7 Common Problems in Pantsing—and how to fix them

I’m an organic writer first, planner second. I think it’s important to not stifle your muse on the first outing, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable, intimidated, or overwhelmed. The most important part of the journey, for any writer, is to finish a story before we worry about how it is written, all the things that need to be fixed.

If we worry too much about how the rough draft is written, we are less likely to finish. I’ve seen it too many times in clients that come to me for help.

Listen – if you’re a writer who is having a hard time getting past the idea of writing something stinky, think of it like this: The first draft is exactly that – the FIRST draft. It’s okay if it’s messy and filled with plot holes and too many characters. Think about your first crush, or your first time behind the wheel, or your first skiing experience – how did things turn out for you? Did you screw up, at least once? Of course you did. And what did you do next?

You probably tried again. (Unless you’re me on skis, and then you’d be smart to give it up entirely.)

Important for writers to try again even after a lousy draft

It’s okay if your first draft makes you want to chew glass. This setback doesn’t mean you’re a failure at writing. It just means you’re still making that journey. Chill out, grab a refreshment, and read this post to see if any of the following issues are in your book. Then get ready to make the changes to help you tighten and ignite your writing.

Surplus of Characters

When we’re pantsing, we don’t stop to think about how one character can take on more than one role. Rather, we create a slew of characters to handle certain roles and responsibilities because we’re more focused on the CONFLICT and making sure that things are happening.

FIX: Try assigning at least two roles per character and cut your cast. Your scenes will be tighter, and your characters will be given more dimension because they are doing more.

Dialogue

Dialogue scenes are a great tool for authors to relay information, reveal a secret, or introduce backstory. Writing natural-sounding dialogue takes practice, and you’ll find that you probably wrote longer stretches of dialogue than necessary.

FIX: Take into account the personality and motivation of the characters speaking. Don’t state the obvious. Use body language, business, and dialogue tags to break up the monotony of speech.

Using Someone Else’s Work to Boost Yours

I’m not referring to plagiarism. Rather, I’m referring to a common usage of famous quotations as chapter sub-headings. Beginning writers tend to rely on famous quotes to illustrate theme or character motivation.

FIX: Scrap the Hemingway and Lincoln quotes—tune into your characters and write from their hearts to get the story across. If you’re using famous quotes to underscore theme, try literary devices instead: symbolism, metaphor, and others can do wonders for a drab piece of writing.

Weak Opening

This is a big one, because fixing it often means major rewrites. Weak openings usually happen when the story starts with your main character thinking. Readers want to meet the main character in the middle of something important.

 

FIX: Turn the thinking scene into an action scene, or start your story in a different place, where something more interesting is happening. All that thinking can be merged into the draft in another spot.

Over-Indulgence

This is hard for me to talk about because I’m afraid it could hurt a writer’s feelings. But it’s got to be said. Beginning writers tend to over-indulge themselves with their words. On one level, this is great! It means you’re enjoying yourself and enjoying your story. But fluff doesn’t belong in the finished product.

FIX: Read out loud to yourself. Read the whole enchilada and highlight any section that sounds over the top, drags on for too long, feels redundant or unnecessary, or simply doesn’t belong. This will take practice and maybe even an honest yet supportive beta reader to help you flush out all that fluff.

The Details

Most of the manuscripts that I have worked on are either choking with extraneous detail or have no detail at all. Authors need to find that happy medium, and it’s often tough to do when you’re pantsing, because more than likely, if you’re pantsing, you don’t know what your details are yet.

Haggling over details in your first draft is the kiss of death

FIX: Create lists that you can refer to as you do your rewrites. If you didn’t decide ahead of time what your characters look like, take the time before revising to figure that information out. Every scene should include 2+ senses. Keep track of weather patterns: if it rains on Tuesday, then the patio chairs will be wet on Wednesday–a weather timeline is extremely helpful in stories that might undergo a lot of changes in seasons, weather, or in Fantasies where the weather is supposed to be wonky.

