Thinking About Outlining Your Novel? One Pantser’s Story

I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I’ve been at this business professionally for over a decade now, and every single one of my manuscripts–published or not–has been written one scene at a time, with no more guideline than a general knowledge of structure.

For years, Katie and I have been on the opposite ends of the spectrum where it comes to outlining. She’s an avid outliner; I’ve evolved into a hesitant hybrid. She’s right about where my fear of outlining comes from: visions of the rigid structure, complete with Roman numerals and indented letters and numbers, that we–in my generation, at least– learned in school. Rigidity and creativity don’t mix.

A New Take on Outlining Your Novel

Outlining Your Novel WorkbookBut when you think about outlining your novel as free-writing, as scribbling whatever comes to mind in response to structured questions–and sometimes not-so-structured questions–it makes a difference. Wakes the muse, gets the creativity flowing. After you’ve gone through a period of creating what, in all appearances, seems to be river sludge and start picking out the gold nuggets, it’s amazing how quickly things start to develop.

Granted, I did have the same trouble outlining as I do in seat-of-the-pants writing–what to do with that saggy middle? Happens every time I sit down to write: I know the beginning and I know the end, but getting from point A to point B always threatens my meager sanity.

The benefit of outlining your novel is, when something doesn’t work, I simply tear up the index card and start over. In writing, I’d have to rip out entire scenes, then backtrack to change whatever went with them. It didn’t take long–seriously, how long does it take to paint the segment and hit delete?–but it was still a greater and more frustrating effort than just scratchin’ out the scribbles or tearin’ up the card.

My Former Pantsing Defense Meets an Outline That Works

My primary defense of being a pantser was that, when I was done, I had a complete novel ready to edit. Outliners have an outline ready to be turned into a novel, which is then ready to be edited. I figured I saved a few steps. And, in my defense, it does take Katie longer to get a novel out than it does me.

But in her defense, her novels are more complicated than mine.

Give the Lady a Ride Linda YezakI currently write romance, a genre whose key elements are dictated by time and tradition: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back, and they live happily ever after.

The challenges for writing are still there for me, because I still have to imagine an entire story world in which all these wonderful events to take place; characters have to be developed; and the conflict defined, executed, and resolved. But because the elements are the same (yes, it’s formulaic writing–a time-proven formula that works for its readers), I don’t have to spend time making up my own.

And because those elements are the same, if I outlined the rest, I can produce more novels more quickly than I do when I write by the seat of my pants.

Believe me, I was surprised too.

So, early results about outlining? I like it.

Pass the crow.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are your thoughts on outlining your novel? Love it? Hate it? Somewhere in between? Tell me in the comments!

Thinking About Outlining Your Novel? One Pantser’s Story

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About Linda Yezak

Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee---with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.

Comments

  1. I’m the same as you, and I do wish I’d at least kept track of the names of the characters, the city’s/towns/villages, names of the gods, what chapters had unanswered question (loose ends). I guess that’s not what your talking about but not keeping tack of this stuff is causing more work by having to comb though the chapters to find this stuff. Wen this one gets finished I’m going to try a very loose outline and keep track of everything. I don’t think doing that will hurt the creativity.

    • Oh, honey, I hear ya. I just finished writing the sequel to Give the Lady a Ride, and I was forever having to search the previous manuscript to help remember someone’s age or height or eye color. You’d think keeping track would be a no brainer, wouldn’t you?

    • R. R. Willica says

      Keeping a database of information and creating an outline are two different things.

      I don’t outline, primarily because it’s a waste of time. The story is alive. It changes and moves and lives on its own. No amount of planning stops that. I personally have a very strong internal sense of structure that I can’t explain. The rough draft then becomes the “outline.”

      I believe outlining is a prrsoal thing. Some people can’t live without it, but I have my own method.

      But, I do keep a database. Names, places, maps, historical timelines, and all of that are kept in real time. I can tell you what year, who was king, and the historical significance of each event. For my upcoming work I have 1,000 years of recorded history in a database.

  2. I’m working on my first non-fiction novel and I’m not sure what I’d be writing if I didn’t have an outline to guide and inspire the story.

    • I can’t imagine doing non-fiction without an outline. A novel based on fact would be the same. I probably would’ve been an outliner long before had I written either of these genres.

  3. This is pretty much what I’ve been trying to do—find an outlining method that works but doesn’t stifle the story. I learned the hard way with pantsing, and burnt myself out because of it. Then I found K.M.’s books and I came to the writing process with entirely new eyes. Now I’ve combined outlining and structuring to create my own outlining process that so far, has been quite successful. 🙂

  4. Catherine H. says

    I need an outline. I tried writing without one before and my progress just kept stalling because I didn’t know where the story was headed. It doesn’t have to be an extensive outline, just enough to keep me organized and on track.

    • I found that I still stall–I just stall with the outline instead of the manuscript. When I outline, I don’t have to consider the wording of what I scribble down and I don’t have to delete what I don’t like. Like I said, I can just rip up the card. So much easier!

