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Nobody Can Teach You How to Pants (But You Can Teach Yourself!)

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Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Posts: 1951
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This topic is inspired by my presentation (of the same name) at Fyrecon. I want to give some encouragement to those of you who are naturally pantsers, but have had people tell them "You're doing it wrong!" Quoting Kary English:


You can pants, for inspiration!

Pantsing can be such a revelation
Pantsing around, you feel the sweet sensation
Might be a novel if the rhythm's right
I hope this feeling never ends tonight
Only when I'm pantsing can I feel this free
At night, I lock the doors, where no one else can see
I'm tired of pantsing here all by myself
Tonight, I wanna pants with someone else!
– Kary English, via Madonna


I'll start with some inspirational messages.

“There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And-every-single-one-of-them-is-right!”
– Rudyard Kipling, “In the Neolithic Age”


"Well, then, right now, what shall it be? Out of all this, what do I choose to make a story? I never know where the next one will take me. And the trip: exactly one-half exhilaration, exactly one-half terror."
– Ray Bradbury, Ray Bradbury Theater


I particularly like the Bradbury quote, because there's a lot we can learn from him. Bradbury famously advised: “Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” But he was actually low-balling it. In Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury said that he started writing as a habit every single day from age 12. Friends have confirmed that for Bradbury, it was a story a day, not a story a week. If you do the math, that's roughly 16,000 stories over the course of his career.

Yet he only published 600. 3.75%.

I look on this approach as pantsing for gold. You're not trying to write the one perfect story, you're writing as many stories as you can, and keeping the good ones.

Contest judge Nina Kiriki Hoffman told contest judge Dean Wesley Smith (and us): “Dare to be bad.”

Weird Al Yankovic told us: “Dare to be stupid!”

Voltaire told us: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

You can pants. You can experiment. You can throw away what doesn't work, because tomorrow is another day.

And the side-effect of writing as many as you can is you get better with practice! So pantsing for gold can lead you to better stories, more stories, and more better stories.

Can. No promises. Nothing can promise.

But it's worth a try...

I'll have more to say, but my lunch hour is up. Let's talk!

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

 
Posted : January 28, 2022 10:24 am
David Hankins, Disgruntled Peony, Cherrie and 1 people reacted
Morgan
(@morgan-broadhead)
Posts: 311
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It's even more liberating to write WITHOUT pants, but that's probably a different topic.
Very sage advice though, @martin-l-shoemaker — no matter what you choose to wear, just write!

"Writers WRITE. And they finish what they start."
— Chuck Wendig
Drop me a line at https://morganbroadhead.com
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Rx4

 
Posted : January 28, 2022 10:48 am
DoctorJest
(@doctorjest)
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Related (and also unrelated, somewhat) I realized recently that I'd half way talked myself out of writing novels by starting to worry to much about whether I was trying to write the right idea, or in the right style, and.... Well, on and on from there, really. But I finally managed to get myself to sign off on the idea that I just need to write one, see what it does, and either be happy with the result, or learn from it--and then, either way, write the next one.

I think this was aggravated by the fact that I've never been happy enough with earlier novel drafts to even think about trying to revise and improve them, but there's just no substitute for doing the thing. Surprising how much mental gymnastics it took me to get my brain to accept something that feels simple and obvious though...

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Posted : January 28, 2022 10:57 am
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Posts: 1951
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@doctorjest That’s a lesson that requires frequent relearning. Doubt less, try more, try again.

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

 
Posted : January 28, 2022 11:06 am
David Hankins, Disgruntled Peony, Cherrie and 3 people reacted
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Posts: 1951
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Summarizing a conversation with Monalisa Foster-Author (and I think she’s right on target): the secret to successful pantsing is to know your characters and your world so well that what happens next has to make sense, or it doesn’t happen. Your characters aren’t chess pieces on a board, they’re people in a world.
 
After brainstorming with her, Bill Emerson, Rebecca Treasure Schibler, and Mike Wyant Jr., I know almost the complete backstory to this book. I know all the players. I know the rules of the world. And I know the goals. The story kinda comes naturally from here. It surprises me, but it’s natural.

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

 
Posted : January 28, 2022 7:48 pm
Disgruntled Peony, Cherrie, RETreasure and 1 people reacted
RETreasure
(@rschibler)
Posts: 915
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I've just had to accept that my process is "Write 15%, stop and rewrite 15%, write the next 50%, stop and rewrite the first 65%, dwell in doldrums for a few weeks while I mentally sort out the threads, finish". It's messy and stressful, but no matter how much prewriting I do, or witchcraft plotting, the result is the same. Pantsers unite!

