Key points: Pantsing, a.k.a. seat-of-the-pants writing, a.k.a. discovery writing -- no matter what you call it, it is an important skill for writers to practice. Most outliners have a bullet point or a sentence for a chapter or scene, and discovery write the details. Pantsing goes well with yes-but and no-and structure. Improvisation requires a good understanding of the structure or technique, which is acquired through practice.
[Mary] Season seven, episode 37.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses! This week, pantsing.
[Howard] Uh-huh. 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we are all wearing pants.
[Howard] Even me.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] Just to reiterate, I am Howard and I have pants on.
[Mary] He's just saying that.
[Brandon] Oh, boy.
[Dan] He's protesting a lot.
[Howard] Methinks the naked man protesteth too much.
[Brandon] They all rolled their eyes at me when I actually called this pantsing.
[Mary] Yes, we did.
[Brandon] Because that is what I believe Dan called it. Seat-of-the-pants writing.
[Howard] Discovery writing.
[Dan] Yeah, we usually call this discovery writing here on the podcast, but pantsing is becoming, I think, a very common term for it. I get questioned about it a lot.
[Mary] I just find it very disturbing.
[Howard] Pantsing is a prank. It's a junior high prank where you pants somebody and everybody's looking at your dangling unmentionables.
[Brandon] Anyway… Everyone… Thanks, Howard.
[Mary] Family show. Family show.
[Brandon] Family show. Clean ratings.
[Dan] Thanks for mentioning them.
[Brandon] When we get requests about for writing… We always get requests about outlining. But the thing is… We will do so more outlining episodes. People seem to stress outlining quite a bit. Maybe it's our junior high education. Maybe whatever it is, our English teachers drilling it into us. I don't think that a lot of newer writers understand how much even someone who is an outliner like myself writes discovery writing. An outliner generally is someone… There are some very extreme outliners, who make an outline and then slowly massage it into a book. Most of us when we outline, even an outliner like me, basically I'll have one sentence for a chapter or two sentences or three sentences for a chapter. The rest is discovery written. I discovery write a lot of every chapter. It's about exploring for that day what I want to have happen in this chapter. That's why sometimes you just have to throw chapters away, even when you're a quote unquote one drafter like myself.
[Howard] I would counsel that when we talk about discovery writing, there is the Stephen King school of discovery writing, which is you discovery write from beginning to end and then you send the book to your editor who helps you correct spelling errors. The saner ground, I think, is where you discovery write from beginning to end, and somewhere at the three quarters mark, you may have realized that chapters one through three need to go, and chapter 4 needs to be rewritten as a stronger beginning. But that's all well and good, you keep forging through all the way until the end. It's an adventure for you as a writer.
[Brandon] Then there's my style, which is brainstorm an ending. Come up with several really great scenes. Then come up with bullet points underneath them. I've talked about this before, to get to those scenes. But for any given chapter, there's a bullet point or two. Then you're expanding that. I really think that we need to reinforce to listeners that practicing how to discovery write is going to be as useful or more useful for every writer than outlining.
[Mary] This is actually one of the places where I wind up using that… The thing we've mentioned in a couple of other episodes about the yes-but, no-and. Because if you think of writing as a series of questions that you and the audience are asking, and you are leading them to the next question, this for me helps me go through the discovery writing. That as I'm writing, if I come up to a point where I'm not sure what happens next, I just ask the question. Okay, so what is the logical next step? Now, how does that logical next step go wrong? So is the logical… They have come to a chasm that they need to cross. Do they cross the chasm? Yes, but the bridge collapses while they're halfway across. That allows me to keep momentum going.
[Brandon] Right. Or you ask no-and. Now, you can't get across and a group of angry ruffians are coming up behind them, planning to rob them!
[Mary] Yes. So that…
[Brandon] I hate those angry ruffians. The angry ruffians…
[Mary] The angry ruffians. You ruffians…
[Dan] A gang of uncivilized louts.
[Howard] Why do we never… Why do we never… Why do we never hear about… Hang on, I've got your writing prompt right here.
[Mary] Oh, no.
[Howard] Why do we never hear about the cheerful ruffians?
[Brandon] Cheerful ruffians. Okay. And the civilized louts.
[Dan] This is the Merry Men.
[Mary] Isn't that… That's the Merry Men. I was going to say, isn't that Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series?
[Brandon] The cheerful ruffians and the civilized louts. That's the name…
[Howard] Maybe that's not your writing prompt.
[Brandon] No, that's your writing prompt that's just the title of a group in your writing prompt. They can be a band.
[Mary] I was going to say…
[Brandon] Dan, you are primarily a discovery writer. Let's give our listeners some tips on… When it's working for you, what's working? What does it mean that it's working? When it isn't working, what does that mean?
[Dan] Well, those are big questions.
[Brandon] But you're a big man, capable of…
[Howard] A little bit smaller now.
[Brandon] Yeah. Tailbone less.
[Dan] Now that the tailbone's gone. I'm running out of vestigal organs, by the way. All I've got left is the spleen.
[Howard] Next week on Writing Excuses!