Inner Story

If you’re writing a positive change character arc or negative change character arc, then your major and minor characters who play specific roles must evolve over the course of the book (positively or negatively, depending on their individual arcs). People always change, for the better or worse, in response to experiences, and this needs to come through in your book if your character(s) is/are affected.

One caveat–flat arc. Some characters won’t change at all, but this really needs to be a conscious decision made by you before you even begin to write. There are few instances where characters will remain fairly unchanged from beginning to end, but those instances need to be substantiated in some way, and written believably so that readers will buy it.

FIX: Make sure each character who has a significant role has a significant GOAL and that there is an OBSTACLE in his/her way. Have the character respond/react to the difficulty in achieving the goal.

KEEP IN MIND—these aren’t the only issues a pantsed first draft will have. But they are the most common. Expect to tend to a whole slew of issues when you go back to rewrite. When we are aware that major rewrites are part of the deal, we’ll handle things more gracefully.

What first-draft pitfall do you usually struggle with? Any listed above, or something else entirely?

Have a writerly day, y’all!

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20 thoughts on “7 Common Problems in Pantsing—and how to fix them

  1. I’m sure this is where I struggle – after the initial panster splurge (sounds like another potty problem) the story inevitably stalls. Now I’m learning I can actually structure and plot even after s first draft has been pantsed. I’m currently going through a ten year old novel that got stodged, writing a beat sheet to see where things are slow or dull, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We gotta cut out these potty problems!

      I do love the initial creative flow to putting a story on the page–it’s a high for me. But I have learned that if I don’t at least have a firm ending in mind (not necessarily how I’ll accomplish it, but that I know that somehow the good guys will find the treasure and save the princess, for instance), then I can write in that direction.

      Yes! You can pants first and plot second. I would most definitely say that it helps to take the time to plot before trying to revise the pantsed draft. For example, your rough/first draft is pantsed. Then your second draft should be plotted out with beginning, middle, end, and two major turning points. Then rewrite with that in mind for your third draft.

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    • It’s all good, Robin! I still commit these mistakes, even though I know they’ll cause me heartburn down the road. The key is knowing that they need to be fixed early on, like, second draft-early, before the story becomes too involved and what could have been easy fixes ultimately turn into major overhauls.

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  2. Fantastic rundown here Kate. I’m a bit of both, a plotser, as I like to call it. I write from the seat of my pants with a rough outline made up with chapters I want to cover. But it may be different for nonfiction writing than fiction. I should think it’s easier to pants away in fiction. 🙂

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    • Haha, yes, I do both now too (I learned my lesson!), and I call it “plontsing,” which I wrote about somewhere on this blog, methinks. I found the best of both pantsing and plotting worlds and combined them to help me write drafts without feeling like I’m spinning my wheels.

      I think this strategy works for both fiction and non-fiction (as I write both). I think pantsing is easier in general because you don’t stop and think about it. You simply write what you want to write. Fun, yet dangerous! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • After floundering for blog post topics and hitting a brick wall on the writing, I realized this Spring that the blog had to go on hiatus (and most of my reading and commenting on others) until I found my way back into that “writing groove.” I may be getting there—finally—with that first novel again…. We’ll see! 🙂

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      • I hear you about the blog getting in the way of the novel. It’s happened to me countless times. I don’t think there’s an easy, foolproof solution. Taking breaks is smart, and at least you know with this community, no one will hold it against you. When you feel ready to post again, you know we’ll all be there to read and comment! 🙂

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  3. A common pitfall is thinking that the story has to start off looking like the Fourth of July on steroids. Naturally, you want a strong opening…but not over the top and certainly not something that doesn’t rhyme with the rest of the story as a result.

    Love the post, 4am. Dossiers are a great idea, for sure.

