Riding the Pantser Tank

Famously there are two kinds of novelists, plotters and pantsers. Plotters are those who work out the plot in great detail ahead of time, outlining everything to within in an inch of its life. P.G. Wodehouse, for example, was a plotter par excellence: he'd put each scene on a card and pin them to a board, moving them around until the farce played out just precisely the way he wanted it. And then there are the pantsers, who write "by the seat of their pants" and discover the shape of the story in the writing of it. (If you Google "plotters and pantsers" you'll find an amazing collection of links describing this phenomenon, including self-help guides for pantsers who want to be plotters and (somewhat surprisingly) vice-versa.)

Me, I'm a pantser all the way, as I recently rediscovered all over again while trying to get started on the sequel to Vikings at Dino's.

See, I wrote Vikings at Dino's to find out what was going to happen. I was walking to a local burger joint to get some lunch and do some studying; and on the way I got the yen to start a new novel. I wanted to start with a situation that was bizarre and inexplicable, and then somehow make it all make sense. And I thought…what if a guy was having lunch and a horde of Vikings crashed in, kicking butt and taking heads? What would he do? Where did the Vikings come from? And then what? And I was off. I've spent considerable time polishing that first scene, but quite a few of the original words remain.

And after that initial scene it was all about seeing where it led—and what ultimately happened to Michael Henderson surprised me quite a bit. I often had some ideas about where I was going, but many of the best elements emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the process of composition. I call it riding the Pantser Tank: you're tearing through the landscape, bashing your way through obstacles…and you never know what the treads will uncover.

I wrote Vikings at Dino's several years ago. My family wanted a sequel immediately, but I'd never been able to come up with an idea that I liked. The problem was, I knew too much. I knew the characters inside and out, and in planning a sequel I was trying to figure out what would make logical sense as an extension of the original story. I was trying, in fact, to be a plotter, and figure it all out ahead of time, based on what I already knew; and somehow, nothing every got written.

But then I got Vikings at Dino's into print, and several people immediately asked me for a sequel; and my kids added their voices to that, and I said, "OK, I need to get down to business. How can I do that?"

The answer turned out to be simple. Instead of trying to figure out the plot—instead of trying to be the plotter I manifestly am not—I needed to put Michael Henderson and his friends into a situation…and then let them be themselves, and find out in the writing what the story was going to be. In short, I needed to climb back into the Pantser Tank and let it roll.

At the same time, the new story needed to follow from the old one; I couldn't begin with a completely empty slate. So I picked a problem that Michael was bound to run into, and put him in a scene in which he'd already run into it. I had no idea, at first, how he got into the situation, or how he'd get out of it, but I knew I could ride the tank to victory. And then a new character popped up to help him in the first paragraph, and a couple of chapters later he refused to go away…and there I was, bubbling with new ideas and going great guns. I'm now over 50,000 words into it, and discovering new things about my characters and their world every time I sit down to write.

In short, I'm having a blast.

photo credit: King Tiger via photopin (license)

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