and for promises I made to the reader. Promises I’ll have to fulfill or justify why not. The purpose of this is to make sure my story is flowing organically from page one.

Pantsing is one of the few areas where my OCD tendencies don’t get in the way. Over the course of several manuscripts, I’ve learned to trust my characters. I enjoy the freedom of following them, learning about them, about their world, about their goals, and about myself.

How do you fellow pantsers write? What techniques do you use?

The secret life of a pantser - Henry McLaughlin, @RiverBendSagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

There's more than one way to write a novel, Henry McLaughlin, @RiverBendSagas, shares the life of a pantser (Click to Tweet)

Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. 

He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. 

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers. 

Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. Very good, Henry. I'm pretty close to the same, except when I get the idea the characters tend to follow with it. It's real hard to explain to folks what don't use this method. I write it through once then go back through adding details. The characters may be sitting under a beautiful moon, but the first time through that is all they are doing. The next time through I describe the sights, sounds, smells...first the sketch, then the finished painting. Well, the second, and third, and whatever times it takes. I'm glad to read about someone else who pansters. Donevy

    1. Good approach. I like how you bring in all the senses. Too many writers, both outliners and pantsers, usually focus on sight and sound with an occasional dip into taste or smell.
      As you also point out, reviewing our work regularly helps develop into a richer experience for the characters and the readers.

  2. Like you, I daydream my book before I start writing. I tend to write in scenes, in no particular order. Then I arrange the order. (That's where I'm at with my latest WIP) Now I'm connecting the scenes and making sure the plot works. I'm also working on the wording and descriptions. 🙂

    1. One thing I've noticed with some pansters is they tend to lose track of the plot. Which raises the complaint from non-panthers that we pantsers have to do a lot of rewriting. In my experience, reviewing the whole manuscript on a regular basis keeps me focused on the plot and keeps me attuned to what my characters are experiencing, what adjustments I may need to make.

  3. I love it Mr. Henry. Somewhat like you, I have CDO (it's like OCD, but in alphabetical order as it should be), and I too am a pantser, most of the time. I write my best in what I call "stream of consciousness" and then go back to edit and clean up my work after the flavors of my words and thoughts marry. Of course, like you, I always know where I want the story to go (I have an outline in my head), I just don't always know what route I'm taking to get there. Thanks so much for the encouragement sir. God's blessings...

    1. Thank you, Jim. I've learned to trust my characters and when we agree on the story goal, the writing flows. When we disagree, I've learned not to try to force them back on the path I want. I'll take the time to listen to them. They may have a better idea for achieving the story goal or even a better goal.

  4. It's always interesting to here how an author works. I find the creative process fascinating because it's different for each person.

    1. Each writer has to develop a process that works for them. What I've come to value in sharing on the process is I frequently learn something from other writers that makes my process better.

  5. Thank you for cracking open the door to your mind and letting us take a look. I love learning how people think! This was fun!

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Many people have wondered if my mind is cracked. Fortunately, its not. Well, I'm pretty sure it isn't. I'll have to get back to you on that.
      I'm honored you enjoyed my post.