How I went from pantser to avid outliner

I wrote a book. It was a whole book. I was incredibly excited. I had written this whole big thing and it came from my brain and I just sat down and barfed 60k out into Scrivener (I like to use Scrivener because it makes me feel oh so professional and hipster, and also because I can’t format in Word.) and was feeling pretty boss. Then I read my 60k. This is what pretty much happened:

It took my twice as long to fix what I had written than it actually took me to write it. Then my agent read it and she said something like “Did you pants this?” and I was like:

How did she know? I fixed the plot holes and stuff. But she did know and she requested a full rewrite. And I being new at this whole thing set out to do that. She told me to make an outline. So I sat down and I took a month. Yes, a month because the idea of outlining was so foreign to me that I didn’t really know how to do it. I knew I wanted to go chapter by chapter and I wanted it to say AND THEN THIS HAPPENED PAM, OH AND DON’T FORGET THIS SHOULD BE HERE, FFS DON’T PUT THAT PART BACK IN CAUSE THAT WAS CRAY CRAY.

After I outlined the first half of the book I took a break and I thought about my characters. All of them, even the kids who send our duo off and never see them again. I wrote bios for each of them, I wrote what they looked like, and little anecdotes about them that no one would ever know.

Then I stuck the whole thing in a box and four months later I haven’t touched it again and I’m not rewriting it yet (sorry agent of awesome) but I took what I learned about outlining and I applied that to the book I am writing now.

AND OH MY GOD Y’ALL. It is so much easier to write, its going faster, I know my characters better and its easier to get inside the mind of my protagonists and add subtle nuances to the plot. I know there are a lot of writers who say they are pantsers and if that is true I am not only awed by that but a little jealous.

In the end my point of all this is it takes a while to find your own style, and to find what works for you and when you do find that thing it can be glorious.

What about you guys… pantser or outliner? Something in between?

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4 Responses so far

  1. Gravatar

    When I was in middle school and high school, my favorite writing teacher was forever after me to outline, even if it was nothing more than a list of Big Things in some kind of order. In college, I started doing outlines so detailed I could end up with three pages for a single chapter and people thought I was writing my Masters Thesis. Now I’m a bit more relaxed about it. I still outline so I can keep track of the Big Things and get an idea for pacing, but I let it be flexible. Sometimes characters surprise me or the pacing demands other things, so I generally list out Big Events and Character Events in order, block them into chapters, and…that’s it. That way I can change it as I need to.

  2. Gravatar

    I’m an in-betweener, myself. I don’t like to completely “pants” — if only because having some idea of what’s to come helps me foreshadow it. Also for the reason you just said.

    On the other hand (and as I have discussed often in author interviews), probably my biggest flaw as a writer is the tendency of my brain to get ahead of the story. When I get excited about a premise, my brain will start spinning off one cool idea after another, and I’ll basically sit there going “OOOOH, SHINY! SHINY! ALSO SHINY! AND THAT’S SHINY TOO!”

    I’ll be in such a rush to include ALL THE THINGS that I’ll leave the audience behind. Often, I’ll leave things like believability behind, too. That awesome plot twist I had planned for my main character becomes a lot less awesome if the main character would never take the action required to lead him/her into it. Then it becomes hokey, unbelievable, and forced, which are the opposite of “awesome”.

    And the only way to know for sure if the things I want the characters to do are plausible, whether they will work, is to write out the story up to those points and see.what happens. An outline is a road map. To know if my characters would take the left turn at Albuquerque, I have to physically walk there with them.

    So that’s the story of how John is both a pantser AND a plotter.

    And a lawyer, but please give me another chance.

  3. Gravatar

    Definitely an outliner, but not slavish to the outline. Sometimes when I get into writing a scene and something comes to me that wasn’t in my outline I’ll include it if it fits my plan and serves the story, but over all I have to have a plan. Like John said, I would have a hard time keeping my brain on the right track if I didn’t have an outline.
    Pantsing it might be fine for flash fiction or the occasional short story, but Strunk & White said “Work from a suitable design.”, and they’re far wiser than me when it comes to writing. The only way to that is to outline.
    Unfortunately, it’s a skill that most people forget as soon as they leave school.

  4. Gravatar

    I’m an in betweener. I think.

    I do outlines, but I’m not married to them. If I’m writing and something that suits better pops up, I’ll boot out whatever was planned to be the It thing.

    But some stories just float right out without effort, and don’t turn out to be of Teh Suck, so I just stay out of their way and don’t try to outline what comes next.

    Of course, some stories do that, and are of Teh Suck. ;)

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