  5. I’m a hybrid, sort of. If the freewriting is what I think it is, then I *do* outline, in a way. Most of the time the “outline” is in my head; I generally know point A and Z, and if I’m lucky I know point M. I frequently know a few set-pieces at points F and T. Bridging them together is where the pantsing happens. When I think I’m about to run into a problem, I start freewriting to ensure I stay on track, then I go back to the writing. As I write I tend to remind myself that a scene/chapter I’m working on needs to lead to one point or another.

    I only write down things to make sure I don’t forget what I’m juggling. I edit as I go, by reading what I wrote in the previous session, and addressing whatever was in my list.

    I saw the joy of fully fleshed out outlines when I was given a chapter-by-chapter synopsis for a write-for-hire book. They did NOT impede my creativity, surprisingly. The more I read this site, the more I’m pondering going in that direction just because I thrive with deadlines, and not having one means losing my laser-like focus. I’m imagining that the outline could serve as a visual to-do list, which could be a boon, psychologically. Er, I hope so, anyway 🙂

    • That sounds more like what I used to do. I carried my outline around in my head. Putting it down on paper allowed me to fill in the gaps and connect A to F to M to T to Z.

      You’re right–the outline does work like a visual to-do list. I think you’ll like it.

  6. Jane Steen says

    My process is evolving into a hybrid where I pants out the first draft using a very vague three-act outline, then (with the help of my critique partner) take a good look at that draft, figure out the weaknesses and what needs to be done about them, and then outline the second draft more rigorously. So my second draft is, in effect, very like the first draft of a writer who’s spent considerable time outlining, with beats, etc, but since I already know the characters from spending time with them in the first draft, it just flies along, and I also know which bits I have to research. In addition, I have some very nice scenes from the first draft that I can re-use.

    This is way more satisfactory for me than having to produce an outline without really knowing how the story will develop. It allows me creative freedom AND structure. But you have to be the kind of writer who will cheerfully set about rewriting a pretty good scene into a much better one, and not bemoan the waste of words.

    • “This is way more satisfactory for me than having to produce an outline without really knowing how the story will develop.”

      I thought the same way for years, but I found–especially with the help of Katie’s questions in her book–that I can know how the story develops. It’s the same process for me as intuitive writing. I caught my characters going off in a different direction during outlining, just as I did when pantsing, and chased the rabbit until I decided whether or not I wanted to pursue it down its hole. Same as pantsing. Even now, though I’ve already started writing, I’ve come up with twists and ideas that I can still fit into the outline.

      So far, I’m truly pleased with this method. But I think everyone should write whatever way works for them.

  7. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing this today, Linda! I knew I’d convert you one day. 😉

  8. We do a sort of combination. As co-authors, we have to make sure we’re sharing the same vision. So we do a lot of planning, though not really an actual outline.

  9. I am a proud pantser, but I feel like people do not understand what that means. It involves hours of gray plotting. I refer to myself as a gray plotter, for the only notes you will find are not on paper. As for memory…. it may be difficult, but mine is still kicking. What helps me remember is my method writing. I really get into it. So I am in the middle somewhere… but if you were to look at my process you would see me as a normal pantser.

    • It’s good to be comfortable with what you do. In my situation, all I knew was that I wanted an “entr’acte” between two books in a series, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write. Perfect opportunity to give Katie’s method a try. 😉

  10. I pantsed my way through my first book and it took forever. I tried an outline with the 2nd one but that was too rigid. I found that I kept thinking of things that I’d want to use later so I’d type them out down below where I was currently working. Soon I had a jumble of stuff covering a few pages to try and pick through. I spent a day putting it into some sort of useful order and then I ended up scrolling back and forth from current point to these nuggets for a couple of week. Of course, I added more nuggets along the way too.

    By the third book, I hit upon a semi-brilliant idea that has worked for me since. I started books 3-5 and now book 6 (the first in a new series) with a template. I use the previous book and delete all the prose in each chapter between chapter 1 and ‘The End’ in the final chapter. I clean up the front and back matter and then I start laying out my story, a bullet point here, a few lines of dialog there, chapter by chapter until I have a rough outline. I write and reference those things in each chapter to keep me on track. When I think of something that will work 8 chapters later, I go and jot it in and then go right back to where I was.

    This works best if you name your chapters with something short that will jog your memory. It’s so much easier to put something in about the X in the Y place if you know it should be in the chapter titled ‘Dilemma’ instead of having to try and think, was that chapter 23, 24 or 25?

  11. Jim Arnold says

    I did my entire debut novel by pantsing. I believe all the “hot-spots” there are in a “boy meets girl” story. But still, it could have been better. Had I taken the care to come up with different scenarios in the story and used more explosive moments that could have been found only by outlining.

    Anyway, lesson learned and I now outline. Besides, after reading Katie’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook, it didn’t sound like such a bad idea after all. She really knows what she is talking about.

    • I wrote my first novel intuitively, and it was an award winner and a finalist in several contests. My second, also written intuitively, was a finalist in a contest. But I wonder if either would’ve been the headaches they were–especially the second one–if I’d outlined first.

      We’ll never know.

