Wanderings of a Pantser

Sometimes when I write, it can feel like one of Billy’s Wanderings from Family Circus. Somehow I get to the destination, but it’s not always the straightest route. It’s kind of part of being a pantser (no outlines).

I worked on an urban fantasy short story last week called “Green Magic on Connecticut Avenue,” where I did a very pantser-thing to do: I wandered off in the wrong direction for about two thousand words. The story was for a short story workshop, and the requirement was to follow specific guidelines, like I would be if I were submitting to a magazine.

As the story evolved, I changed the POV character.

At 2,000 words, I rechecked the guidelines out of habit. As a visual spatial learner, it’s something I’ve learned to do because of how I read. I don’t read from one word to the next word, sounding it phonetically. Rather I take in the word as a whole in an instant and hop from word to word. Sometimes I skip a word, and this is just how I read, but it creates a big headache if skipping that word changes the instructions. So I always recheck myself at some point to make sure I didn’t read it wrong.

With the POV change, I’d veered away from the guidelines. Oops.

So I had to restart the story with the original POV character and toss out the 2,000 words.

According to years of what I’ve read — particuarly from outliners — this is abolutely INEFFICIENT. If I’d mapped out the story, I wouldn’t have wasted writing 2,000 words.

If I’d mapped out the story, I would’ve have likely wasted ALL the words. I didn’t know who the characters were until I started writing, and in fact, I ended up adding a character I didn’t expect and losing a character I thought was going to be in there.

Sometimes the best path is to wander.

4 thoughts on “Wanderings of a Pantser

  1. livrancourt

    I outline and I still end up cutting stuff that’s not working because you’re right, you get to know your characters as you go. That said, I respect the heck out of you for going without. I need my little security blanket.


  2. I haven’t completed enough worthwhile stuff to have definitively nailed down my writing process (and I suspect it’ll evolve and change over time anyway), but I pretty much always begin a first draft by going, “Hey, I have a tiny glimmer of an idea for a scene. What might that look like?”

    Then I start writing to see what happens. For me, the process of putting words onto the screen shakes loose more and better ideas than I’d probably have if I tried to outline stuff beforehand. Ideas for more scenes and characters start to reveal themselves, and before I know it, a first draft begins to emerge.

    My revision skills aren’t well-developed yet, but so far I tend to adopt a more methodical approach once I have a first draft–maybe even doing some outlining as a tool to help me think about how to apply a better structure.

    So basically I guess I like to discover the story as I write it. Sure, I throw a lot of stuff out–but I like to think the act of writing words improves our skill at doing so, so I don’t see it as a waste of time.


    1. Writing is the only art where people somehow think that practicing — even if it is something that doesn’t turn out or isn’t used — is a terrible waste of time. Once I stopped trying to not waste my words and let whatever it was come out, my writing got a lot better.

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