Fiction, life, Writing

Pants on the ground and the brain

September 20, 2022

Two pairs of pants on hangars.
Photo by Mica Asato on

My name is Dave and I’m a recovering pantser. This has nothing to do with my fashion sense, which doesn’t exist. It definitely isn’t about sex either. But please keep reading anyway.

A “pantser” is one of the two main species of fiction writers, the people who write by the seat of their pants: when they begin a story, they’re not certain where it might lead or how it will end. “Once I get about 300 pages into the manuscript, and still don’t know, I have to stop and figure out how it ends, which [ending] is the most interesting and exciting,” said Elmore Leonard, who’s one of my heroes. “That’s the fun of it. I don’t worry if I will come up with an ending. I will.”

The other kind of writer is the “plotter,” who, as the name implies, figures things out in advance. They prepare thorough outlines and often use flow charts or storyboards detailing each scene, every plot twist, and all the motivations of the characters.

Probably because of my background in journalism, where you’re always writing and updating on the fly, I was a natural pantser when I plunged into my first (and so far unpublished) novel. It worked fine until I got to the ending, which was a big honking blank page. The final version features a hurricane, gunshots, a romantic episode, and a brawl inside a giant fiberglass whale. Does it work? I believe so. Would it have been better with more planning? I’m sure of it.

In addition to changing my writing style, I’m determined to purge pantsing from other areas of my life. I made this decision after my less than meticulous tracking of the chemicals in our backyard pool led to a chlorine overload that would snuff a T-Rex, and a buildup of some troublesome stuff called cyanuric acid or CYA.

The only way to get rid of CYA is to drain small amounts from the pool, refill it, test the water, and repeat as necessary. Drain, refill, test, start again. I’ve done this a half-dozen times, each episode requiring some trips up and down the stairs. My legs are sore and my brain is half past dead, but sometimes we learn the hard way. What’s important is that we do learn.

I chalk it up to “Life 101,” which is the name of a wonderful song by Rick and Jilda Watson. Rick, who left us much too soon, also used “Life 101” as the title of his newspaper column in Alabama. However, there’s another tune that sounds as if it was written just for this post. So I’ll leave you with Lyle Lovett and his band playing, “Pants Is Overrated.”


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