  12. Linda Yezak, you sound exactly like me! I don’t do the whole nine yards of outlining, but after reading Outlining and Structuring, I’ve found a method that, in this early stage, seems to be working really well.
    For years and years, my mantra was “I’m a proud pantser!” I’ll take that plate of crow next, please 🙂
    And yes, the middle is still … the middle. But so much more manageable now.

    • Yep, we do sound like sisters. I can’t follow Katie’s plan precisely–or even in order–but it does make a difference. Maybe I just need practice at this. 😉

  13. I enjoyed the contrast and insights. Thank you.

  14. I never thought I would be an outliner, but now the brain is slowing down (I’m 71) it is turning out to be essential. Nothing too detailed, you understand, but it does keep me up with my characters, most of which move faster than I do!

    • Oh, I didn’t think of the age factor. Sounds like I should get good at outlining before I get any older. I’m 58 now, so if I outline every new book, by the time I’m 71, I’ll be a pro!

  15. I’ve been writing computer code a lot longer than prose. I’m still puzzled by these things that people refer to, flowcharts and comments. Even 40 minute long oral presentations at conferences, I’d just start writing.

    However, with that and also now with fiction, there are SO many things in my head, that if I don’t write them down promptly I’ll either forget or they’ll crowd out other things until I do.

    With the fiction, I found it easy to at least jot done a general outline of the whole story, and of each chapter. For example, I just finished a Halloween themed chapter for a project at the site where I hang out.

    get invited to party
    go to cousin’s house to meet up
    from there to party
    decide to leave with others to go ghost hunting
    pick up more beer
    at cemetery, try to draw out ghost
    see things
    get scared
    run very fast
    go back to get the car

    Then I’m sitting at work and the characters decide to start acting out scenes in my head, and I had to open wordpad to start jotting down dialogue.

    From these general notes, I work down to the more specific, then going seat of the pants for a scene, while remembering all the action-reaction n’at.

  16. I’m not a pantser but not a full on planner either. Somewhere in between. I usually come up with a beginning and ending then start writing. I’ll freewrite the scenes then edit as I go. I have lots of discarded words this way, but it’s how I always did it. I have the ‘Outlining Your Novel’ and sometimes it gets too extensive and I just want to /write/ but then that’s when I stall. For my current project I decided to make a full outline before I even think about writing. I’m mid-outline and stalling (that dang saggy middle), but you included a link for that so I’m about to devour that up.

  17. Kamil Kukowski says

    On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve recently had my reading pleasure almost ruined by the knowledge I have of structuring. When I reached the 5%-10% mark of the book (I’ll keep it’s title to myself so i won’t spoil it to anyone in the middle of it) someone talked about a yacht tievery. It could be the perfect inciting event right? And while the author is sooo damn good at misdirecting and the thiveries aren’t mentioned till the very end ( but we get plenty of WWII backstory) few pages later we get the the key event. It felt like taking a peak at the last chapter.

  18. I’ve just started writing as I am now retired and have the time to do it and have just spent $50 buying Katie’s four books on Outlining and Structuring after 8 months of just writing.
    Writing scene after disjointed scene until I found the saggy middle going on forever and wandering all over the place.
    What I’ve read on her blog gives me the hope to actually put my ideas in order to produce something worth reading

  19. Cynthia Naden says

    I am a Pantser but often find myself disorganized. I would love to see an example of an outline – call me anal – but I cannot visualize what it should look like other than the old school Roman numerals which I can do in my sleep but for writing a novel – don’t think so. Am I being a klutz or what? An help????

  20. Here’s how I do it (bear in mind that I’m very new to this, although I did something similar quite a few years ago, although not on a large full-story scale):
    Start with the beginning if you want, or don’t. But just begin a stream-of-consciousness conversation on paper (or Microsoft Word). Work through the story. I don’t do it in a linear fashion, I go back and forth sometimes, until I have the whole story from beginning to end worked out. Then you can write it down in a concise, chronological form.
    I hope that made sense 🙂

  21. Cynthia, I scribbled tons of notes–all ideas prompted by Katie’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook–then picked out things that worked and put key components on index cards. I have my notes highlighted in different colors to separate what I’m keeping (and what it pertains to) from the dross, and I wrote “see notes” on the cue cards when something was too in depth to put on a card.

    I marked all the points on the appropriate cue card: first quarter, mid, third, climax (I use the 4-act structure). It has been fun. I just follow the cards!

    You can see on my blog what I’ve done: http://lindayezak.com/2015/09/14/and-here-it-is/

    Since the book is supposed to be a novella, I don’t have many cards (although I’ve added a few since writing that post). This would be far more extensive for a full-length novel.

    Hope that helped!

  22. Well, I answered without hitting the proper reply button. See below.

  23. I need coffee.

    I guess I was in line to answer Cynthia after all.

    Laura, that sounds familiar. I liked using Katie’s prompts, but once I got a good idea of what I wanted to do, I just kept free-writing until I came up with plot ideas. Then I put all the plot points on cue cards, with the major points highlighted as first quarter, mid, third, and climax.

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