Writing by the Seat of the Pants

Typically I plan my novels. I may not do it well or thoroughly, but I plan them. Usually I know where they start and where they will end, and a couple of high points along the way. Sometimes I know a whole lot more. I’ve never just jumped off the cliff and looked for water on the way down. If you follow that link, you’ll see Jay Lake talking about writing and that writing is an act of faith–faith in yourself that when you do jump off the writerly cliff, you will eventually hit water (i.e. and ending that works).

This is particularly meaningnful to me today because for the first time ever, I jumped off the writerly cliff without a clue as to where the novel was going. I prayed, I hoped, I dreamed, I wishe–that there would be water when I hit.

So far . . . no shiny glint of liquid and I have to tell you, I’m getting near the end. I don’t have a parachute and I’m getting nervous.

Oddly, I’m very happy with the progress of the novel. The characters are fun and have a lot of conflicts, the smaller story arcs are compelling and the larger arc is coming together. But. Those things haven’t pointed a way to the ending yet, which seems unreasonable to me. What am I missing?

I’m wondering if I made a mistake not trying to map this book out before I started. But I tried. It resisted. I know that sounds bizarre. But every time I went to plot it out, I couldn’t see what would come. I needed to write it to find it. And I have–so far. But I’m starting to feel just a little bit of panic.

By the time I post here again, I should either have an ending, or I will have snatched myself bald trying to figure one out. Or maybe both. Updates to follow.

In the meantime, all you pantsers out there–what do you do when you find yourself right around the corner from the end and still not knowing what that ending will be?

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    I don’t think I can help you. I’m like you; I need to plan. I have no faith that there will be water at the bottom of the cliff because there never has been before.

    I’ve always had to patch an ending together with what I had left after not planning as well as I’d thought. They come out okay, but not as great as I want them to be. I’m hoping planning will fix that in the next one.

  2. 2. S. Megan Payne

    When that happens initially, I simply accept that I’m not at the end. There comes a moment for me when everything suddenly, abruptly, and without further warning or ado, comes together and begins a headlong rush for the end that is quite simply, my best writing whatsoever.

    On some pieces, this moment never arrives, but everything’s flowing fine as I just keep moving forward and then suddenly I see that I’ve written to the end and I just go back and smooth things out a bit to make my readers feel the closure better.

    On rare occasions, I hit the moment where the end begins and it doesn’t want to come. I sit on it. I reread. I edit what came before. I drink it in and let it percolate and think it over in everything else I’m doing and then finally, roll through to the end.

    This is rare for me because most stories arrive in my head as a beginning first, then an ending, then smatterings in between. Then suddenly, they shoot out branches in all directions, outgrow themselves, and get COMPLICATED. Ah, I love writing.

  3. 3. green_knight

    So far, my subconscious has *always* managed to do well, and the only times it didn’t was when I was trying to force the story into something it did not want to be. (Outlines are bad for me.)

    This can be scary stuff – very scary stuff – but it *always* works out. I’ve developed my skills to the point where I might momentarily panic – but the seeds of the solution always _are_ there, even when I can’t see them.

    What you’re missing is probably a level of complexity. When the story is relatively linear, you can see the ending from a long way off. (And so can the reader – and this reader, at least, is bored by it.) When the story is a patchwork of subplots, and each of them are needed to bring the main arc to an end, this can be much harder to see. I’ve always found that if I go back and look at seemingly unnecessary subplots, I can usually work out why they’re needed. ‘This needs to happen because it sets in motion that which will eventually lead to x’ is a normal part of my process.

    As is the panic ;-)

  4. 4. MacDibble

    Somewhere in your story will be a clue about the ending. If you can’t see it when you fizzle out of story, take a break, run the first chapter by your critique friends ask them where they think it is going. Wonder why their answers are so odd. Then read it again looking for the clue. I’m sure you’ll see it.

  5. 5. Kim Sheard

    I fret, I worry, I work on something else, then *always* the spark of inspiration comes. Usually while I’m shopping or taking a walk or something totally unrelated, THE ANSWER drops from heaven, or the muses, or my subconcious or whatever.


    Trust your subconscious.

  6. 6. Raethe

    Towards the end of mine I started a list of all the conflicts I had that needed to be resolved, and the promises I’d made that I felt needed to be kept, so I could keep all that in the back of my mind as I wrote. I find it does inform my writing when I know what I need to do, even if I don’t explicitly know how to do it. Sometimes I list thematic concerns that I want to emphasize, which helps me get the “feel” right as well as the events.

    But yeah, other than that, it’s mostly writing up until you hit something that feels like a stopping point, and smoothing things over if you have to. That’s what I find, anyway.

    ‘Course, I pantsed the first 100k of my novel, and planned the last 60k, so maybe I don’t qualify as a pantser. Not full time anyway. ;)

  7. 7. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Adam: I aim to plan the next one too. Sigh.

    S Megan. I need to percolate FAST at this point. But I’m hopeful.

    green_knight: you may be right.

    Macdibble: planning the critique run.

    Kim: planning to dig in the garden today and hoping. If not then, then cleaning the bathrooms are up next . . .

    Raethe: I may try that method and see what I can come up with. This is my *only* pantsing effort. Hence my freaking out.

  8. 8. S. Megan Payne

    The fastest way I know to do it is to read it through from the beginning (but I’m a VERY fast reader). Then if I have to do ANYTHING else, I keep thinking about it, getting under the characters’ skins and seeing where they’re going. No other real tips. It requires some pretty proactive characters for the last part and good reading skills for the other.

  9. 9. Missy S

    Poor Di! Though I’m sure you’ll get to it. Somewhere there has to be a logical ending… you’ll resolve it with a bang, I’m sure. :)

  10. 10. Chrystoph

    Is it possible that the end of the Book is there, but the end of the Story is in another book?

    It is not as common to write this way as it used to be, but, in the middle of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for the saga to run to multiple books, while the various arcs played out in individual books.

    Kelly McCullough is doing that with Ravirn/Raven right now.

  11. 11. Jace

    My initial gut response: Keep Writing.
    Obviously your characters know where they are going, based on what you’ve said about your progress so far. These other responses also sound like good advice. I would definitely check your subplots and teases to make sure you have satisfied, them, but I really feel that falls more into the editing and rewriting process.

    I, too, mostly plan, but when it comes right down to it, all the planning in the world won’t write your novel. Writing is the only thing that will make it happen, so keep writing!

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    I’m a pantser, but I don’t start till I know the ending. At least the narrative ending. It’s the middle part where I drive blind.


  1. Writing By The Seat Of The Pants Part II at SF Novelists

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



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