Pantsing, Plantsing, Planning & Proficiency

After having finished nineteen books over a period of thirteen years, with questionable success in marketing them, I am taking a needed break from writing. It’s a shame, as I feel as though I have just achieved some level of mastery over my art. To fill the creative gap, I have taken up (very amateurish) painting. Here’s a recent messterpiece.

“Impression: Boardwalk” oil on canvas paper, 2022

As I implied, I am just a beginner. However, being a novice painter has allowed me time to consider the ways that visual arts are similar to writing. The media are different, but the stages are the same. There is planning, either via detailed plans or a rough outline; blocking-in (first drafts), editing, refinement, and completion. There are, of course, many smaller stages in between, but these are roughly the steps both arts go through.

While struggling with recent paintings, including one I have taken to call the “Queen,” I began to see for the first time why so many young writers embrace “pantsing.” For those unfamiliar with the term, pantsing is the practice of writing by the seat of one’s pants, i.e., without a plan or an outline. As a natural planner, I have never seen the logic of doing so. However, after planning, drafting, transferring the sketch, beginning to paint and then thoroughly botching the Queen, I finally understood. Planning is easy; however, executing a plan takes proficiency.

I reacted to my failed attempt in the normal way. I had a meltdown. The Queen spent a couple of days in the trash bin beside my house, and then, after my artist wife objected (we do not throw away paintings, apparently), the Queen spent the next few weeks in the garage. After realizing that as a retiree and semi-retired writer I had literally nothing else to do at home but paint, I decided to see if I could improve. I started over, measured the key parts of the sketch I’d made and found where I went astray. I then fixed my plan–the drawing, that is, this time carefully measuring and deciding beforehand what colors worked better than my original drawing. Her face was crooked, but now I knew how to fix her.

I also learned, from working on other, simpler paintings, that my original setup was wrong. The canvas was too high, and without some critical equipment, I had no way of keeping my hands steady. Besides, none of that mattered because my drawing– essentially, the outline of the work–was wrong. You see, knowing how to plan your work takes proficiency. As an artist, you must learn and practice how to draw, how to see and imitate shapes, how to handle shadow, light, color, and any number of other elements. You cannot make an executable plan if you know nothing about how executing the plan works.

Writing is no different. Before you can effectively plot out a novel, you have to know a LOT about the craft. You need to understand character development, how to create tension, how to pace your novel so that you can affect your reader’s emotional experience while keeping them engaged. You must deal with structure–both of the book and within chapters. Each piece of the book must be carefully crafted: action/reaction, rising and falling tension, character growth and execution of plot points.

Guess what? You can’t do that without learning how. As a self-taught everything, I advocate learning on your own, but classes are good too if you don’t mind other writers’ sniping at you. Reading helps … some, but writing and editing is better. Just like a novice painter needs to start small, like learning how to draw and working up to small paintings, so should a newbie writer first learn to tell a small story before tackling 90,000 words that are supposed to make sense.

Want to know why writing 90,000 words is hard? Because your brain will often want to write 110,000 instead. An outline will tell you which bits don’t belong in your book just as a color sketch will tell you where your planned drawing is off.

That’s the Queen, slowly getting her proportions fixed. Still a ways to go on her face. This is what pantsing looks like … hours and hours of editing. If you don’t have an editor, your pantsing won’t work.

With time and practice, your skills will improve. I suggest future novelists start with short fiction in order to develop their voice and get a feel for character and storytelling. A 3,000 to 5,000-word story is just long enough to tackle a couple of writing elements at a time, say, character and a simple plot. Having mastered that, you will have learned enough, especially during editing, to develop simple plots for longer works.

One need never plunge all the way into the deep end of the planning pool. I am a planner when I write. My outlines in the past were detailed enough that any ghost writer could have written a novel from them. With time, they’ve become longer, though less detailed and more flexible. Why longer? Because I brainstorm each chapter before writing it. I can do that because I have a feel for structure and pacing such that I no longer have to plan them overtly. Instead, I can start writing via my outline. I know the ending before I start, but sometimes it changes during the writing process. It is the equivalent of planning for a classical painting, but after some stray brush strokes, deciding you like the impressionist style better. A good outline lets you do that.

Imagine doing the reverse. I can’t see your changing a Picasso-like cubist portrait into realistic in mid-stream, but that is what inexperienced pantsers try to do with their novels.

Remember, a plan isn’t a prison. While María’s sketch of her Spanish street scene has key elements she won’t deviate from (the compositional structure) she could easily make ten different paintings from it, were she insane enough to try to. I can take my past outlines and write different books from them. If I want, I can write the chapters out of order, move things around, or decide that a new character will now do what I originally thought my hero might do. I don’t, but I could. #I’mAnal

These are choices, the life’s blood of all artists. However, good art requires your having made good choices. With enough experience, you will find you can “pants” a story from the briefest of outlines. I wrote my sci-fi novel, Year 5601, in 17 days, because I already knew how to write. (It was my 16th book). I had spent one day on the outline. Some of María’s impromptu paintings are masterful. That, however, is based on her having started at age 3.

I can write a short story that’ll make you cry in a day, based only on a two-word prompt. I’ve written over two million words of fiction, however. It gets easier with practice. Loads easier. Old writers who tell you it never gets easier? Either they are lying or they’re doing it wrong.

Here’s a 2-word prompt: General Bun

Pants to your heart’s content, but learn the craft first. Try planning, just enough to know what your tricky points will be, and once you are approaching mastery, pantsing, planning or plantsing (the stage in between the two) are yours to implement as you see fit. Proficiency creates innovation, not the other way round.


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