Emily Wenstrom: Pantsing Your Series Without Getting Lost in the Woods and Eaten by Bears

And now, here’s a guest post from Emily Wenstrom about how to pants without… er, doing it by the seat of your pants?

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I just released the final book in my first complete series. Everything I did for this series, I did for the first time. My first novel. My first sequel. My first series conclusion. And at every step, I learned exactly how I never want to write a series again.

When I started this series, I was a bright-eyed pantser, all optimism and free-wheeling creative spirit.

Oh, I’ll figure it out!, I thought. I’ll figure it out when I get there.

It turns out that this is very much like wandering off into the woods without any supplies, and trusting that if you get lost, if weather happens, if your cross paths with wildlife, you’ll figure it out.

I managed to get out of there without being eaten by a bear, but wow, let me tell you, there were some close calls, and it took a lot longer than it needed to. Never again. I’ll always be a pantser, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take a compass with me, or maybe a few Cliff bars.

Here’s how I’m changing my writing process for my next series:

Map the World

Your characters can’t go anywhere without knowing where everything is. How long will it take? What kind of terrain and other risks will they face? How does each location relate to other important places in the series?

This is a lot to delve into before your books even have defined arcs, and it’s not necessarily the first thing you have to do. But it’s definitely something I’ll take the time to sort out before publishing my series next time.

Let’s say your characters running off this way and that on their quests. What if all that cross-traffic is an opportunity to tease or foreshadow for a place that will become important in a later book? What if it’s right in their path now, but it isn’t mentioned at all because you just haven’t ideated it yet?

If you don’t know where your characters go through the full series, you can’t plan for this. And if you’re not careful, you can limit your options later, too.

Look ahead for the characters’ arcs

For one book, it’s not hard to define your core characters. That’s just our authorly bread and butter. But as I got deeper into my series, this got more complicated.

You can’t count on your character being the same in book three as he was in book one. He’s seen some things between point A and point B. And he’s been changed by those things.

By the time I got to my series conclusion, I had to wrestle with who my hero was anymore. I tried to write him as the same classic hero character we expect from the first novel, it didn’t go well. I had to stop and think about all that had happened to him since then, and in particular, what he had lost. Only then could I make sense of the final book.

Don’t let your characters catch you off guard by these changes. Think about them ahead of time and let them inform your planning.

Track the details

Think quick—are your character’s eyes blue or brown? What about the supporting cast? If you can recall this type of detail at whim, well, you’ve got a better memory than I do. Between draft revisions I spent a lot of time word-searching through my own books to keep my characters and places consistent.

Other authors—wiser authors—seem to do this thing where they just track details as they go. Some create a glossary, others pull it into an Excel spreadsheet. I’m told Scrivener’s tool for this can be very helpful. I wouldn’t know, and that’s the problem.

For my next series, I’ll experiment with some of these methods and find a way that works for me. Because managing the internal consistency of my stories shouldn’t take over my life.

Think ahead

Now look. Everyone says not to write the full series before querying, and they’re right. I can’t imagine spending years perfecting three, five, more books just to find out at the query that no one will publish it.

So at first, put your energy into book one. Make it the best book one you can.

But once you know you’re getting published, this is a crucial moment when I hit a fork in the road. One was full of sunshine and flowers—the path of the true panster, unfraught with worries of the future. The other was dark and thorny, where plot tangles waited to be wrestled with.

I chose the first path, and I can tell you now, this is where the bears are waiting to eat you. The thorns and darkness came up later anyway, and by then I was too far in to do much about it.

Even if you’re not a plotter, once the series is for sure moving forward, hit the pause button. If you can at least pound out beats for the arc of each book in the series, you’re going to save yourself a lot of frustration and find more opportunities to build it up beforehand.

Once you know these core elements and how they will evolve over your series, go back and revisit book one.

The Best Bear Fight is the Bear Fight You Don’t Have to Have

The thing with art is that sometimes you have to do things wrong before you can do them right.

I learned a lot about bear fighting and plot wrangling with this series—and I’m proud of the books I was able to create through these struggles. I just don’t think it needs to be so damn hard next time.

Because the best bear fight is the bear fight you don’t have to have.

Sparks: Amazon