Old Dog, New Trick

As anyone who has been paying attention to my babbling over the last few years knows, I’m what’s known as a “pantser.”  We’ve talked about this method of writing before.  I’m pretty sure that Tess, who is also a pantser, has spoken about it much more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to manage.

Stephen King once said that his best books are the ones he didn’t plot out beforehand.  Since I have no idea which particular books he’s talking about, there’s no way I can judge this statement.  And while he may think he’s had a few misses, I’ve always been entertained.

But I’ve been a pantser for as long as I can remember.  In fact, the very first thing I wrote, I didn’t bother to sit down and think it out beyond the premise.  I just jumped in, guns blazing —

— and quickly discovered that writing is hard work.

But I never blamed that hard work on the fact that I didn’t prepare much before I started writing.  It seemed that this was simply the best method for me. 

I tried many times to go the so-called “safe” route.  With screenplays, I got a bunch of index cards and started plotting out the story, scene by scene, but I would only get about ten cards in before I grew bored with the whole process and just started writing.

With my first aborted attempts at novels, I tried outlining, but the process just seemed so much like homework that I could never get beyond a couple pages before I jumped into the “real” writing and started having fun.

Outlining = homework

Writing = recess

Ahhh, recess.  What a wonderful thing. 

Until you hit the wall, of course.  And every single book I’ve written, I’ve hit not one or two walls, but several of them that had me thinking the book was a failure and there was no way I’d ever finish on time.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky so far. 

But earlier this year my writing career turned a bit of a corner and I found myself with more work than I anticipated.  Pile on top of that the online workshop I was committed to teaching, and other life commitments that felt they needed to intrude on my writing time, and I was, to put it politely, up shit creek with only half a paddle.

Or maybe not.

Because those new writing gigs required me to turn in, at the very least, a fairly detailed synopsis of the story, I was forced to get off my lazy ass and do the “homework.”

And guess what?

After writing that first story outline and working out all of its kinks, after slogging through and hitting the walls during the outlining process rather than the actual writing itself, I discovered, to my astonishment, that — get this — I was able to write the first story

…hold onto your hats…

about three times faster than normal.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  I wrote the thing very, very quickly.  And I can’t say that it was any worse than what I would have produced had I used my usual method.  In fact, it’s pretty freakin’ good, if I do say so myself. 

All of this thanks to that outline. 

I have always believed that outlining would kill my spontaneity, would stifle my creativity, would make me so bored with the story that I wouldn’t want to write it.  But the truth is, none of those things happened, and I sailed through the writing.

Now I’m busy outlining a new book — one that’s big and complicated and probably my most ambitious work to date — and I’m thinking, ugh, here we go again.  But once I started to outline, I suddenly found myself very excited about the stuff I was coming up with and realized, wow, I’m doing most of the work right now.  And all I have to do once it’s finished is go back in, flesh it all out, and make it pretty.

Not to say that writing of the book itself will be easy, but it’ll certainly be a lot easier.

The outlining process is forcing me to think in exactly the same way I do when going the pantser route, but allowing me to do it faster and without that panicked feeling that I have to get a scene perfect.  I’m concentrating purely on character and story without having to worry about the actual prose.  

So I guess the moral of the story is that no matter how old the dog may be, there’s always room for a new trick.  And anything that can get me to produce work faster, while still maintaining its quality, is a good thing.

How about you other pantsers out there?  Have you ever tried or even thought about trying to outline?



28 thoughts on “Old Dog, New Trick

  1. Sara J. Henry

    I wrote my first novel quickly without spending much time delving into plot details. Almost none, in fact, although I always knew how it was going to end.

    Then I had to work out the plot afterward and reverse engineer it into the novel – not something I would ever recommend. I thought my brain was going to break.

    For Book 2, I have a rough plot outline (a page or so) and will work out details as I go – not after finishing the book.

  2. JD Rhoades

    I wrote an outline before starting LAWYERS GUNS AND MONEY. Finished the rewrites last week. The finished product bears little or no resemblance to the outline. Even most of the character names are different.

    The one I’m thinking about now, I’m doing something unusual for me. It’s still very much in the planning stages, but here’s how I’m handling that: I opened a document, wrote CHAPTER ONE, then under it CHAPTER TWO, etc. all the way up to 50. Then at the appropriate places, I wrote FIRST ACT CLIMAX, MIDPOINT, SECOND ACT CLIMAX, etc, following Our Alex’s brilliant posts on three act structure. Then, as things have occurred to me that I want in the story, I’ve gone back and put notes in the appropriate places in the list of chapters. I’ve written a few entire scenes as the inspiration struck me and bits of dialogue came to me. I haven’t actually started the thing yet, but I’ve got about 5,000 words written. It’s a rather odd way to work, but I’m enjoying not having to slog through to get to the scene that’s just been playing in my head and that I really want to write RIGHT NOW, but which actually occurs several chapters away from where I’d be if I were writing linearly. It may all fall apart, or it may turn out garbage, who knows. We’ll see.

