A Thought From A Reformed Pantser


As I’ve mentioned before, I started this whole writing game as a pantser, someone who wrote by the seat of her pants and only went back afterward to fix the inconsistencies that might crop up because of it. It worked for me, for a while. It was only during the writing of Kestrel’s Dance that I came to understand the comfort of writing from a plan. Somewhere around Chapter Nineteen I sat down and laid out the events that had to happen from that point to the end, broken into chapter-sized chunks. It made things so easy! Why hadn’t anyone told me about this before? *laughs* So when I sat down to work on the New Shiny, I thought, “Hey, I must outline this book from start to finish. I’ll lay out each and every event, complete with details and subplot woven in, before I start to write. Once I do that, I’ll whip through it in a matter of weeks, and I will be the baddest writer-girl around!”


When I was a student, whether I was writing papers on the stages of mortality or Julius Caesar or common hoof diseases of horses, all my teachers insisted on a formal outline. You remember those, don’t you? The ones that start with a thesis sentence, and under that is broad topic Roman Numeral I, followed by subtopics A, B, C, sub-subtopics of 1, 2, 3, and so on. I hated those bloody things in school. As a pantser, I couldn’t possibly write something brilliant while being constrained that way. I tended to take all my notes and write my papers, then create the outline to match. Well, that’s how I felt trying to outline the New Shiny. I couldn’t think of how to lay it all out in that tight, formal way. It was too big, there was too much and suddenly the writing felt less like fun and more like a Sisyphean boulder. I had a two page rambling document that told the whole story, but it was goofy and loose and not anything like a real outline.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, my darling husband gave me Secret Histories, the Tim Powers bibliography, for Christmas. It’s not just a list of his work, no sir. It includes early drafts, plotting notes and even 20,000 words of his first, unfinished novel. As a Tim Powers fan, I loved this book, but as a writer, I loved it even more. Because those plotting notes looked just like the goofy, rambling plan of mine. He even talks to himself in between ideas, something I do but don’t often admit. And it hit me…if it was okay for Tim Powers, a multiple award winning author of fantasy, to use a big organic stream-of-consciousness style of outline, well, then, it was okay for me, too! I know it won’t work for everyone, but it’s working for me. Once I have the whole thing worked out, I’ll break the rambly pages into chapter-sized bites, and ta-da! My kind of plan! I’m saved!

The point of all this is just to remind you that no one way is the right and true and only one, because there’s likely at least one writer out there somewhere who’s doing it the way you feel most comfortable. So don’t give in and don’t give up. It’s going to be an amazing year for all of us, I think.

Y’all just don’t tell my old English teachers, okay?


16 comments to A Thought From A Reformed Pantser

  • Great post, Misty! I’m a plotter, myself – always have been, and have become moreso, after I signed some contracts where a payment point was the editor’s acceptance of an outline. I can’t actually *imagine* pantsing my way through an entire novel – yet, some of my favorite authors are devout pantsers!

    (Incidentally, when I posted about the pants/plot distinction on my blog a while back, I heard from some indignant pantsers, saying that they were insulted by the term. I never was able to find out, though, what they preferred to be called, so they might be a vocal minority!)

  • Unicorn

    I also started out as a pantser, but drifted towards the plotter side as I went on. Now, I’m somewhere in between. For novels, I like to get an outline down (mostly after I’ve written the first chapter), but it’s not really an outline; more a hastily scribbled synopsis, rambling wildly. Usually the first sentence runs, “What the heck happens next?”
    And I also wrote first the essay, then the prewriting, if I ever actually bothered to do the prewriting at all. My teacher is very lenient about that sort of thing (being my mother too) and has learnt to tolerate with good grace the 5-page short story that gets turned in when the assignment was something like “Freewrite for five minutes about your thoughts on global warming”. For essays, poems or short fiction I always write by the seat of my pants; or at least, there’s no concrete outline – I write it in my head first, and then I sit down and write the story.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Welcome to the plotters world! It can never be said enough, so thanks for saying it, that when we talk about outlining a story, that doesn’t mean it has to be the old schoolhouse formal outline. It’s just getting the ideas on paper so you can think about them, remember them, and react to them. In the past, I’ve worked in chapter-sized chunks, knowing in my head where the end was going to be. Lately, I’ve set out target points from beginning to end and then to the more detailed chapter-sized outlining as I go. Hey, whatever works!