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  4. As per usual, this is a great post with lots of great advice, Kate. I’ve done all of these things at one time or another in my story-writing “career.” The good news for anyone besides Kate reading this comment: with practice (and/or rewrites), you can avoid all of these plot-falls. 🙂

    Like dgkaye above, I consider myself a plotser. I always have at least a rough idea of where a story is going to go, but I try not to get hung up on following an outline. One of the most enjoyable parts of writing, for me, is letting the characters develop their own voices so they can tell me where they want to go. More than once, I’ve had a character hijack their own plot that way…and I daresay the story ended up stronger for it, in the end. It’s always been much more fulfilling to allow a character to lead the plot, rather than to simply be a function of it.

    Agreed that it’s important for characters to have at least one major conflict that helps them grow (or shrivel) over the course of the story, but I don’t think *every* character’s conflict has to be soul-shattering, especially characters in the supporting cast. I like all of my characters’ personalities to come through, and, naturally, the best way to do that is by having them go through some sort of change, but it’s the principal cast whose conflicts really need to come through. Of course, every character is the star of their own story…we just don’t write all of those stories in a single telling.

    Your second, third, fourth draft message is especially important to remember while we’re in that roller-coaster first draft phase. I’m a firm believer in finishing the first draft, even if you know it has issues, because those issues will be a lot easier to find, see, and resolve once you’ve got the beginning, middle, and ending. Those parts might – probably will – change on an edit, but at least you’re working from a jumping-off point higher up the ladder. 🙂

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    • Great comment, Mayumi, and thanks for adding in some more thoughts last night on #museflychat. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you!

      I consider myself, now, a “plontser,” which as I mentioned to Debby (commenter above), I believe I wrote about on this blog at some point. I’ll have to look for it. At any rate, after having pantsed for so long, I finally figured out that I should combine the best of pantsing and plotting to come up with my own strategy. It’s been a huge help for me. I still get to indulge in the creative highs of pantsing while maintaining some control over where the story goes.

      Right, third-tiered characters don’t need to evolve the way first- or second-tiered characters do, but it’s good to remember if they have any kind of influence at all (a bagger in a grocery store would not have influence unless he plants the stolen jewels in the MC’s groceries, for example) then he/she needs to be treated with a little more attention. Otherwise, that character should probably not be named, described, or given any kind of important role. An exception to this is mysteries or detective novels, where authors rely on red herrings, many of which are those characters that shouldn’t be important but might be!

      Having said all of that, I always critique stories on an individual basis, regardless of the “rules” out there. I have to take into account the “feel” of a story when I offer feedback on major story elements, such as character development. I am well-aware that the “rules” or “guidellines” that I like to follow can be negated by how the story is written, through tone and voice and writing style. That’s why, I think, there are so many published novels out there that prove a rule can be successfully broken!

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      • Elmore Leonard comes to mind as a writer who broke a lot of standard rules but wove some standout stories, mostly for the *way* he told them. I’ve found I can much more easily forgive – and even forget! – broken rules if the story sucks me in.

        I admit to guilt when it comes to detailing tertiary/incidental characters. For example, I’ve got a first-tier protag in my sci-fi story who interacts with a few folks around town whom she knows and addresses by name, and they get a sentence or two of backstory as they relate to the protag. After that scene, though, they are never seen or heard from again; I just enjoy the way their (small) characterizations contrast or highlight the protag’s situation and motivation. I guess I need a good editor to tell me to cut ’em, huh? 😉

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      • Strong writing trumps all!

        As you describe the slip of backstory associated with your tertiary characters, you might not have to do much cutting, if at all. Not having read it, I can only say that if the backstory is directly related to the MC, then it might very well be important and worth keeping in there. Backstory that doesn’t explain anything, offer clues, or move the story forward is generally pointless. However, if it affects your MC in a significant way, then it does serve a purpose. 🙂

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  5. as you can see, I am finally catching up with yours (and everyone else’s) blogs! wow! I am gobsmacked – we work in practically identical ways! I always plan as much as I can for the first draft, but always find new ideas/problems crop up. so I just make notes on how I think they should be incorporated when I do the 2nd draft. never heard of pantsing before – but love the expressions! yes – first drafts – just write! 2nd draft – get it right – tinkering is a perfect way of describing it!

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