Thursday, October 28, 2021

Follow the White Rabbit: A Pantser’s Tale

By Patricia A. Jackson, @Treistan

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Every writer has their own process. Patricia A. Jackson shares how she follows her pantser heart.

Patricia A. Jackson is a high school Language Arts teacher in Pennsylvania. Her debut novel, Forging A Nightmare, an urban fantasy, is due out November 2021 from Angry Robot Books.

She has also published a number of short stories in the Star Wars Universe for the WestEnd Games quarterly Star Wars Adventure Journal. Her best known works are Black Sands of Socorro, a smugglers’ sourcebook about people of color for Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, and The Final Exit, a short story about a dark Jedi’s redemption.

When not writing, she’s gaming. Her favorite pastimes being Witcher III, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect. If she’s not grading an endless pile of flash fiction from students, Patricia runs a Dungeons & Dragons club at her high school to promote the next generation of players, writes fanfiction for her favorite Japanese anime, Psycho Pass, and rides show horses in hunter/jumper competition.

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Take it away Patricia…
Patricia A. Jackson

“Resistance is futile,” proclaim the Borg of Star Trek. For the dedicated pantser the call to action is often a chaotic sprint into the creative burrow, chasing an elusive white rabbit. I sometimes envy writers who can follow the rule of order, designing a cosmos deliberately devised with outlines, character spreadsheets, and rules of prose engagement. Then I remind myself that creation is like birth, messy, sometimes violent. The process doesn’t always go as planned, but when it does, it can have a beautiful ending. So why resist?

I will confess that my inner muse floats between dimensions, existing somewhere between the realms of the pantser and the plotter. I was a Girl Scout. Before I chase the white rabbit into its hole, I go prepared with index cards, a notebook, a recorder, and a bevy of colored pens.

Fortunately, my 21st century backpack is an iPad that has all of these things to keep me focused and safe on my journey. Well, mostly safe. I’ve found myself firing down range in a handgun course, trading tales with a United States Marine over tequila, and galloping over open country on the back of a very fit ex-Olympic show horse who loved to jump. All for the sake of getting the right feel for various scenes!

When it comes to direction, the pantser’s compass does not always point North. It points to the heart, so throw it into the hole and begin the chase! Little can be gained from staying on the worn path.

When I sit in writers’ workshops, I listen intently to the methodology of plotters as they labor to create within walls built of outlines and elaborate technical specs. I feel like I’m in an AA meeting, wondering what’s wrong with me. Why do I look at the Three-Act formula like a cobra about to strike? The answer is simple: I’m childish. I believe in unleashing the inner child and feeding the flames of my imagination. Mischief, mayhem, and daydream are excellent condiments for adventure and essential ingredients to escape. So pile them on!

I refuse to view the writing process as a clinical for nursing or even a battlefield to be strategically won. For me, writing is a vivid, inviting playground, crowded with all kinds of challenging equipment to swing on, jump across, or climb over. Don’t get me wrong. Peril awaits every pantser who will not follow the circuitous route. Plenty of skinned knees, maybe a few broken bones, and a fair share of moments when one’s pride falls flat into the mud. But out of the chaos, great storytelling arises.

Neil Gaiman is famous for saying, “And then what happened?” For the especially imaginative writer, you are never alone on that playground. A cast of characters awaits, lighting a cherry bomb and tossing it into the pond, while asking, “What’s next?”

The one character not allowed on the playground, at any time, is the inner critic. This nemesis of the inner child thwarts creativity, hinders the process, and pronounces death over budding ideas. I’ve seen this too often in the classroom, where writers young and old fear diving into the rabbit hole because the critic tells them they are not good enough, smart enough, or savvy enough to survive. So they fall into a dreaded coma, staring helplessly at the blank page.

Some writers have made a deal with this devil. It works for them. Do not sell your soul, fellow pantser, and do not despair. There is a place for the critic, but only after the creative labor is done. Hear me! Every writer’s process is different. Your white rabbit is not the same as mine. The tools your bring along on the hunt may also be remarkably different. Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” If your inner critic springs from doubt, the first leg of your journey will be plagued by setbacks. The inner critic is a tool that gets better with time and confidence. Use it when the moment is right.