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V37: HM,SF,SHM,SHM
V38: (P)F, SHM, F, F
V39: SHM, SHM, HM, SHM
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Posted : January 29, 2022 7:21 am
David Hankins, Disgruntled Peony, Cherrie and 1 people reacted
storysinger
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After doing so many KYD's I tend to write the whole story and drop back to read it. Most of the time I write long and cut a lot.

I finally read the novel I wrote for nanowrimo. I was surprised at what I had done. Now I need to get back to writing more to it.

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Posted : January 29, 2022 9:36 am
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Posts: 1951
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Common objections to pantsing...

That can't work!

It does work for some people. It worked for Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. It works for Stephen King. It works for a lot of writers.

They're really planning, they just don't know it.

Go. Leave. Now. Come back when you've learned some manners. You're calling a lot of hardworking writers, liars. Including Bradbury.

But what if it doesn't work?

Press on regardless. The goal is to finish, and then decide if it works.

If you find you're short on details along the way, rely on TBD (To Be Determined).

Don’t worry about forgotten names. Don’t worry about names! The most common name in my first drafts is Phil. Phil N. LeBlanc. I clean it up later.

Research is the antithesis of pantsing. You can do it after, when you clean up the first draft.

Or you can do it before, a process I call "presearch". If I know I'm going to write a chapter set in the moons of Jupiter, I read up on the moons to fill my head with knowledge that might be useful in the story.

Dean Wesley Smith has an approach that he uses when he discovers something he missed, something he needs in the story but should have introduced earlier. He just jumps back and adds it! And then he skims the text and updates where he needs to incorporate this new element. He calls this Cycling.

But isn't that wasting words?

No. You can clean it up in editing. You can completely rewrite it in editing. (Dean calls this redrafting.)

Or (gasp!) you can just send it out! Let the editor decide if the words are wasted... or wonderful...

True story: my most famous work is my short story "Today I Am Paul". The opening line (which became the third line) came to me in the shower. I got dressed, drove to work, and dictated the story along the way. Roughly 5,000 words in 50 minutes. That story hadn't existed even as a concept two hours earlier, then it was done. That night I transcribed and cleaned up (about three hours work), and I sent it off to first readers. They said the last two paragraphs were weak, so I looked at them and replaced them with three new paragraphs.

Then my first readers ordered me to send it to Clarkesworld. Neil bought it an published it. It won a Nebula nomination and a Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award. It appeared in four year's best collections. It was translated into eight languages. I've lost track of how many times it has been reprinted (including one textbook).

Did I waste words? No, I took a chance.

But I thought we were supposed to finish everything!

Whoever told you that was telling you what they do (sometimes), but that doesn't make it something you must do.

In music, not every performance is Carnegie Hall. Sometimes it's just practice. Sometimes it's even just noodling to see if an idea works.

In art, not every work hangs in a museum. Some just hang on a refrigerator. Some are just studies to help you work through how to draw a particular subject as part of a larger work.

In dance, you rehearse. In sports, you drill. So what's wrong with practice in writing? Practice makes perfecter. Practice gives you something to edit.

Or to throw away. Really, there's nothing wrong or shameful in throwing away words that don't work. Write more words. Keep writing until you get some you like. Be like Bradbury: 600 gems out of 16,000 attempts. I'm willing to throw away a lot of electrons if I can leave a legacy of 600 published works.

But it doesn't work for me.

That's a whole different discussion. Nine and sixty ways. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. I'm not here to tell you what you must do, I'm here to tell you what you might try. Add tools to your tool box.

You're welcome to reject it without trying. How could I stop you? But if you've read this far, you're curious.

You should try.

You know you want to...

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

 
Posted : January 29, 2022 7:23 pm
David Hankins, Wulf Moon, Cherrie and 1 people reacted
Cherrie
(@clfors)
Posts: 191
Silver Member
 

This is how I write and I love that you’ve started a topic.

There are so many myths out there about pantsing and pressure to plot. Plotting takes the joy out of writing for me. 

I definitely do prereseach. I usually write hard science-fiction so pre-research fills in any knowledge gaps. I do have research interludes while working on a novel as well but I’m careful not to get lost in it or research instead of writing during my writing sessions.

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Posted : January 30, 2022 2:24 pm
Disgruntled Peony
(@disgruntledpeony)
Posts: 1283
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Posted by: @martin-l-shoemaker

But I thought we were supposed to finish everything!

Whoever told you that was telling you what they do (sometimes), but that doesn't make it something you must do.

