The Inherent Risks of Pantsing a Novel

You know what I mean, of course. Writing a novel “by the seat of your pants.” No detailed planning, only a vague plot idea in advance, making each scene up as you write it.

Sounds like no way to write a novel, does it? The Project Manager in me cringes at the very idea. If I approached my day job in this manner, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be out on my ear.

Yet… it’s a lot of fun. The characters definitely have minds of their own, and as the words fly onto the page, they let the author know in no uncertain terms just where they want to go, what they want to do. Of course, all is not peaches and cream for the characters, they don’t always get their way, and indeed sometimes things go very badly for them. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there?

Hint: things are about to get a lot more tense for one or two of my characters, but I won’t say any more just yet.

The arc of the story, however, remains rather foggy for the author. This is the nature of pantsing. We know roughly where we’re going, but it’s a bit like navigating a boat through heavy fog with no chart, only a compass and perhaps a handheld GPS. You know where you are, you know where you want to go, and you know which direction to point the boat. But you have no idea what’s between you and your destination. Large ships may loom up out of the mist, threatening to crush you at any moment. And that bell you hear ringing? What’s that? Oh! There it is! It’s the navigation buoy, the one you were aiming for, dead ahead and… hard to starboard! Quick, or we’ll smash into the thing!

Ah, but we found it, the nav buoy, in the end, didn’t we? Sure, we almost ran it down, but now we know exactly where we are.

Pantsing is a bit like that, and like that ocean-going tug looming out of the fog, there come inflection points in the story, where things can go one way, or they can go another, and the author must make a momentous decision before continuing.

When Takashi opens that station hatch — because of course he’ll figure out a way, right? — what will he and the others find? What alien relics have the Keplerians left behind? What will be revealed about Aniara and her crew’s own situation? Are they in even more trouble than they yet realize?

Make one decision, and I could be sealing the fate for not just this crew, but for any other stories I may wish to write in this same universe in future. If I’m not careful, I could “break” the universe, making it unsuitable for further adventures, and, well, I really don’t want to do that. I have other story ideas, at least one of which has been hinted at in the narrative already.

Make a different decision, and the future of interstellar civilization could be assured. Well, as assured as any civilization can be where the fastest way to get a message from one place to another is to get on a ship and go there — no ansible here.

And yet…

There’s an appeal to having this story go a certain way. It would be… interesting. And risky.

After all, breaking an entire universe is a pretty heavy risk.

Side note: that bit about navigating a boat through fog with only a handheld (non-charting) GPS and a compass, and nearly being run down by a tug, and then nearly running down a buoy…. yeah, that happened. Ask me about it some day.

image credit: l_schwarze /

2 thoughts on “The Inherent Risks of Pantsing a Novel

  1. One of the biggest risks is bloat. Just ask Robert A. Heinlein. In several interviews and essays, he stated that he knew the beginning and end of every novel he wrote and let the middle take care of itself. When he had an editor, that worked well. When his publisher found that anything he wrote sold, and scaled back the editors, Heinlein’s novels became giant rambling things (not necessarily bad, but the point where this happened is obvious).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. True, his earlier works tended much more to lean. Indeed, he started out with mostly short stories. And, I already have some bloat in the drafts I’ve put out here, but I figure that gives me some cutting room for the rewrite. These five scenes (most likely) represent the first chapter, and coming in at about 7500 words, that’s a longish (though not absurdly so) chapter. In the rewrite, when the “darlings are killed,” it’ll probably come down closer to an ideal of about 5000 words.

    Another thing Heinlein did, though, is tie many of his stories together into a consistent “future history,” or what many speculative writers today would call a single universe in which all the stories take place. Not everyone does that, and it’s certainly not a requirement, but it can give the world-building a sense of depth when events from one story can form a historical backdrop for another story, or when readers understand that technologies work the same way across the stories.

    On the other hand, you have the experience of Charles Stross, another writer I admire, who in his early novels “Singularity Sky” and “Iron Sunrise” attempted to build a consistent universe, then realized after the second book that he had, in his own words, “broken the universe,” and so abandoned the world-building he had done and started over fresh with his later novels. This was too bad, as he had some very interesting concepts introduced in those two novels, but I saw what he meant — he had created a situation that removed much future dramatic possibility. His later novels posit a few different universes that don’t necessarily coexist, and he has more fun.

    Stross’s novel “Saturn’s Children,” by the way, was a nod to the works of both Heinlein and Asimov. I highly recommend it.

    Thanks for your comment, Brent! And be sure to let me know when you see me getting too bloated. 😉

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