Problems with being a Pantser

cartoon-pants-8There are two camps when it comes to first drafts, the planner camp and the pantser camp.  Planners have all the details of their story figured out before they start and pantsers start with one or two great ideas and then figure the rest out as they go along.  After many trial and error cycles I learned that I’m a pantser at heart and probably always will be.  The problem with this is that longer books need some sort of plan to help guide the story from the beginning to the end.

One of the reasons that this book is taking so long to write is that from the beginning I didn’t understand the story.  The other three reasons are wrestling in the other room over who gets to play with what toy. When I started this whole process of taking an idea from concept to completed story I thought that the only way to do it was to create an outline and then follow it.  At this point I didn’t know about story structure or pacing or scene and sequel and I was hugely frustrated because even as I created the story it didn’t feel like it worked. Frankly, it sucked.

I pushed along anyway following my faulty and utterly incomplete outline.  Those were the days when I was convinced that I would be finished and presenting my work to agents in less than a year.  I even blogged about how I was planning on doing this and now looking back I realize just how naïve I was.

The more I wrote the more I realized just how much the outline was missing and how little I understood my world or my characters.  I didn’t have my magic system worked out, or the setting, or the climax, or anything that I needed to make a great story.

Each time I came up against a problem I would have to stop and figure things out and backtrack to plug-in the changes.  I think I revised the opening ten chapters well over twenty times, all the while thinking that with this change everything would then flow smoothly to the end of the book.  It never did because within a few pages I would realize that I needed to make another change.  I spent almost an entire year trying to fix things this way and assumed that this was just how the process was supposed to work.

When I realized that half of my fixes were counteracting other fixes I was forced to make a hard decision – give up or stop backtracking and just push through to the end.  At this point the story had strayed so far from the outline that I no longer had an ending, not that the original ending made any sense in the first place. While I was working through all these different problems the story had taken several unexpected turns. These turns were so much better than what was planned that they had to stay.

When I finally finished that draft I felt like I had finished a marathon. I was completely spent. It had huge problems, the front half needed an extensive overhaul so that the story flowed into the back half.  Those issues were so daunting that I put off editing and revising the manuscript for over a year.  That, and with the birth of my third child my whole life was thrown into chaos.

Last fall I buckled down and started the long process of rewriting the front half of the story.  With the writing skills that I had acquired over the last few years it seemed easier to find what needed to be added and taken away.  That’s not to say that reinventing scene after scene was easy, there were still some tricky plot problems that needed to be solved.  In solving those problems I uncovered some really cool ideas that make this story even better.

There’s still a lot of work to do to finish this edit.  With the kids in school I’m hoping that I’ll find the time and patience to keep plugging through until it’s done.  For the first time in this process I finally feel like I’m getting close!


Just a reminder – For the month of August I am offering a free critique of a query letter or the first 20 pages of a manuscript.  To enter all you have to do is click the “like” button.  For a second entry, leave a comment!  The winner will be notified at the end of the month.

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
This entry was posted in Character Development, Concept Creation, Editing and Revision, Personally Speaking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Problems with being a Pantser

  1. I have sooo been there. A fellow pantser myself, I filed away my first completed work for several years before I had the courage to do the massive rework I knew it needed. I’m happy to tell you, it paid off well. When I finally completed it to my satisfaction, it was a rewarding feeling, and something I could be proud of. Good luck and keep trudging through. You’ll make it!

  2. It always feels great to complete a goal. Best wishes!

  3. ericjbaker says:

    You probably became a better writer in the course of writing it, which is why you had a better sense of how to manage the second half. When you take on a new manuscript one of these days, I bet you will have greater intuition about pacing and plot from the get-go.

    I’m on manuscript #3 and I’m finding it much cleaner upon revision than my previous attempts at novel writing. I’m simply better now than I was 6 years ago.

    As far as feeling foolish about past declarations driven by naivete, don’t worry. No one remembers your naive comments because we’re too busy worrying about our own.

    • Jodi says:

      I agree – I had no idea about pretty much everything in the beginning and the writing suffered. Now I’ve been in the trenches a while I think I’m getting the hang of it. I can’t wait to start a new project with my new skills!

  4. Except for the part about the children in school, I saw myself in every line. I eventually threw away my first story (but kept the characters) and started over. I usually have a beginning and an end with a few threads in the middle. As I write and experience the story, new ways to get me to the end will surface. This last draft took me a shorter time to write and I’m now on the third rewrite. Keep plugging away. It will never be perfect, but with the work you put in on it, darn close.

    • Jodi says:

      Perfection is one of those things that keep writers from completing their goals. I’ve seen it many times and I’m sure that a few of my critique partners say it of me. I love how so many writers share the same process of getting their first book out. Thanks for coming by!

  5. I’ve always tended towards being a planner who was flexible while drafting and that’s served me well. Then I decided to write an online story that was largely me pantsing. What a nightmare, and that was with me enjoying the benefits of having my magic system and world already worked out. I kept writing myself into corners and with every chapter I found myself with a bigger and bigger mess. Never again, though I’ll chalk it up as a worthwhile experiment and take away some good lessons.

    So, yeah, I had a similar experience. That magic system is important to have worked, not just because the “how” is important, but because the limitations and rules are essential or the contradictions begin and entire arcs die an ugly death because you’ve already stated that an essential element is impossible.

    • Jodi says:

      I’ve had the same experience with my online serial where I created the story as I went and didn’t have a plan. Now I’m kinda stuck trying to complete the arc and it’s been far more difficult than I planned.

  6. Pingback: Authors Are People Too « Shannon's Professional Blog

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