  3. Jake Nantz

    You know all of the other pantsers out there are gearing up in Fireman’s turnout gear and grabbing the trampoline, chanting, "Rob, step back from the ledge! Pantsing will still work better for you!!"

    Just kiddin’. I love outlining for exactly the reasons you point out. And as Dusty said, following the ideals Alex has pointed out so prominently on her 3-Act Structure posts, I really feel like this one has a chance. That’s more positive than I have felt about my last WIP at A-N-Y stage, even now as I’m sending it out to collect my obligatory form rejections and move on.

    Good luck with whatever method feels best for you!

  4. Dana King

    I’ve always been an outliner. I tried pantsing the WIP and found myself in such an ungodly mess 1/3 of the way through I took a week off to write an outline. It’s just so much easier for me to know pretty much what has to happen when i sit down to write, so my only decisions are how to describe it. The outline goes through major revisions, as JD indicated, so that by the end it may bea little resemblence to the original, but I always have it handy.

  5. Carla Buckley

    Ah, this topic is near and dear to my heart! I started as a pantser, flying through novel after novel, and loving the surprises that came along, like a character originally slated to be a walk-on who manages to steal the show. And the chapter endings were snappy, each scene ending exactly where it was supposed to. Fun! Fast! Not one of those books sold.

    Then a screenwriting friend of mine offered to share his outlining method. Figuring nothing ventured, nothing gained, I tried it. Wow. Plotting is hard, hard work, and I spent as much time figuring out the structure as I spent writing to it. But what do you know? That’s the book that sold.

    I do miss the old pantser days, though.

  6. Alafair Burke

    I’m also a pantser, but swore this time around, I would try to do an outline. Plan upfront, my theory went, and the writing will be even more fun. Well, I just can’t do it. I can’t see that far in advance without knowing the characters better, and I get to know the characters by letting myself write about them. The odd thing is that I’m a planner in my legal writing; I see the entire article or brief before I write a word. Fiction’s different.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Outlining is imperative for me. I have to work everything out in an outline, and then a very detailed treatment. And then I go back and adjust the outline, then adjust the treatment.
    And then, when I write the novel, I experience a beautiful sense of freedom within the scene. I find that I can concentrate on the nuance, the subtle phrase, the perfect verb/noun/adjective. The writing actually becomes fun when I know that I’m not going to write myself into a corner. The process does the exact opposite of making me feel constricted. It gives me the sense of security to know that, at the very least, I have a working structure with the plot points in all the right places.
    Twice I’ve tried a project (screenplays) without having an outline, and the projects took three times longer than they should have taken.

  8. Alli

    My first two MS’s were pantsed and never sold – close, but no contracts offered (and they both had a lot of drafts). The current MS is a lot more complicated than I’ve ever written before, and I HAD to get some outline done before I attempted the writing. You know what? I’m now an outline convert. Sure, I changed stuff along the way, but having an idea as to where and why I am going in certain directions helped free up my writing. I’ve discovered outlining means I don’t need to write as many drafts. Oh yes, outlining works for me! (Never though I’d say that…)

  9. TerriMolina

    I was a pantster when I wrote my first two novels and the novella. The stories were fun for me to write so I completed them pretty quickly. With this third book I tried the outline thing and it’s just not working (for all the reasons you said you didn’t outline to begin with). Outlining makes me over-think the story and it turns it into ‘homework’.then I start arguing with the muse.

    Also…my attempts at outlining turn into a jumbled mess of Huh?

  10. pari noskin taichert

    I’m leaning toward trying a semi-outline for the next two books. What helped me tremendously was having to write short summaries of them both for my agent. When the series sells, I’ll already be ahead of where I usually am in these things.

    Right now, I’m working on always knowing the ending. I’ve realized that all the detours I take in a pantser manuscript still need to be leading somewhere . . .

  11. Allison A. Davis

    With the first book, it was chaos, panstering at its best. But when I went to edit, I had to "map" the book (duh, make an outline – chapter by chapter) so I could find the stuff to change, and follow the threads. Hallie Ephron looked at my map and said, "Oh that’s how I do it." I was clueless b/c it was my first book, what did I know?

    Now, with the second, I want to finish it quickly (i.e., in less than five years — why do first books always take so long?), in 8 months — at least the first draft. My day job eats up my time, so I only have snippets. I have decided that I had to outline, so I could sit down and write a piece (in the 45 minutes I have) that fit in the outline. Just focus on small bits at a time. I didn’t have the luxury of six or eight hours ahead of me to just write like crazy, and hope that the fallout was ok. I use those blocks of time to hone the outline. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    Good post — thanks for sharing your insight into this.

  12. Allison Brennan

    Rob, say it isn’t so! You’re abandoning us? (And it’s ORGANIC WRITER, not PANTZER which sounds like something drunk frat guys want to do!)

    Every time I start to panic about deadlines, I jot down bullet points about scenes I think I need to write to get to the ending I have in my head. And every single effing time, this causes me nothing but problems, as I’m writing toward this ending that now I think I HAVE to write because it’s there. My writing becomes stiff, artificial, and I make huge convolutions to make that damn ending work. This causes me lost and wasted writing time.