In music, not every performance is Carnegie Hall. Sometimes it's just practice. Sometimes it's even just noodling to see if an idea works.

In art, not every work hangs in a museum. Some just hang on a refrigerator. Some are just studies to help you work through how to draw a particular subject as part of a larger work.

In dance, you rehearse. In sports, you drill. So what's wrong with practice in writing? Practice makes perfecter. Practice gives you something to edit.

Or to throw away. Really, there's nothing wrong or shameful in throwing away words that don't work. Write more words. Keep writing until you get some you like. Be like Bradbury: 600 gems out of 16,000 attempts. I'm willing to throw away a lot of electrons if I can leave a legacy of 600 published works.

This is one of the things it took me awhile to learn, but I'm really glad I did (although I'm sure I'll have to relearn it at some point). My outlook on this is that no writing is wasted, even if I rewrite the whole thing afterward, because I wouldn't have gotten to the point of doing the rewrite without doing the writing in the first place. grinning  

I'm more of a plantser than a full-time pantser--the longer a story is, the more I have to plan ahead, though a lot of that planning is just figuring out the setting and the characters' personalities and desires. That said, I definitely pants a lot of my short stories these days--and even when I'm planning, I tend to be fairly vague about the details.

#

This is a bit of a digression, but I think the reason I'm so comfortable using a combination of pantsing and planning is because I've spent somewhere between ten and fifteen years GMing various tabletop RPGs, and with long-term games it's important to have plans for what's happening next but to keep those plans as flexible as possible. The very first campaign I ever ran taught me that an inflexible outline is an outline that's going to break the first time something unexpected happens.  laughing In my second story arc, I had a mystery where the players missed half the clues, so I had to figure out alternate means to give the players the information they needed to progress further in the story . The real lesson, though, came when my supposed big-bad got one-shotted by a sniper long before I was ready for him to die. (If you stat it they can kill it, and all that.) The players ended up skipping town and I had to come up with a whole new series of plotlines before I figured out how to get them back to anything even approximating my original end goal. The players had more fun than I did for the second half of that campaign, which is part of why I ended up bringing things to a close and starting something new, but it was a wonderful learning experience and it worked coherently from beginning to end. I definitely went into the campaigns that followed a better GM for having run that first one.

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Posted : February 1, 2022 10:00 am
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Morgan
(@morgan-broadhead)
Posts: 311
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All that time spent plotting over the years has, I think, made me a better pantser. It took me a really long time to understand that stories have a structure to them. I'd sit down and start typing and just sort of meander aimlessly through the story world, you know, exploring, without a whole lot happening.

Once I discovered there were things like shape and beats and pacing, it got a little easier because I had something to write toward — there was an actual destination with waypoints along the way for me to hit. All of a sudden pantsing became more about focus and less about discovery, which really trimmed down all that time spent endlessly rewriting.

I've definitely found that some stories are easier to pants than others. It just really depends on how the story shows up. Some arrive pretty much intact, and I can write them as-is with not much planning at all. Others come like an abscessed tooth and require x-rays, Lidocaine, and a wood chipper to get it all out.

"Writers WRITE. And they finish what they start."
— Chuck Wendig
Drop me a line at https://morganbroadhead.com
SFx1
HMx2
Rx4

 
Posted : February 1, 2022 12:09 pm
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Joel C. Scoberg
(@joel-c-scoberg)
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Posted by: @martin-l-shoemaker

Don’t worry about forgotten names. Don’t worry about names! The most common name in my first drafts is Phil. Phil N. LeBlanc. I clean it up later.

Love this! It made me laugh and I will be pinching it.

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Posted : February 1, 2022 2:00 pm
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Cray Dimensional
(@craydimensional)
Posts: 484
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Somehow not matter how much plotting I do, my end story morphes into something completely different. Does that make me a pantster? giggle  

Small steps add up to miles.
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Posted : February 1, 2022 2:54 pm
RETreasure
(@rschibler)
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Posted by: @craydimensional

Somehow not matter how much plotting I do, my end story morphes into something completely different. Does that make me a pantster? giggle  

About the third time that happened to me I accepted I just can’t plot before!

V34: R,HM,R
V35: HM,R,R,HM
V36: R,HM,HM,SHM
V37: HM,SF,SHM,SHM
V38: (P)F, SHM, F, F
V39: SHM, SHM, HM, SHM
Pro’d out Q4V39
Always Available for 5-page Critiques
CV & Editing Services: www.rebeccaetreasure.com
Reviews & Short Stories: www.patreon.com/rebeccaetreasure

 
Posted : February 2, 2022 9:13 am
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