When I started writing The Last Princess with my daughter, I considered myself to be what is known in the writerly vernacular as a “pantser.” No, this is not a reference to a popular fraternity activity; it is, in fact, a very common approach to writing for many very prolific authors. It means to write by the seat of one’s pants, or in other words without an outline or a firm direction. It’s kind of like working without a net.
As time went on and we moved further into our story the way forward began to materialize, and a plot developed. Mind you, this technique isn’t for everyone and standing, as I am, at the other end of a nearly complete novel, I don’t think I would feel comfortable doing it this way again. Ordinarily I love structure. I crave it. I make little shrines to it with matching pen and pencil sets and monogrammed notebooks, and the like. Structure is safe, friendly, familiar. Absence of structure is alien and scary. But when we started this project I only knew I wanted to write a middle grade novel with certain characters and a very basic idea for a storyline, and I knew if I didn’t just start putting some words on the page I was never going to be quite ready to begin.
Sort of like having children.
But here’s the thing about pantsing: sometimes the very best ideas come from chaos, from that unstructured morass of random thought. Sometimes you have to defy structure to find the magic in the universe. Let me give you some examples.
Are you familiar with Star Trek – the Next Generation? That show was developed with a great deal of structure; you have to have a lot of structure in place for an on-going television series, particularly a hard science fiction series with a large cast and established technologies. But the character of Worf, the Klingon bridge officer was a last-minute addition, thrown in on a whim. And Worf has been in more episodes than any other character from any of the Star Trek franchise.
You’ve seen Despicable Me? The minions are the best part, right? What would Gru be without his minions? Thrown in at the last minute.
Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame sparked a movement largely based on a personal anecdote she tacked on to the beginning of her famous TED talk speech at the last minute.
What the universe is telling is: you can’t plan a Eureka Moment.
In The Last Princess, while I was pantsing chapter 2, I needed to invent a best friend for the main character, and on a whim I decided to make her rich and pretty. At the time the only reason for this was because I wanted her to have access to lots of make-up samples and scarves and gloves and such for all of the girls to do makeovers. There was no plan any further than the end of that paragraph and justifying the mechanics of the scene.
Now that we’re nearing the end of the novel, the complex relationship between Cat and Rose is one of the primary driving forces behind Cat’s thoughts and actions. In fact, the way Cat sees herself in comparison to Rose is the main reason she chooses the hero’s path and triumphs in the end.*
So embrace the unknown. Make a wild brush-stroke in an unrelated color, pound out a discordant note, pinch in an extra ingredient. You never know what you’ll end up with. In the course of writing you novel you will delete and rewrite thousands of words or sentences or entire scenes, so don’t be afraid of trying something that may not work. But that spark of magic that turns the mundane into the exciting? You can’t always plan that.
NEWSFLASH: We’re getting close to finishing the first draft of The Last Princess. If you would like to sign up to be a beta reader, please use the “Beta Reader Sign-Ups” tab at the top of this page.
*Sorry for the spoiler, but did you doubt it?