If you're a Pantser, life—and writing—is one wild ride. And you wouldn't have it any other way.
Flying by the seat of your pants takes guts. The term comes from the days when flight was brand-new, when barnstormers piloted those old single-engine planes without using any instruments, performing heart-stopping tricks and stunts in the air. They relied on their own senses of direction and orientation while ducking through loop-the-loops, twisting tight corkscrews, and literally crashing their planes through barns on purpose. It was an incredibly dangerous profession, but barnstorming was a huge attraction in the early twentieth century and helped usher in the public’s acceptance of flight.
And if you’re the type of writer who rockets right into your story without outlining first, you’re much like those barnstorming pilots. Without using an outline or predetermined plot, you take off into the story by the seat of your pants, relying on your own good sense to carry you through. Sure, it’s risky. But the payoff is oh-so-rewarding.
I probably don’t need to warn you of the risks, because if you’re a Pantser, you’ve likely seen many stories crash and burn before. But if you learn from each setback, it will make your future stories that much better.
Writing without an outline is perilous, and very few authors pull it off successfully. Here are the tips that I have gleaned from those successful authors:
Keep an Idea Notebook
You need fuel to keep your story flying, and ideas are your power source. Whenever you get an idea—any idea—write it down. You will need that notebook to jump start your story, keep it from stalling.
Decide Your Destination Before You Start
Just because you’re a Pantser doesn’t mean your story won’t have any kind of plot outline. It just means you won’t be detailing your scenes in advance. You can still have a general idea of where the story will be going. Pilots who flew by the seat of their pants still knew where they were going. They just didn’t need an instrument panel to keep them on track.
So note down a couple destination points in your story that you feel confident about. Sure, those might change, but at least decide "I'm flying North" before you take off.
Let Character Drive Your Story
This is vital. If you don’t have a concrete outline for your story, you need to know your main character like a friend. Get to know them personally through notes, letters, sketches. Learn their voice and practice it. Try to spot them in a crowd. Interview them on paper, imagining yourself as the reporter. Grill them like a hostile witness in a murder trial. You HAVE to know your main character well, because without them, the story is going nowhere.
Never Let Discouragement Beat You
Pantsers get ridiculed and rebuked for their writing style, but the fact remains that many famous authors through the ages have been Pantsers. Stephen King, Judy Blume, and Margaret Atwood are a few examples of wildly successful authors who don’t outline their novels in advance and are proud of it.
It takes determination, grit, and a healthy dose of raw talent to be a Pantser. If you take a crash on a story or two, don’t take it personally. If writing without an outline is your style, then own it! Use your inner voice to create that next masterpiece, and let the character drive the plot. There’s a bestseller hidden inside you somewhere, and the artist in you will sculpt it out. Good luck and happy writing!