[Dan] I… My process is kind of similar to Brandon's, in that I will start with an end in mind. I will give myself actually sometimes a very extensive skeleton kind of outline to work with, but then throw that out. I will figure it all out beforehand and then ignore it completely and I'll just write. I'll look at the outline and say, "That's the chapter I'm supposed to write?" Maybe. Maybe the chapter I wrote yesterday doesn't want to lead into the chapter the outline tells me to write, and it wants to be something else. Some of the best things… Experiences that I've had with discovery writing are making something up on the fly. For example, in the sequel to Partials, Kira is going through Manhattan looking for something very specific in the first part of the book. I… One chapter in the outline said, "she gets to this office building and tries to find the information inside of it." That's all it said. So on the spot, I had to figure out, well, where's she going to find the information? In a computer? Well, how is she going to find information on a computer if there's no electricity? Things like that. Just have her exploring. I was exploring the building at the same time she was because I didn't know what was in each of the rooms. I didn't know what she was going to find. I just knew that at the end of it, she was going to get to the next part of the outline. So you can find some really neat things like that as you go through and you describe what she finds in this ruined office building. She found some things I wasn't expecting her to find. It was really interesting. It suggested the next three chapters that were not in the outline at all.
[Brandon] I'd say my greatest experiences discovery writing are usually when, it's again unexpected, oh, this isn't going to work in the outline, well, what do I do instead? And when there is some strange pressure on me. Like the writing prompts we force you guys… We set… Suggest to you guys. A lot of times when it's like, you do something completely outside of your realm of expectation, completely off-the-cuff. Oh, I can't use that character anymore. What do I do instead? Your brain just starts into overdrive, and things come out that work really well.
[Howard] I have some long-ago training as a musician. Improvisational music is… One, it's very, very amazing to listen to, but, two, you have to recognize that the musicians that are doing this are virtuosos within whatever instruments they are playing and they also have a strong familiarity with the underlying structure of good music. So they are not just stringing notes together randomly. They are recognizing that this next sequence of notes that they need to string together needs to be in the dominant key because I've been noodling around in subdominant long enough that it's time to move to dominant and then back to tonic. If you're not a musician, that didn't make any sense.
[Mary] But it's the same thing with puppetry.
[Mary] Which… Or any of the arts. Which is that you have to have an underlying understanding of the technique involved so that when you are improvising, you can get out of the way and just let the art happen. That you don't have to be thinking about how do I hold this puppet.
[Howard] See, you're talking about the technique. What I'm talking about is the familiarity with an underlying structure.
[Mary] I feel like that's the same thing.
[Howard] Oh, okay.
[Howard] No, no. That's fine. What I'm thinking of is when I'm writing a character, I understand that the pacing of this story, there's going to be some scene and there's going to be some sequel, some push and some shove. There is what does the character need, what does the character want, what does the character feel. I don't ask what the story wants, I ask what the pacing wants.
[Mary] Yes. Yeah, and to me, as I said, that's definitely a technical thing.
[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. Howard, you actually have the book of the week this week?
[Howard] Oh, I do. Yes. This was almost certainly not pantsed. Existence, which is the new novel from David Brin. It's a first contact story that brilliantly discusses Fairme's… Fermi's paradox. How do you say Fermi's name? Fairmi? [French accent] Fairumi?
[Dan] I think it's Fermi.
[Howard] Fermi's paradox. In our opening scenes, an astronaut garbage collector pulls some sort of a crystal thingy down from orbit, and it's extraterrestrial. What's so neat about this book is not necessarily the first contact, but that Brin explores big idea after big idea after big idea. He throws more ideas into this book then most authors throw into a whole career's worth of novels. It's a luxurious read. It's a slow read, but it's not slow because it's paced wrong. It's slow because you want to savor every one of these ideas as it comes by. It's very thoughtful stuff. I loved it. It's available on audible. So, audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a free trial membership and download your copy of David Brin's Existence.
[Brandon] Now those of you listening may be in kind of a quandary where you're like, "Great, now they're talking about you have to know the rhythm and things like this and whatnot." I know we keep harping on this, but practice is what's going to give you this. I use the metaphor more and more of the baseball player swinging the bat and hitting the ball. That baseball player can do that because they have done it so many times. The more you write, particularly the more you write the type of fiction you want to do, whether it be long fiction or short fiction, the more you work in a certain format, the more instinct you will gain for the rhythm and flow of what's needed and what's not needed. It helps to pay attention to what a writing group is saying and how people are responding to the books, so you get a sense of okay, at this point, people are going to really be needing something explosive to happen. Or at this point, they're going to get a sense they need more character. When I go into a scene, what arranges my bullet points for that scene, when I'm off of my outline, what I grab for that specific scene, I'll say, "Okay, my instincts say we need a strong character moment here. We've had a lot of whizbang actions, we need to slow down for a minute and really dig into these people and have good character interactions." My instincts will say, "Okay there still needs to be tension to this scene, it just can't be things exploding." So we need the characters to kind of rub each other the wrong way. What from my outline can help me achieve that? I'll grab, okay, this bullet point here where the characters discover this thing about the project they're working on that turns them against each other or something like that. What can help me make this scene evocative? I need a new setting. I'll brainstorm all that at the beginning and then pants it.