No one questions a baby when they drop into the doctor’s hands. “Name? Rank? Serial number? Business or pleasure? How long will you be staying?” So why hamper your journey? Follow the white rabbit. For pantsers, a first draft is simply the muse telling the story to themselves. It’s a regurgitation of rainbows and unicorns, spaceships and alien relics—spilling onto the screen (or page for you old-school folx). It has one purpose: to exist. Nothing more.

I do not chide anyone for writer’s block; I simply don’t believe in it. When the inner child is reluctant to play, it’s because they are missing something, usually knowledge. The best cure is research. Some writers say they avoid research because they get off track. They find themselves lost in a deep pool so interesting that they lose track of time and their purpose. Pfft, that’s like saying Han Solo shot first. Nonsense!

Discipline, a loathsome thing at times, is essential, or the writer risks a truly helter-skelter chase into the rabbit hole, usually ending with a terrible fall and a creative concussion. A nice walk, a drive in the car, or even a nap helps the writer temporarily disconnect, but research is the way back to the yellow brick road by filling in knowledge gaps that keep the flow of the story going like a tsunami. If an hour is wasted in finding out why the manchineel tree is one of the deadliest in the world, so be it. You might find a way to incorporate that tidbit into a story. (I certainly did).

If you want to own your craft, then hone your craft through writing. Go to your creative playground and let your inner muse take you by the hand. Allow your characters to assemble like the Avengers, and then follow the white rabbit wherever he goes. May the inner muse be with you...always.

About Forging a Nightmare

Unknown to Humanity, the descendants of Fallen Angels live among us. After millennia of living in anonymity, a serial killer has discovered their secret and has marked them for death. FBI Agent Michael Childs is brought in to investigate a series of grisly murders in New York City. The only link between the victims is they were all born with twelve fingers and twelve toes, known in occult circles as the Nephilim, a forsaken people.

A break in the case leads to Marine Corps sniper Anaba Raines who is listed as killed in action in Syria. Michael finds the hardened soldier alive and well, but no longer Human. After getting too close to the truth, Michael refuses to be an unwitting pawn in a 3000-year old vendetta. With the killers closing in, he is forced to confront his own unique heritage or die. Only Anaba can save his life, but at a terrible cost – her freedom.


  1. What a great post. I'm a pantster, too. I have nothing (or next to nothing) written on bits of paper, post-it notes exercise books or anything else. I do have a rough idea as to where I want this rabbit to lead me, but if it goes somewhere else, so be it.
    For me, I feel that plotting is like a straight jacket. It will restrict the creative process.
    When I was at school, we were told to plot our essays and creative writing before beginning, and to show our plots when we handed the work in.
    Stuff and nonsense. I wrote whatever it was, then wrote the plot afterwards.
    Similarly now, I write my story, then go back and look for the inciting incident, pinch points. Conflict. Rising tension etc. I can then adjust my work if needed.
    3 Act plot? What's that?

  2. Love reading your post about being a pantser. What a creative clubhouse where we belong with plotters in a different setting! The most fun tool is the colors available in our palette whether on the computer for words or phrases we type differently than regular fonts and colors or on our revised pages with fun pens. So many revisions, so many mentor texts, and many dreams with our characters.

  3. Hurrah, us pantsers have a luminary to follow. Do you have a banner held High? Perhaps one with a white rabbit wearing baggy pants, a carrot in each pocket and pink suspenders.
    Obviously I am a pant wearer who looks at outlines and story structure with a side cocked head, like a puppy.
    ( dang spell checker keeps morphing us into Panthers. Perhaps Familiar for the rabbit? ) People are as varied as there are people, goes for writers as well. I prefer to apply structure after the second draft. Otherwise when I world build or character develop I so easily fall down the rabbit hole. Why work at all that extraneous stuff when the characters go another way every time?
    Bless you for this support.
    Panthers (dang) Pantsers unite.

    Ooo, how about a Pant-confer-ence? With cosplay allowed in the round table event?

  4. Yep, the muse smacks me up-aside the head if I don't jump when it says. And it won't let me be if I ignore it. (If it were a dog, I'd classify it as a terrier.)

    I tend to be a pantser, drawing an outline from the story once I'm well into it, just to keep myself on some kind of track.

    The story will tell itself, if you give it free rein. It knows better than I do what it's about.

  5. Loved reading the tale. Easy and short to read. Also, the way story is being presented is amazing. I am going to recommend to one of my friend who was asking to read short-tale stories.