Creative Writing Tip: Even Pantsers Need Some Planning

1219898_old_books____2To gear up for release day of book III of my Herezoth trilogy (it’s Friday), yesterday I reflected upon how I had to rewrite the first 100 pages of that novel from scratch, with a new plot line that moved the action seven years forward.

In particular, yesterday I explained four reasons I had to start again. Today, I want to explore the first reason in more detail, in the hopes that other people might be able to learn from my mistakes. What good is experience if you can’t teach from it?

The biggest problem with my first attempt at “The King’s Sons” is that I didn’t have a plan that was developed enough. I didn’t really know what I was writing about.


Sure, I’ve always written as a panster, by the seat of my pants. That’s why I wasn’t concerned when I thought I needed not a trilogy, but a series of at least four books, though I had no idea in the slightest about what could follow book III.

Maybe I should have thought about that. Could I have a trilogy after all? Were four books necessary?

I had a villain with a name and an ethnic background that was significant for slave trade purposes as well as magical ability. But I didn’t realize he would have a history with one or two of the good guys, and I didn’t stop writing when I realized he did. I didn’t stop to figure out the details of that past. I keep charging full speed ahead.

I had heroes whom I knew from previous books, but whom I had to throw into a new and unique situation. I didn’t prepare myself by considering how they might adapt to the situation, and I should have. Some of my gut instincts about how they would react weren’t necessarily the right ones.

I didn’t consider who my secondary characters might be, or even how a character I introduced in the very first scene–a friend of councilor Francie Rafe–might impact the possible development of the plot.


I love the freedom of writing as a pantser. I love the thrill of discovery that kind of writing fosters.

I love it so much that, out of fear of planning too much and in a hurry to “get to the good stuff,” I didn’t plan enough. I ended up with 100 pages mostly of background information and scenes that introduced subplots I had no idea what to do with.

I’m not, at all, saying you have to outline. I’m not saying you need a plot before you write. But even pantsers–if they’re hoping to avoid second starts–should have some kind of a developed concept, and they should take a moment to consider, ahead of time, what might be tricky about turning that concept into a plot.

I thought “Bad guy sorcerer kidnapping people from the fishing village where the Magic Council has just opened a school” was a concept. I thought it was a concept because I knew he planned to sell them into slavery. It wasn’t.

I needed to know more about him and his motivation. I should have considered how the heck he planned to pull off his scheme, and how long-term he intended his operation to run. I should have realized that the amount of backstory involved might preclude introducing action scenes early on; I feel that’s important to do as an author of sword and sorcery fantasy.

I didn’t think about any of that. And I had to start over. So  please, pantsers, remember this:

You don’t have to plan a lot. But take some time, before you start writing, to make sure you have enough of a plan for you: make sure you know your characters, and that you have a comfortable grasp of what your story is about.

If you enjoyed this post–number 2 in a series of 5– consider following my blog by email (top right corner of the page.) That way you won’t miss out on the posts to follow.

Also, remember to mark your calendars: to celebrate release day of book III, the  reformatted version of book I of my trilogy, The Crimson League, will be free for download May 31 and June 1 (Friday and Saturday). This is a great opportunity, since the story of Herezoth will be complete for all to enjoy now! Don’t miss out.


19 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: Even Pantsers Need Some Planning

  1. I have never heard the term “panster” before, describes me completely though. I really dislike outlining. However, I did plan out my characters and plots before I started writing my book.
    I am excited to read your book, I will definitely be downloading it.

    • thanks, Kristy! Hope you enjoy it 🙂 I definitely love writing without an outline. I feel that it’s freeing and it brings spontaneity into my life. That’s all important.

      • Yes you are very right! Writing without an outline really is freeing, I love it. It really doesn’t matter if a writer does an outline or not, it matters what we are all comfortable with. I definitely am not comfortable with outlines 😉

  2. Would you say that an author needs to be part pantser and part planner? I plan a lot before I write, but I still have moments where I have to fly by the seat of my pants.

    • I agree with what you say here, Charles. That’s a great way of describing it. I think it’s a spectrum. There a degrees of winging it and different degrees of planning. I don’t think anyone and write successfully without an idea of who their characters are and what the overall situation they have to deal with is. And like you see, even the best planners have to allow inspiration its due and deviate a bit from the best-laid plans.

  3. As a fairly new writer, the fine line between planning and just writing has been the most difficult thing for me to grasp. Sometimes, I worry I’m spending too much time on the planning aspect and never get to writing. And then as soon as I get to writing, I realize I didn’t spend enough time on the planning.

    I’m beginning to think every writer has to find their own line, and it just takes a lot of practice and messing up to get it right. Heck, it probably changes with every book too!

    • You are dead on, Phillip! It definitely varies from writer to writer and from project to project. Heck, my most recent project (NaNoWriMo) was my most planned and probably has less potential than any of my Herezoth novels. I’m still sitting on the draft because I can’t figure out whether or not it’s total trash.

      Trial and error is the only way to do it 🙂 Figuring that out, though, is over half the battle so you’re definitely on your way.

  4. “You don’t have to plan a lot. But take some time, before you start writing, to make sure you have enough of a plan for you: make sure you know your characters, and that you have a comfortable grasp of what your story is about.” I probably should paste this above my computer as I anticipate July’s Camp NaNoWriMo 😉

  5. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: Make Sure You Don’t Write Your Novel Too Quickly | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  6. I’m new to writing, so am still trying to find where I fall in the spectrum. When it comes to short stories, I’m a definite pantser: part of the fun is discovering where the writing will take me. Applying this approach to a longer format (gulp…novel) seems too loose, yet the idea of writing out a detailed outline seems too clinical and restrictive. Your blog post and the ensuing comments/discussion has given me hope that I can find a middle ground that works for me. As both you and Philip said: lots trial and error, practice and messing up…until you find what works best. Thank you for normalizing the process 🙂
    PS: Glad your rewrite has a happy ending – congrats on May 31st release 

    • thank you so much, Diane! I’m glad the post and comments were helpful and encouraging. Best of luck to you!!! You can definitely outline loosely, you know: you can work out an overaching plot if you’d like without going into great detail.

      Outlines don’t have to mean no wiggle room. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Weekly Recap – May 31st, 2013 | Phillip McCollum

  8. akismet-29794b4c3af9d3489a170d14760587fd

    Yes I completely agree with you. Pantsters need to at least know what their climax is. I bogged about this just recently. I found that 70000 words in I only had a slight grasp of what my ending was and I had to stop and rethink some of my story. Then I realised some of my characters were taking me on a path that was in conflict to where I wanted to be. I had a lot of rethinking to do. If you want to read my post it’s here 🙂

  9. Pingback: AUTHORS: Trouble with a draft? When is it time to rethink your approach to a novel? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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