The Joys

and Hazards

of Pantsing

I learned a new word this week, “pantsing.” Before I tell you what it means, let me share a horror story.

I heard it twenty years ago, during my new-hire teacher orientation (I taught high school science for eleven years). The workshop leader was a veteran math teacher who exuded authority and experience. She went over the do’s and don’ts of teaching – do call parents early with concerns, don’t buy shopping cart fulls of beer in town. She was heavy-handed on the “high ethical standards” required for the job. This was the rural south, after all.

Mostly, she gave tips for classroom management – ways to keep the wild wolf pack from eating you alive. At the time, I didn’t know just how much I’d need her advice. This is what she said happened during her first year of teaching:

“I was standing at the overhead projector in front of the class, wearing a wrap skirt, low heels, and a blouse. You need to dress professionally; it helps gain student respect.” She eyed us meaningfully – high standards, ya’ll.

“I wrote a math equation on the transparency sheet, then I turned around to face the class. Somehow, my skirt got caught on the projector, and as I spun, my whole skirt just came right off. I was standing there, in front of my class, in my underwear, and there was not a thing I could do about it. I never got that class back.”

I was too green to know what she meant by “I never got that class back,” but it stuck in my mind; it’s there still. The way she said it, it sounded like the worst thing that could possibly happen to a teacher. She lost her leader lady composure for a moment, just talking about it so many years later.

We prospective teachers lost our composure, too. It was hilarious; we all laughed. That’ll never happen to me!

Except, it did.

I was demonstrating a yoga move. I was a recent yoga covert, and a student had asked about downward-facing dog. I said I’d do it for a second at the end of class if they finished their work – stir up some yoga awareness and appreciation.

I, too, was wearing a blouse. An untucked blouse, loose-fitting and flowy, with nothing underneath but a bra. I failed to take that into consideration. That shirt flew up over my head, and they all saw me in my underwear. I never got that class back. It’s just as horrifying as Mrs. Math made it sound.

This week, I’m participating in Fantasy Writer’s Week at ProWritingAid. I like to write magical realism (they’re calling it curio fiction, which sounds very British) – reality with a hint of magic or supernatural elements as opposed to full-on dragon quests and fairy realms (but those are cool, too).

The workshop is unexpectedly informative and enjoyable. It’s unexpected because it’s free. Rarely is something free so worthwhile. I especially enjoyed an interview with the author of The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang.

And I learned the term “pantsing.” It’s not when someone sneaks up behind you and pulls your pants down. Well, it is, but it’s also when you write “by the seat of your pants,” without much outlining or other plotting and planning.

I’m a pantser. I get an idea and just start writing, continuing on until I run out of the idea. Often, I get a ways in then have to stop, scrap what I wrote, and start again. This may happen many times. The final product is still a mess, but now it’s a long mess that I’m emotionally invested in and don’t want to change.

If nothing else, this workshop is leading me to believe that it may be time to think ahead – check that my shirt is tucked in before I flip upside down for an audience, put a knot in my wrap skirt before twirling in circles.

You know, so I don’t get pantsed again.



I’m sleeping with the enemy.

I’m a tree-hugger, and my husband builds roads. I’ve been looking for the smoking gun online – some article or data that identifies road construction as the #1 cause of deforestation, but all I can find is this quote:

“The best thing you could do for the Amazon is to bomb all the roads.” Dr. Eneas Salati, Technical Director, Brazilian Institute for Sustainable Development

Sounds like some Monkey Wrench Gang -type sabotage to me.

My friend Suzanne recently pointed out that roads are tree graveyards and asked this pernicious question: “What if trees could come back and haunt those who cut them down?”

I think I found member #2 of my monkey wrench gang.

Now, I don’t want trees haunting my husband, but there’s something about sentient plants that captures the imagination.

Certainly, the nicest of all must be The Giving Tree (don’t cry). All the other plant people are real jerks in comparison.

There’s Audrey II, from the Little Shop of Horrors. She’s no Giving Tree. But she wasn’t vengeful, just hungry. “Feed me, Seymour!”

There’s the Ents (thus the name of this post), from the Lord of the Rings, who definitely were out for revenge. Did you see what they did to Saruman? The Ents’ job was to protect the other trees – guardians of the forest.

Which is different from the Guardians of the Galaxy, who also have an alien supertree – Groot. He can only say “I am Groot,” but he can transform from potted plant to fighting giant at a moment’s notice. What wouldn’t I give to fling a potted plant at my enemies and have it turn into a superhero?

In Little, Big, a novel I read for the fifth or so time recently, one character turns into a tree at the end – he becomes so slow, so rooted in his landscape, so indifferent and chill, that he just leafs right out and never moves again. We’ve all been there.

Another good book with woodland mythology is Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, a fantasy novel set in a forest inhabited by mythological creatures. It won the World Fantasy Award (like Little, Big ) in 1985.

There’s the Green Man (rarely do you see tree women), legendary symbol of spring rebirth from multiple cultures, gracer of garden gates and old churches, leaves in his hair and mouth pouring water.

