The title of this is rather apt, seeing as I am sitting in the studio with a severe thunderstorm pouring Nature's wrath upon the Atlanta area. It's a Friday afternoon, which means I've had my advanced improvisation class for the day, and my brain is full of bits and pieces of music from the stuff I prepared as homework. Modulation is one of those things that is both simple and incredibly complicated at the same time, and when you ask someone to modulate into a new key instantly, but tell them they can't look at their hands or the keyboard and they have to play with beauty and nuance and also watch the class at the same time . . .
Anyway, I digress. Today's post has been brewing for a while, and it's on the topic of pantsing, or discovery writing, as some people call it. Writers are loosely broken into two categories, pantsing (writing by the seat of one's pants) or plotting, and writerly opinions litter the landscape between these two ends of the spectrum. It's not a binary, folks! Is anything really a binary?
As a longtime denizen of online writing spaces, I've seen many people extol the virtues of plotting. After all, when we intend to go somewhere, we do map our route. Plotting has plenty of benefits, but it's only one method to get where you're going. Pantsing, discovery writing, or, as I'm going to call it here, improvisation, is sometimes seen as sloppy and unorganized and a deeply flawed way to write a book. I've seen it referred to in a dismissive manner, as if a person can't conjure a good book out of thin air. But that's not true.
Let me back up a bit.
I think that for many non-musicians out there, and quite a few classically trained musicians, improvisation is one of those things that's miraculous. How else but through sheer genius and talent can one sit at the piano, or take up the instrument, and have something cohesive and amazing come out? But that's not how it works for many, many people. Improvisation is something we have to practice. Yeah, I said it, and this is not new to those who are already in jazz. Improv takes practice.
To improvise, you have to understand your boundaries. Let's say you're playing a standard tune with your combo. You've run through the first iteration of the tune, and now it's time for the band to improvise. If you've ever gone to a jazz club, you understand: Every song has structure, and every person who improvises within that song follows that structure. The lead is going to go first; they're gonna get, oh, sixteen bars to improvise. Then the next instrument takes it up. So, for example, the trumpet improvises first, then the sax, then the piano, then the bassist, and finally, the drummer.
Within that improvisation, each instrumentalist has an understanding of the harmonic structure of the tune, as well as all the notes that mesh with the harmonies. Already the instrumentalist has a limited number of notes to pick from. And then the instrumentalist relies on the technical exercises—scales, arpeggios, etc.—as foundations on which to create the improvisation. We go from practiced pattern to practiced pattern, filling in the connective parts. In other words, we have a bunch of Lego blocks at our disposal and we stack them on each other in a certain amount of time, and ta-da! That's our improv. And we hand off the baton.
How does this tie into pantsing? Pantsing is never done by pulling something out of thin air. Pantsers build upon those story elements they already know: character, setting, conflict, plot. Maybe the characters aren't all the way fleshed out. Maybe the setting given is only a single room in a house. Maybe there is no conflict and no plot. But there is always a seed, a starting point that we, as consumers of stories, have within us. And pantsers want to know what happens next, so they start exploring in those directions with the tacit understanding that there will be conflict, there will be plot, and maybe, when they get stuck, they'll take the Jason Mendoza method and throw a Molotov cocktail, thus creating a wholly different problem.
What I'm saying is that pantsers are improvisers who have at their disposal a wealth of information they can use at any time to help construct the story. We've all been exposed to stories, even the ones that continue building on themselves (think about oral storytelling methods, where the storyteller takes suggestions from those around the fire). Think about how TV shows and movies are put into strong three-act structures. Think about the conflict created between people who want each other, but whose overall goal is to be somewhere that doesn't involve that person (high school sweethearts who want to get married, but whose jobs are on the opposite sides of the country). Pantsers have these Lego blocks available and select the ones they feel will be best. It's not as frenzied as it seems, even if it might feel that way when the writing is flowing.
I'm a pantser, actually—I like to through-compose my drafts, to pull in some more musical terminology. Through-composing means (as simply as I can define it) to write new music for each section and structure things in a way that makes it impossible to exchange those sections. But I never start writing without knowing my ending. And that's something a successful pantser will work with: boundaries. My boundaries are the opening image and the closing image, and I fill in everything in between with the understanding that there will be a set piece, there will be rising action, there will be a climax, and so on so forth. What I don't know is how they'll fit together, or if a character will grab the reins and run off and make the story about them.
But part of pantsing for me, too, is sitting on that story egg and incubating it. I'm a slow-cooker writer. I get an idea and I let it percolate for years. I have to know these characters and how they interact and how they're going to make each other miserable or happy. BITTER MEDICINE took over four years to come to fruition. My next project, called Key and Vale for now, has been in development for over three years. This year's NaNoWriMo zero draft project is named Syren and has been baking for several years as well. And next year's Real Draft is RED ENVELOPE HUSBAND, the zero draft of which I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2019.
I often pants these zero drafts . . . and then do not use the material when I write the first draft. This happened with Key and Vale (NaNoWriMo 2018) and the BITTER MEDICINE zero draft (2015-2016?). And I will pants that first draft, too, all because the preparatory work has been done by writing the zero draft. Each successive draft gets tighter because I don't pants my edit process, and there does come a time where you have to stop pantsing and nail down your story elements, but even when I'm in edits, I write with a goal abstract enough ("make the reader feel sorry for this character") to give me enough room to improvise. Because that's just how I function.
So, pantsers, embrace it: you are improvisers, you are miracle workers, you are repositories of information. You are everything you learned and everything you love and your writing process is a wonderful chaos crucible, a cauldron of delight, the product of which you're excited to read.
What comes next?
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Mia is a musician, teacher, writer, editor, and occasional photographer whose formal education is in music, psychology, and pedagogy. She enjoys reading a lot, thinking while on long drives, finding songs for each moment, and snoozing with her cat.