First of all let’s take a moment to address the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants”, since “writing by the seat of your pants” stems from that original phrase. Where did that phrase come from and what does it mean?
The phrase “flying by the seat of your pants” came from the early days of aviation and first came into use in 1938 and was in relation to Douglas Corrigan’s flight from Ireland to the United States, when a mechanic had to help him rejuvenate the plane. It also was used because in the early days of aviation, they didn’t have a radio, instruments, or other navigational or communication equipment.
The phrase “flying by the seat of your pants” means you’re entering into the unknown and taking action without planning.
And that’s what “writing by the seat of your pants” means–writing without planning or just sitting down with your characters and an idea and simply writing as it comes into your head.
Well, that’s how I have written ever since I first began writing as a school student. The problem is that ever since I’ve been trying to write a full-length novel, writing without a plan hasn’t worked out very well. My first attempt at writing a novel did not result in a full-length novel. My second attempt at writing a novel ended up in the trash pile.
After those first two failed attempts, I heard about “Planning (or plotting) your story”, which means you do a lot of prep work for your novel: complete character interviews and write your characters’ back stories and descriptions of their physical appearance. In addition to that, you need to have a good idea of each scene from start to finish and you need to have your story mapped out. So, I decided to try this, but this literally killed my creativity. By the time I was finished planning, I had no interest in writing the story. I had spent all my creative energy doing character interviews and writing their physical descriptions and back stories, and I didn’t have any interest in writing scenes. I couldn’t even create a story beginning.
So, I decided to try a bit of a combination of writing by the seat of my pants and planning/plotting. I wrote physical descriptions of my characters, created back stories for them and knew who their immediate family members were and what kind of family life they had. In addition, I researched everything I thought I needed to research for the historical aspect of my story, and I had a very good idea of how the story would play out from beginning to end. But this didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to either.
I got about two-thirds to three-fourths of the way through my novel and suddenly, out of nowhere a new character showed up — not just a minor character, but this one had to be a major character who needed to be in the book from very close to the beginning all the way to the end. So, just when I thought I was nearing the finish line and ready to edit and publish, now I had to do some MAJOR EDITING.
At first I thought I was going to have to START ALL OVER, but thanks to a group I belong to on MeWe, I was able to ask if there was a way to do it without having to start over, and an already published author gave me excellent advice! She explained how I could place this character into scenes I had already written and simply build the character and the character’s presence from there.
Of course, I did have to scrap quite a few scenes and write new ones, but it is coming along quite well. But, now I know that I will do more planning/plotting before I begin writing, but not enough to kill my creativity. I have figured out the balance for me and I look forward to finishing my current novel’s edits so that I can begin the next book in the series, using my newly learned balance to writing both by the seat of my pants and, by doing some necessary planning, and I hope that this will help me produce the second book much faster and not require as many edits.
So, if someone insists you have to decide whether to write by the seat of your pants or to plan or plot your whole novel before starting to write, remember there is a balance between the two that might work for you. The key is finding what works for you and the way your creative mind works.