The Secret Life of a Pantser

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 man


uscripts, 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?

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