I recently left the house and someone asked what kind of writer I was. I told them I was the kind that preferred to stay home. I didn’t tell them why—to avoid questions such as that. The person followed up by saying, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?” Not only did I fail to understand the question, I also misheard the second option as “plodder.” Yes, I said, that was my approach. I just plodded along, writing my average of one page per day.
Later I went home and googled the question. It turns out that “pantser” refers to someone who writes by the seat of their pants, meaning they don’t plan ahead with detailed outlines. The origin of the term “fly by the seat of your pants” comes from a pilot named Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, who left New York for California and wound up in Ireland. He’d discarded his flight plan and lacked a radio. His twenty-year-old compass broke en route. Yes, I realized, that’s exactly how I preferred to write—flying blind with no instruments and no plan. I write by the seat of my pants. Maybe my next book will wind up in Ireland and I’ll be known as Wrong Way Offutt!
I believe this approach creates a tension on the page and a certain excitement for me. Before starting Shifty’s Boys I had an idea that the murder victim in the opening would be a character from its prequel, The Killing Hills. Of course, I didn’t know who! I just placed the unidentified body, then jumped to the protagonists, Mick Hardin and his sister, Sheriff Linda Hardin. Later, Mick was in his sister’s house when someone knocked at the door. I truly had no idea who it was—I was pantsing—but the scene needed a new character and the story needed to get rolling. The person at the door turned out to be the brother of the murder victim who wanted Mick’s help. Perfect! Mick always helps anyone when he can.
A third of the way into the book I had another murder victim, standard for the genre. The problem was that, as a recently self-identified pantser, I didn’t know who had killed either person—or why. It put Mick in an investigative pickle, which is always good for a protagonist, but my own personal pickle was greater—I’d painted myself into a veritable corner. My solution was to introduce a new character and a couple of long scenes in the hopes that as I wrote, I’d figure it out. I’d pants my way out of the pickle! This mirrors my approach in general—if I both entertain and surprise myself on the page, the book will do the same for a reader.
Mick does manage to get to the bottom of things. Each time he learns something, it’s fresh information for the reader and me. In this cavalier way I wrote my way to the conclusion but I still lacked “an ending.” I pantsed that out, too.
Over the years I’ve tried writing outlines for other books. I wrote brief synopses that I expanded with more and more detail, even scraps of dialogue. It was great fun because it didn’t matter. It wasn’t “real.” I was merely writing what I imagined I might later write. It didn’t even have to be good! Eventually I ran into a problem. As soon as I began working on the book from the extended outline, I became supremely bored. It felt like the tedious act of filling in a coloring book. Having expended my creativity on the outline, I lost interest in the project.
The only success I’ve had with outlines has been for screenwriting, a completely different form. Over the years I wrote eleven screenplays, mostly for TV but also short film and feature. Writing a screenplay is like drafting an architect’s blueprint for a building that only exists in one’s mind. The final result is a stunning structure that bears no resemblance to the drawing. A good script is a document that addresses all aspects of production, such as props, location, hair & makeup, set decoration, and transportation. Then a team of a hundred or so strangers takes that document and makes something for another group of strangers to watch on a screen.
Writing a screenplay is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with a few notable exceptions—you don’t have the original image to go by, there are no edge pieces to begin with, and you have to cut the interlocking pieces as you go. To top it off, the length has to be extremely precise. Scenes in the outline served as puzzle pieces that I could easily discard or refigure to latch together with other sections. Writing by the seat of my pants never worked with a screenplay.
In my effort to learn the origin of my pantsing, I turned to the repository of childhood. Our family kitchen had an electric stove with an array of buttons for controlling heat—extra-low, low, medium, medium-high, high, and extra-high. I discerned a relationship between the letters on the buttons and the intensity of heat. My mother explained the alphabet. At age five I taught myself to read other kitchen items: sugar, flour, salt, Jif, Kraft, Velveeta, etc. It was not a formal approach to learning to read. It was pantsing!
At age seven I wrote my first short story. I no longer recall what prompted the undertaking, perhaps my standard boredom with school that lasted through college. (I dropped out of high school once and college twice.) My mother saved the story, written in block letters on large-lined paper with hash marks to indicate the height of lower-case letters. At the time I’d skipped past kids’ picture books and was reading comic books and YA novels. Here is the story in its entirety, as written. The only aspect I remember is that the title and protagonist were an inversion of Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. I was quite proud of that!
April 13, 1966, Age 7
In a little village called Bubbletown there lived a man named Kenny Clark. One day when Kenny was going to the store one of his friends came running up to him. Said he to Kenny, “People are coming to kill you!”
He ran back to the house, got his pistol, got in his car and took off. Meanwhile the killers were on their way to Kenny’s house. When they found out that Kenny was gone, they got in the car just in time to see Kenny’s car turn the corner. So they took up the chase.
Kenny looked back and saw the killers so he whipped out his gun. When he had turned his head a bullet hit his tire. Then he saw that he could not drive. He stopped his car and jumped out. The killers were close behind so they started shooting. Kenny started shooting too.
He put a bullet in their tire. But they did not get out of their car like Kenny did. Kenny shot two of the three. The third one sneaked up on him and they had fight! Here are the sounds they made as they fought.
Zoc pow bif bang boom aahhhh!
And Kenny won.
He changed his tire and put the killers in the back seat. He got in the car and went to the Police Station and told them of his adventures. When he got home his friend asked what became of the killers, so Kenny told him and Kenny lived happily ever after.
The story was not revised, of course, and includes only one erasure. In the second grade, I was already pantsing! What interests me now is that “Kenny Clark” is a crime narrative. In fact, it contains many of themes that I continued to use in my novels. Threat. Flight. Pursuit. Violence. And a satisfying ending.
Most dismaying to me are the similarities of language, particularly the use of “got” as a verb. “Kenny Clark” contains four instances of “got in the car.” I ran a search on the manuscript of Shifty’s Boys and discovered fifteen usages of the same phrase—got in the car or got out of the car. I’m hesitant to draw the obvious conclusion for fear of what it says about me. In fifty-six years of writing, there has been little evolution. Everything is still set in the Bubbletown of where I grew up. The narratives still revolve around an armed individual against a superior force. Mick Hardin continues to live happily ever after, more or less. And I’m still pantsing my way through the joy of writing.