And there’s the Wild Man or woodwose/wodewose/wodwo. He’s hairy, like Bigfoot, reverting to nature with vines in his hair, dirt under his nails. As in the poem “Going Wodwo” by Neil Gaiman, in his story collection Fragile Things that I’m reading right now. Here’s an excerpt (because I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share more):

“I’ll leave the way of words to walk the wood
I’ll be the forest’s man, and greet the sun,
And feel the silence blossom on my tongue
like language.”

The other day, I was sitting quietly at the park with my kids and found myself admiring a well-shaped juniper tree. I thought, she has really nice hair.

And so it begins.

Writing with Kids

I just finished Writer Mama by Christina Katz, a how-to for moms launching their writing careers. It was more targeted at nonfiction writers, but the layout was enjoyable, and the author has some good advice: make time to write, somehow, anyhow.


Well, my next book is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I love Barbara Kingsolver. And there, under her name on the cover, are the names of two co-authors: her husband and daughter. What if writing was a family endeavor?

Last month, I wrote a short story with my 6-year-old son, The Legos in the Cupboard. My writers group, Carteret Writers, was looking for responses to novels from 1982. My son and I had recently read the Indian in the Cupboard together, so we decided to create a spin-off with a Lego vehicle he had recently constructed (and of which he was extremely proud).

If you can’t find time to write without kids interrupting, and all else fails, there’s always writing WITH kids. I enjoyed every minute of it, and now the 4-year-old has his own story, too (inspired by his Lego jet). The 6-year-old has another story planned, and me? I’ll take it.

Good Wives, Warriors, and Myths

What do these three things have in common? A book – two books, really, and they’re both amazing.

Is it the illustrations, done in fantabulistic detail and psychedelic color? Yes.

Is it the sparse, visually invocative writing, just enough to make each creature come alive? Yes.

But most importantly, it’s the flipping fun.

Good Wives and Warriors (a collaboration between two female artists) have created illustrations for everyone from Crabtree & Evelyn to Johnnie Walker. Myth Match is their flip-book of mythological creatures. They have a more encyclopediac version, too, perfect for when the blurbs in Myth Match leave you wanting more, but the flip-page book is more fun. In Myth Match, the reader can either align the corresponding pages to show a mythological creature (Kraken, Phoenix, Encantado, Griffin…)


Mis-align the front and back of the being to make an entirely new creation:




The possibilities are (almost) endless. And so is the writing inspiration.

What would that creature do? What stories would surround it?

This book inspired a story of mine, Immortal Medusae, about Encantados (river dolphins that change into humans). But that, by far, is not the only story hiding between these pages – perhaps you’ll find another. If so, please share it with me.

Or, enjoy their coloring pages of the Plant, Protist, and Fungi Kingdoms, and become a good wife or warrior yourself.

the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

This book has soup spilled on it, sand between the covers, sprinkles of rain, and a lovely pattern of (my) dirty fingerprints along the edges. Clearly, it is a good book. Unfortunately, it’s also a library book.

So, I ordered another copy to return to the library.

But then, our Carteret Writers group hosted a book exchange Christmas party (it was loads of fun – I got a book of Christmas Stories by North Carolina Writers that I’ll start next). The book I ordered online to give, the fabulous A Historian’s Coast by David Cecelski, didn’t come in time, so the lucky gift recipient got the Complete Handbook of Novel Writing instead. I think she’ll enjoy it.

The value in this book is that each chapter is written by a different author, sharing their expertise on character development, showing not telling, romance writing, publishing, and all other facets of writing. You name it; it’s here.

I often think of writing as a perfect-or-nothing enterprise, but if there’s one thing this book taught me, it’s that bad writing can lead to good writing, that any writing is progress, and that it can take hours (days, years) of trying, re-writing, scrapping 100 pages, changing your point-of-view, giving up, re-starting, and just plain work to get a story finished. Some of that process happens in your head, but a lot more of it has to happen on the page.

Elizabeth George sums it up with “I wish I had known back then that a mastery of process would lead to a product. Then I probably wouldn’t have found it so frightening to write.”

That was the overarching theme of this book – persevere. Don’t give up. Put in the work and time. And if you love it, that will bring you joy (and perhaps even a paycheck).

And since, as Elizabeth George also says, “Only when I write do I feel whole and at peace,” it’s worth the missteps, go-nowhere stories, rejections, and learning process, if it means getting to do what you love.

Or, in the words of Chuck Palahniuk, “Do you use the writing process as your ongoing excuse to keep exploring the world, meeting people and learning things? If you can do that, then the writing itself will be its own payoff and reward.”

Writing is fun. Writers are fun. The things we write about interest us and teach us. How wonderful.

Most importantly, it showed me how other writers write – not in one smooth, well-organized flash of glory, but in tedious re-writes, uncertainty – one step forward, two steps back. They all do that, and yet they all do it differently. There is no one right way.

And THAT was inspiring.