    I outlined one entire novel, it was for an option book, and I never wrote that book. I wrote a detailed synopsis for SPEAK NO EVIL when we went to contract and, um, the book was totally different. I never looked at it after I turned it in. Only the hero and heroine stayed the same.

    I do have a small white board that I’ll use for timelines because I always screw them up. So for the ending of ORIGINAL SIN, I had three main characters and they were in different places and I had to get in my head how they got from point A to point B and they all unite at point C. You’d think with 90% of the book written that I could figure this out? I changed it as I wrote.

    The most important thing is that writers write, that they make progress on their book, and if it’s through outlining or organic writing or a combination, it doesn’t matter. There is no right way as long as the book is growing.

  13. Sandy

    I am curious about what people mean by "outline," and I imagine different people mean different things. Do people bullet? Do people do the Roman numeral/alphabet thing? Do people write complete paragraphs that capture the skeleton of the story? I’d love to hear. Thanks.

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    Sandy, an outline for me is simply a detailed scene by scene synopsis of the story. No bullet points, no numbers.

    Some of those scenes might be just a few lines, while others will be worked out in much more detail, and still others will include bits of dialogue.

    I’m approaching the outline as simply a place to work out all the ideas I don’t want to be stuck trying to figure out as I’m doing the actual writing.

    But I’m new at this, so it may be different for others.

  15. toni mcgee causey

    I graph it.

    (well… what else would you call it if it’s up on a giant white erase board and there’s a timeline w/act breaks, and notes slotted in beneath these and arrows and stuff circled and all flowy?)

    (I heart Stephen. Blood drops indeed.)

  16. Jai Joshi

    I was a pantser when I was a teenager. I learned outlining at University and have never looked back. I work quickly and efficiently and am always glad that I learned to outline. I actually find that I enjoy the outlining process because, as you say, I come up with tons of interesting plot turns and possibilities. Then when I writing the actual manuscript I just slide in those ideas – having fun with my characters – and voila! It’s magic.


  17. Paula R.

    Hi Allison, I don’t outline at all. I tried it, and it didn’t turn out very well for me. I did it because I had to in high school, but it was usually after I completed an essay. I write piece meal, and by some miracle, I was fortunate enough to sew the pieces back together with a cleverly placed transistion sentence or sentences. I have no idea how it works, it is an unconscious process. Whenever I sit down to write an outline, I start to freak out, my heart races and I suddenly develop apnea…it is crazy. The stress level goes through the roof. As I embark on my journey to write a full-length novel, I just write. Plotting by outline scares me and my anxiety level just jumps through the roof. Maybe that isn’t your experience, but that is my relationship with outlines.

  18. BCB

    I’m too new at this to have a process. Back when I was writing newspaper op-ed articles I’d have them almost completely written in my head before I ever put a word on the page. Even the longer and more serious 750-word pieces. I’ve discovered it is, unexpectedly, rather difficult to do that with a novel. ::sarcasm::

    Hearing all these different approaches to plotting is fascinating. Even when I have No Idea what some of you are talking about. I mean, really: "wicked pretentious doodling?" WTF is that, Toni?

    I started out just letting it all flow. And that worked great up to a point. Then I signed up for Alex’s excellent online class about screenwriting. Wow. Who knew a person could feel so enlightened and yet so completely clueless all at the same time? [grin] So now I’ve written an outline, of sorts, mostly on index cards. And the back of shopping lists. Trying to fit what I’ve written and not written into that whole 8/3 or 3/8 or 3/4 waltz (whatever) structure thing. It lists important yet concise things such as, "something happens here" and "this is where things get really bad and someone DIES" and "wrap it up and move ’em on out, little doggies." I’m sure someday when I’m multi-published and everyone is too impressed by my talent to care anymore, it will translate quite nicely into a "How To" advice article for writers. Or not. Probably I’ll just refer them to what you all have said over here. Which I really appreciate.

  19. Merc

    I’m sorta a mix, since I require some kind of outline-ish thing for longer work… but yeah, for a long while I didn’t believe in outlines. 😀 Then I had to do one for a class, and realized how much work it saves me, even if I don’t always stick to it.

    I’m still a mix of panster/plotter but the plotting has definitely overruled lately. 😉

    Great post. 😀

  20. JR Tomlin

    "Even the longer and more serious 750-word pieces. I’ve discovered it is, unexpectedly, rather difficult to do that with a novel. ::sarcasm::"

    Why the sarcasm, pray tell? I don’t find it in the least difficult to do with a novel. It always amazes me how hostile this discussion gets with attacks on writers who dare not to outline as though we’re somehow forcing everyone else to write the same way we do.

    I don’t outline. Like Stephen King, I tried it. My result was infinitely worse than his resulting Rose Madder. It’s the one novel I deleted without even editing. It wasn’t worth the effort. For me it DID stifle creativity. That it doesn’t for some other people is irrelevant to my own writing. *shrug*

    I don’t outline. I won’t outline. I really don’t much care how anyone else writes. Do what works for you. To me that seems like a reasonable solution.


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