Friday, October 7, 2016

Tips from a Confessed Pantser by Joan Curtis

I recently interviewed a writer who told me with certainty that she was not a pantser. “What is that?” I asked.

She explained that a pantser was a writer who writes by the seat of their pants. She explained that pantsers do not use outlines or other tools to organize their plots or characters. I listened patiently as she spoke because the more she said, the more I realized I might very well be a “pantser.”

For years I’ve described myself as an evolutionary writer. Usually I launch a story with a germ of an idea and then things start happening all around me that I didn’t expect. New characters walk on stage or a shocking, important event happens that shoots my original plan out of the water.

No one told me there was such a thing as a pantser writer. In the early days of my fiction writing, I attended a workshop where a well-know mystery writer explained how she constructed her books—with a plot outline and a chapter-by-chapter plan. I decided to give it a go.

After writing one chapter, suddenly a very interesting character popped on the scene. He was not one of the characters I had planned to introduce. But, there he was. His name is Quentin and he became one of my most important secondary characters in the Jenna Scali mystery series.

So, you may wonder if I don’t use an outline how in the world do I plan my books?

To answer that question, let me take you back in time when I began work on my award-winning mystery, The Clock Strikes Midnight. In the early stages, the story began with Marlene and was supposed to be a story about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. Marlene, however, had other ideas. She took me down an entirely different path.

As I worked with Marlene, other characters emerged. The first being her husband, Peter. But, it wasn't long before Peter took a backseat to Marlene's sister, Janie, who later became the protagonist for my book. Was the final story about a mid-life crisis? No way. It didn't take me long to realize I couldn't plan. My characters had their own ideas.
 You’ll find many writers sharing tips on how to construct a novel using outlines. Here are some tips on how to construct a novel if you happen to be a pantser.

Tip Number 1: Listen to your characters. When a character tells you they want to do something, let them do it. See where it takes you and the storyline. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Tip Number 2: Allow new characters to emerge even if it happens on your very last page. Okay, you’ll have to do some major editing, but let that character in. He or she had probably been tapping you on the shoulder for a long time and you ignored him. Now, look at the mess you’ve gotten yourself in! You should have listened to that character in the first place. Shame, shame, shame.

Tip Number 3: When in the middle of a scene, go deep inside yourself to create what might happen. Allow your brain to flow like a stream as your fingers dance across the keyboard. What you write will probably read like crap the next day. But, then again, maybe it won’t.

Tip Number 4: Don’t worry about editing from the beginning. Wait to edit. I say this unless your story does a complete about face. In that case, just start over from that point. Usually what happens, however, is the story moves forward, and you can go back and make the necessary changes once you have it all on paper.

Tip Number 5: Don’t let the outliners intimidate you! Creativity is messy. Many an artist begins a canvas with one idea in mind and suddenly everything changes. Sometimes, they have to paint over what they’ve painted or they destroy the original canvas. I can imagine Van Gogh painting that way. Can’t you?

Tip Number 6: You must be a ruthless editor. The one advantage the outliner has over the pantser is in the editing process. For me (as a confessed pantser), editing is a nightmare. Imagine for a moment that you thought you were writing a book about one thing and then it takes off in a different direction. That means the early scenes you created become meaningless. Pantsers must be ruthless editors. We cannot get too attached to our scenes. It if doesn’t move the story along, let it go.

Here’s the rub. Writers who outline think of us pantsers as lazy. We simply don’t have what it takes to map out a big long piece like a novel. Writers who are pantsers think outliners aren’t creative. They write like robots.

In truth wonderful works of fiction are produced by both outliners and pantsers. Just like Van Gogh and Van Meer are two of my favorite artists. The styles are different, neither better than the other.

Okay, I confess, I’m a pantser and proud of it. What about you?

Joan C. Curtis is the award-winning, multi-published author of The Clock Strikes Midnight and e-Murderer and her most recent release, Murder on Moonshine Hill. Her website which includes her blog is


  1. Thanks for hosting me today, Stuart. As a confessed pantser yourself, maybe you could add a few tips as well.

    1. Yes, I can indeed, Joan! First...always wear pants while writing. It could be unsanitary or dangerous without pants. Second...I have to admit the scariest part of writing is sitting down with a good idea and not knowing where (or if) things will go. But the stories have a way of working out. Voodoo!

    2. Okay, I'll wear pants if you insist. And, yep, it is scary wondering where things will go and if they will. The amazing power of the subconscious.

  2. What great advice, Joan! I'm part plotter part pantser- I always say I know the beginning, middle and end. However, I've learned I can't write detailed plots either because the voices in my head never follow along! Those other characters demand I put them on the page. Every writers process is different, and no writer is lazy! WE know that for sure. Happy writing to all of the plotters and pantsers and everyone in between!

  3. Hey, MJ, Thanks for your comment. Indeed, we are all different. And I love it when people recognize that there's not formula for writing a novel. Much of it is intuitive. That makes it hard, but also very special.