World-Building Pantsers, Unite! By Andy Marino
I’d like to thank past contributors to this blog for teaching me the term “pantser,” which I had never heard in the context of novel-writing. When I was a little kid, getting “pantsed” or “spiked” referred to the cruel trick of having what were most likely sweatpants—anything with an elastic band was a target—sneakily and suddenly pulled down on the playground, or some other horrifyingly public place. Any writers looking to build a story around a traumatic elementary school incident, there you go. I’ll give you that for free.
My first novel, Unison Spark, is a dystopian tale about the manipulative, all-consuming social network of the future. My second, Uncrashable Dakota, concerns the 1912 maiden voyage of the world’s most magnificent airship. Since both of these novels exist somewhere along the sci-fi spectrum, I’ve dealt with the ecstatic highs and crushing lows of being a world-building pantser.
It’s your sandbox and you get to play in it for as long as you want.
Our world, the world of a speculative future, the world of an alternate past—one of the things they have in common is that they’re completely interactive, not just static places in which characters just sort of hang out. World-building and curiosity go hand-in-hand, so I’m always nudging characters toward esoteric machinery (press a button and see what it does!) or weird rooms (this is really quite the collection of eyes). For me, this is one of the things that keeps me going—it’s easy to fall prey to that nagging voice telling you that your writing is flat, your characters are lame, your plot is pedestrian—but it’s endlessly fun to invent new neighborhoods and machines and modes of transportation.
One thing leads to another. And another. And another.
Okay, so you’ve written 200 pages. Congratulations! Unfortunately, 80% consists of lovingly detailed descriptions of what it feels like to put on a heat-suit and swim in the lava crater with all the other rich kids of Slorkavar-9. There’s even a concession stand at the bottom that sells genuine earth-formula slushies! How do they keep the ice from melting in the deadly heat? It’s all there in the extensive footnotes.
If you’re fed up with one setting, move your characters to different one.
It’s easy to feel restless, especially in the middle of a long draft. You’ve put in several months of work, and there are several more to go. I think it’s fairly common for writers to feel the tug of a shiny new project, because beginnings are the best part: you haven’t had time to mess it up, and the possibilities are endless. The useful thing about being a world-building pantser is that you can dose yourself with the excitement of the new by veering off course, geographically speaking. This is easier when you’re working with a sprawling future-city, like the setting of Unison Spark, but it also works in self-contained worlds, like the titanic-sized airship of Uncrashable Dakota. Forcing your characters to travel in pursuit of a goal gives you a great excuse to invent new modes of transportation, and can take your narrative in directions you may not have foreseen in a preliminary outline.
Now you’re lost.
I would guess that most writers are familiar with the sinking feeling of having spent weeks pursuing a tangent that leads to a dead end. Getting too carried away with the devilish fun of sending characters off to uncharted territory just because you were feeling a bit hemmed in by your setting is an excellent way to find yourself down a rabbit-hole of pointlessness. That’s when you start feverishly retconning motivations, or assuring yourself over and over that you’ll fix it in the next draft. Why did the kid even have to go to Slorkavar-9 in the first place? Because it’s a juvenile prison colony. No, wait, a training facility for telepaths. A playground for the galaxy’s richest families. It’s all of those things.
Crazy new technology at your fingertips.
One of the most satisfying aspects of being a pantser is inventing the kinds of gadgets and weapons and life-support systems your characters need to help them survive. It can be thrilling to create things as you go, especially when you’re extrapolating strange new twists on the technology that rules our everyday lives—communication and transportation are particularly fun to play with. And by steering clear of an outline, you’re free to come up with things on an as-needed basis. These items and methods often present new directions for the plot, dramatic turning points you never would have reached without putting the right tools in your characters’ hands as they pop into your head.
Finding a way to pull the plug.
Teleportation is useful. Characters can beam from one side of the city to the other, cutting down on travel time and making urban gridlock a non-issue. But once you’ve given them this ability, it’s up to you to find plausible ways to deny them its use. And if your gadget-creating brain has been firing on all cylinders, chances are your world is overstocked with useful technology that now must fall victim to a series of unlikely malfunctions.
This problem isn’t only limited to science fiction—stories set in the present-day have to jump through absurd hoops to deny characters the convenience of cell phone communication and online searches. That’s why post-apocalyptic settings are so attractive: nothing works. Just thinking about that makes me feel calm. My next book’s going to be about a bowl full of dirt, just sitting there.
About The Author
During his teen years, Andy designed sets for school plays and became an expert stockpiler of unfinished art projects. After graduating from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in English, he dedicated himself to writing fiction. The insidious tractor beam of online social networks (like this one!) became the inspiration for UNISON SPARK, a novel about two teens with a secret past fighting the manipulative, all-consuming social network of the future.
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About The Book
Now, in Andy Marino's Uncrashable Dakota, it is 1912, and the titanic Dakota flagship embarks on its maiden flight. But shortly after the journey begins, the airship is hijacked. Fighting to save the ship, the young heir of the Dakota empire, Hollis, along with his brilliant friend Delia and his stepbrother, Rob, are plunged into the midst of a long-simmering family feud. Maybe Samuel’s final secret wasn’t just the tinkering of a madman after all. . . .
What sinister betrayals and strange discoveries await Hollis and his friends in the gilded corridors and opulent staterooms? Who can be trusted to keep the most magnificent airship the world has ever known from falling out of the sky?
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In order to save herself and her family, Hannah must walk through this door.
Into another world.
A world where she doesn't belong.
A world that wants to capture her and make sure she never makes it back home.
In THE DOOR, author Andy Marino gives readers an extraordinary adventure in a place they have never, ever seen before.
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