[Mary] One of the things that you talked about in terms of practice that I kind of want to push a little bit is that you're not just paying attention to what your readers think, but what you think as an author as a reader as you're writing it. I have a theory that one of the key components of talent is the ability to recognize the mistake and fix it. That when you are learning, all of these things that you're practicing, that recognizing this is a point where I'm bored. That is a mistake, why am I bored? Nancy Kress says that when she… And she's a complete seat-of-the-pants writer, she doesn't even do bullet points. She says that when she feels like a story is going wrong, what she does is she stops and she goes back to the last point that she was excited about it, throws everything away after that point, and start writing again.
[Brandon] Pretty extreme, but that is…
[Dan] Wow, yeah.
[Brandon] If you are totally a discovery writer, that's what you need to be willing to do.
[Howard] I have a folder called off-track scripts. When I write… I'll write a week of scripts, and then suddenly realize oh, I don't like where the story is going, or this is a fantastic conversation, I love this conversation, but it is currently unsupported. I take all of that, throw it into my off-track scripts folder, because I don't have the luxury of drawing something and then throwing it away. There's just not enough time, I can't afford to illustrate it. So every so often, I dive back into that folder to see if there was something that I needed to salvage. The danger with my method is that every so often I will find myself searching my scripts folder for canon based on character names. Scripts will pop up from that folder. I'll realize, "Wait, I don't remember him saying that." Oh, he didn't say that. He said that in my off-track scripts folder. I need to put that folder someplace else. Still haven't fixed that problem.
[Mary] I also have a scraps folder. Even when I'm not completely… The only seat of the pants that I'm doing is within that one scene. There are times when the story veers off a little bit. I just save that stuff. Sometimes I go back and reuse it, sometimes in that story, sometimes in a completely different one. Sometimes it was just a good exercise.
[Howard] One of the things that's fun to think about with regard to discovery writing is that, I mean, when I'm bored… I write space opera. Okay? When I'm bored, it's usually time to blow something up. Something explodes, somebody gets shot. If you're writing a romance, and you're bored, it's not time to blow something up. That's probably time for the romantic interest to walk into the diner with a different woman on his arm.
[Mary] Which is a different form of blowing things up.
[Howard] You're right. It's a different form of blowing something up. In order to refine your chops, start looking at genre and asking yourself what is the equivalent of blowing something up in this genre?
[Brandon] How do you raise the stakes in the genre you're writing?
[Mary] Which is something that we should also talk about in a different episode. One other…
[Brandon] About raising the stakes? All right, I'll can of worms that.
[Dan] Can of worms!
[Mary] One other thing that I want to toss out that I have found particularly helpful when I am doing seat-of-the-pants writing is the momentum with which I write because when I am seat-of-the-pantsing, instead of having an external thing in which I'm holding the story, which is what the outline is, I'm holding the entire story in my head. The momentum… James Maxey actually says momentum matters. The speed at which I get that down makes a huge difference in how much I'm able to retain of the story that I have in my head.
[Howard] I would argue that if you are going to discovery write, your writing sessions have to be three hours long or more, because for the first 30 minutes…
[Brandon] I don't know. I'm… Dan is a big discovery writer. You did a lot of writing for John Cleaver during your lunch break, didn't you? Was it that book that you wrote?
[Dan] Not during lunch breaks, but I did have to write it all in like two hour chunks at night after work and after getting kids to bed. So it was written… A lot of my early books were written in very small pieces.
[Brandon] Though larger chunks of time is better for most of us…
[Howard] Momentum is so important to me.
[Brandon] The thing is though, here's what I've found… When your time is tight, you adapt. Like the goldfish. You squish into the space that you have. You become more productive for that time. Then you use the off times for rebuilding the well in different ways.
[Howard] Yeah. I should recant at least a little bit and say that if you only have an hour to write, that is not an excuse to not discovery write. That is an excuse to allow yourself to write bad.
[Howard] Let yourself…
[Dan] Allow yourself to not edit as you go.
[Howard] Not edit as you go. Just get the words down.
[Mary] It just means that's the time that you have to write and you don't stress if you didn't get everything… Don't punish yourself.
[Brandon] Yeah. Don't punish yourself. Work with your constraints. But…
[Brandon] All right. Let's do a writing prompt for discovery writing. Wow. This is the first time today we haven't just like accidentally thrown one out.
[Howard] No. It was cheerful ruffians.
[Brandon] Cheerful ruffians. That's right.
[Dan] And civilized louts.
[Mary] Yes. And take the yes-and, no-but…
[Mary] I mean the yes-but, no-and structure and see where you go with that.
[Brandon] With your ruffians and louts. That's the title of your story.
[Dan] Well, see, yes-and, no-but seems like it would apply very well to the civilized louts and the cheerful ruffians.
[Mary] Yes. But it's wrong.
[Howard] Did we cross the chasm successfully? Yes, and there's a candy tree!
[Mary] Which is why that structure doesn't work as well for fiction.
[Dan] Did we cross it? No, but… There's a candy tree on this side!
[Mary] All right.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, and we're going to go eat lunch.