The Pantser Strikes Out into the Unknown, Traveling down the Wrong Road Again

John McCutcheon is not a pantser, but he is a great photographer.

They say I am a pantser. I don’t know what that means. I don’t have any idea where the term came from, and I have no idea who invented it.

But, if they’re right, and they swear they’re right, then I am a genuine, down-home, homemade, card-carrying pantser.

The reason is simple.

I write my serials the same way I take a vacation.

I don’t use a map.

For three years, I promoted travel for the Texas Tourist Develop Agency, and I squired travel writers from every major newspaper in the country ­– from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Herald with the Chicago Sun-Times thrown in between – and we wound up in nooks and crannies that Texas didn’t know it had.

But I never used a map.

For a decade, I served as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine, and I found town and hamlets and villages and crossroads communities that the South forgot shortly after the last shot in the Civil War was fired.

And I never used a map.

I didn’t want one.

I didn’t want to know where I was going.

I just enjoyed the trip, and, as the old mountain man once said, I was never lost, but I was powerfully misplaced from time to time.

That’s the way I write serials. That’s the way I write novels.

I don’t use a map.

There is no plotting.

There is no outline.

There are no character sketches. I work characters into the story when they show up, and I never know when they’ll drop into a scene or what they’ll do when they arrive. I seldom know who’s side they’re on.

I don’t give them names. They tell me who they are, and if they don’t, I figure they’re not important enough to the story to deserve a name.

I simply sit down, write the first sentence, and see where it leads me.

It’s just like when I travel.

I love the journey.

I love the surprises.

I love the intrigue.

I love winding up in places I didn’t know existed, and then figuring out how to get out before the shooting starts, and, sooner or later, the shooting always starts.

I keep writing until I put a period at the end of the last sentence and realize I have nowhere else to go, and my main characters have done what they were meant to do, and none of us have any interest in prolonging the agony.

Say goodbye to one.

Say hello to the next one.

And the pantser strikes out again – usually on the wrong road and headed in the wrong direction and too ignorant to know the difference.

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  • Sara Marie Hogg

    And I, the reader, am never disappointed by these head trips you take.

    • Thanks. My eyes are usually in one direction, and my head’s in the other.

  • Jiji

    Journey on. You never fail to intrigue me into following.

  • What fun would it be if you knew where you were going?

    • I’d rather be surprised by the unknown that disappointed by the same old destination.

  • There are sailors and there are people who drive “stink pots” (powerboats). I suppose that authors fall into similar categories. The sailors go where the wind blows them and the others just stink.

    • And some of us are paddling like hell to keep our heads above the water.

  • Love that photo!! You’re the most interesting pantser I’ve ever known, Caleb!! If it works for you, no need to change. You’re lucky to have figured out how to entertain yourself!

    • It is a beautiful photograph and fades into the great tomorrow of Monument Valley.

  • I love it. Every time I hear the phrase “make an outline,” I swear I tremble from head to toe. Oh yuck. So you might just stumble across me out there on some old backroad,Caleb, standing at a crossroads going innie, meannie, minnie, mo – too.

  • Pantser: A NaNoWriMo term that means that you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ when you are writing your novel. You have nothing but the absolute basics planned out for your novel.

    This outlook towards writing is often opposed by the ‘planner’, who knows exactly what is going to happen, when it will happen, and where it will happen. There is often enmity between the two types of writers.

    • I don’t think there is enmity between the two. The planners just haven’t seen the light yet. LOL, SW

      • Thanks, Jo. I’ve heard the term. And thanks to you, I finally get the “flying the sea of your pants” meaning.

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