Into the Land of the Great Unknown

When you’re a pantser, someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a formal outline, you’re taking a journey into The Land of the Great Unknown. You never know where a story will lead you, or even how long it’s going to be. Not for sure. I am reminded of that as I write two new stories in the same universe.

The first one, Island of Bones, was about as pantsy as it gets. Late afternoon of Friday, January 3, 2020, I was sitting at my table in the dealer room at Shadowcon, when a fellow writer, Rob Howell, asked if I would like to submit a story for a new anthology for which he was the editor. As I always do, I gave him my default answer, ‘hell yes!’ The only caveat? It was due in a week.


“No sweat!” I told him. ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ is what I said to myself.

So, sitting there at my table until it was time for the next panel, on the spot I started writing. As all pantsers probably know, the process of creating fiction with no prior planning, and doing it successfully, leans far closer to being alchemy than it does skill. It delves deep into the workings of the individual writers’ minds, so the process is never the same from writer to writer. At least, I don’t think it is.

Anyway, for me a story starts with a title. It isn’t absolutely necessary, but the writing goes much faster if I have a title to work from. The story for Rob’s anthology was sword and sorcery fantasy, with a heavy influence from Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan. In other words, it was right up my alley. I already had an award-winning story in need of sequels, and there was a time gap in the ones I had planned. That gap involved a sea voyage, and what goes better with a sea voyage than a bad storm and a mysterious island? Thus I started playing around with titles about storms and islands, and within a minute or so Island of Bones came into my mind. It fit nicely with the story right before, The Demon in the Jewel, and the one after, Beyond the Dead River.

The suggested length was 8k words, with a max of around 12k. So when you’re pantsing, how does that work? How do you plan a story to fit a certain length, without first working out the details?

Beats me. Somehow, it just happens. The first draft of the story wound up around 8,300 words. If you’re a writer, I realize that isn’t particularly useful information, since it isn’t something you can duplicate. But there is a lesson in all of this…I got stuck at about 2,000 words for a day or so. When you pants it, by definition you don’t know exactly the story is going, and sometimes your brain doesn’t fill in the blanks. So what then?

You write whatever words you have to write to keep things moving. It really is that simple, and that hard. See, the key for me is to keep the story moving. Even if you use placeholder prose to do it, keep it going. That’s what I did, I filled in a skeleton of the action and moved past it until I typed The End.

The story wound up at about 10,500 words. In other words, on the edit and re-write, I added 2,200 words in the places where I left placeholder prose. I’m vain enough to think the story is quite good and works well, but whether it is or isn’t, I had wrung every ounce of entertainment from it that I could.

I mentioned two stories at the beginning of this post. The second is The Demon in the Jewel, which is the direct sequel to A Night at the Quay. Demon has been in the works for almost two years. The initial burst got me about 3k words into it, and then…the downside of pantsing. My mind didn’t know where to go with it next. I’d thought it would be between 15-20k words when finished, but my inner self kept shaking off that idea. I got stuck repeatedly because I was consciously trying to force my sub-conscious to do what I told it to do.

Bad idea. When I finally allowed the story to come to me as it wanted, I discovered this wasn’t a novella, as were the previous three stories. It was a novel. So now it’s past 40k words and climbing. I keep getting stuck and I keep writing through it, just putting in placeholder prose until I can type The End, and then go back and edit.

Or let Gunnar do that. Gunnar is the editor/publisher of Dingbat Publishing, my first and still the main publisher of my books. As she has told me many times, my job is to write stories, her job is to do everything else. I get to send her first drafts, if I want to, but that’s a luxury that I’ll leave for a different time.

To sum up, as a pantser I get stuck quite often, because I haven’t planned where things are going. And yet I don’t let it bog me down because I have learned how to force my way through it. I can’t teach you a nifty method for doing this, because I don’t know any. The only advice I have is to force words out of your mind and into the story. Whether they are good or bad doesn’t matter, it’s the act of creating them in the first place that will see you through what some people call ‘writer’s block.’


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