Credit: bgolub

The Great Debate: Are you a “pantser” or an outliner?

Pantser: Writer who writes a story “by the seat of her pants,” aka with no outline

Two years ago, I was a pantser masquerading as an outliner…and I didn’t know it. When I wrote the novel that led to signing with an agency, I’d created a very, very sparse outline from which I deviated in a major way about halfway through the first draft. While it went out on submission (and ultimately failed to sell), I began working on a second book, and I wrote what I thought was an outline.

It wasn’t. It was a summary of the catalyst of the story, with vague filler in the middle and an even vaguer description of what may or may not happen in the end.

I knew it was a crap outline. But I was just. so. ready. to start writing the thing. It couldn’t hurt to just write the first chapter, right? And the second. Ohh…what if I add this to the plot? And that! And change this character! And…pretty soon I was charging along, having a merry time marching towards what turned out to be the most convoluted ending of the most over-complicated story in the history of ever.

My agent told me so. (Kindly.) Rewrite time. I started by writing another completely vague outline. I figured I already had a draft, no matter how poor its condition – I didn’t need to write another full outline. Turned version 2.0 in four months later.

Still convoluted, said le agent (again, kindly). Rewrite once more. Did I outline? Nope! I rewrote it, taking it through different twists and turns but ultimately ending up with another confusing mess. Turned in version 3.0 six months later. My agent broke the bad news (still so nicely – she’s British, she can’t help it. Sometimes I wonder if she rages at me in her head. Outline, you fool!).

Here’s the sad truth: I learned how write a real outline because I had to. I (gleefully) accepted an offer from Penguin to write a middle grade series, and was asked to produce an outline for the first book within about a month. Panic ensued. I would never dare submit to an editor the joke of an outline I was accustomed to writing for myself.

I had a page or two of notes about the book; basically, a brief summary of the story concept, descriptions of a few characters, and a few specific scene ideas my editor wanted to see. I wrote these, and other scenes that were easy to conceptualize right off the bat, on notecards, placed them in order, then started filling in the blanks.

And the same thing happened – I started to get the main character’s voice in my head and my brain was saying just write it, come on, you don’t need no stinkin’ outline. Except this time, I did. So I indulged myself by writing the first few lines of the book, then went back to the outline.

I added scenes and added more scenes until I was at about 30 total. Some scene descriptions were a vague line – and by vague, I mean like “Holly tries to study for science and can’t” – and some were nearly a page long.

Technically, it was an outline. But I knew what would happen. I’d get to the first vague card and flail. So how to fill them out?

I set the notecards aside and looked at the short summary of the book. That was from the main character’s point of view. So I wrote another one, this time from the antagonist’s point of view. Then I wrote another one, this time from the main character’s best friend’s point of view. Many things, so many many things, clicked into place. Some things that needed to happen in existing scenes, and other things that required their own scenes.

Back to the first notecard. The first scene. I thought through it in my head, typing out everything I saw, including random bits of dialogue I liked. On to the second, the third, and so on. I went through them one by one until each scene had at least a five sentence paragraph of description.

I had enough to put together a solid outline for my editor, with dozens of random lines of dialogue and details to spare. She came back with some great suggestions, I revised the outline, and then I knocked out the first draft in less than four months – a record for me.

There’s nothing wrong with pantsing. Some writers can rock it. I’ve heard Dean Koontz, whom I admire greatly, writes his novels from start to finish as soon as the concept is in his mind. But I am no Dean Koontz.

Having a solid outline for once led to a completely different writing experience, in a great way. Sitting down at the computer and realizing you have reached one of those vague, one-sentence scenes usually leads to procrastination via scrolling through Doctor Who GIFs on Tumblr and tweeting about how craptastic your writing is going today. (At least, if you’re me.) Is it possible that you’ll veer from your outline as you write the first draft? Of course! But outlines can be adjusted.

If pantsing, or (in my case) fake outlining, isn’t working for you, give the real deal a try. As a great pirate once said, “they’re more guidelines than actual rules.”