  • Mikaela

    My outlines are, well, sketchy. They list the things I know will happen, and how I *think* they will happen. That think is important. Let’s take The Sorcerer’s Outline. Everything I list in the outline happen, but four plot points that I thought would be seperate scenes, were combined into one scene. Totally unexpected. But oh so much better :D. Oh also, I know have a missing person, and they know that a sorcerer is involved. Fun!

  • Yeah! Go Misty! Cheers for the Organic Outline. Or OOPS — Organic Outline ProcesS. ๐Ÿ™‚ Sorry. I couldn’t resist giving it the initials.

    I too *hate* the old formal outlines and have always been organic in the planning stages. I’ve used loose notes, bubble or grape outlines, paragraph ourtlines, note cards, and they all work for me. The formal outlines don’t.

    That said, I really think the formal outlines are great for some things — for thinking logically about a topic and laying out an argument. For taking a process and creating a linear flowchart. For non-fiction. I even use a form of them at some point in a book when I am trying to make sure I have all the pesky ends tied down. But the Organic Outline ProcesS is perfect for getting into the mind of a character and letting my own writer’s mind be creative. Go OOPS.

  • I do a lot of stream of consciousness work on my books and stories, and invariably refer back to those notes as I write. I never really thought of them as outlines before, but you and Stuart are absolutely right, Misty. An outline doesn’t have to look like an outline to be of value. Great post.

  • This is *exactly* what I’ve been doing, Misty! The “rambling outline” is definitely like a freewrite, but I always have a good idea of where I’m going. I was doing this even when I thought it counted as pantsing, leaving notes for myself at the bottom of the work about where I was headed, because I also thought that an outline counted only if it was in the rigid, school-style format. Now I’m at the point where I’ve outlined in this format to the ending. And when I got stuck, I outlined in reverse from my chosen ending pointโ€”which was great for helping me figure out *how* to get from points A to B.

    What Faith said … go OOPS! ๐Ÿ˜€

  • For short stories I am typically a Panster. Lately however, I’ve tried formal outlining with my stories both long a short. The problem with that is I come up with a nice outline for the story but when it comes time to translate it to actual words, it gets tossed out of the window.

    A compromise I have begun experimenting with is breaking the story into scenes. Then I write what I need to happen in each scene without the structure of an outline. So far this seems to be working well.

  • My outlines aren’t really outlines either. I write synopses. I usually label one Word doc “*name of novel* Story Brainstorm” that’s more the stream of consciousness bits, where character descriptions and key elements, maybe a scene or two gets jotted down. It’s very conversational, like I’m talking to myself trying to figure it all out. I’ll discuss with my wife as well and I’ll label her thoughts. Then when I think I’ve got enough down to start a decent synopsis I’ll set up another Word doc called “*name of novel* Synopsis” and work one up from beginning to end, which could go anywhere from a couple pages to a few depending on how in depth I get. Once I’ve got it to where I want it I’ll start writing the novel from that, though I don’t stay rigid in that synopsis. If something sounds like it would happen in a different place or I realize that adding a scene I hadn’t planned on would tie two other scenes together better I’ll go off the beaten path, so to speak. And then the synopsis is there to help me figure out how to get the story back on track once I’ve written the new scene. I used to write completely organic with an idea for a beginning an idea of the end and a vague idea of a couple scenes all stuck up in my head and it never worked for me. I never finished anything. I’d tend to get another idea and have to try to write that one. And that’s another thing the synopsis helps me with, keeping an idea for later. I can write it out and then come back to it. I get so many ideas that pop into my head that it’s distracting and if I don’t get the premise down I’ll feel I have to focus on it before I lose it. And then I’m not finishing anything.

  • A good subject to kick off the new year! I’m a reformed pantser myself, as many of you will know. Outlines, however raggedy and incomplete, have been my salvation. Go tell it on the mountains.

  • englishpixie

    I’m a little bit of both – I like to have a vague outline prepared, but if I plan too much I get bored before I start because I feel like I’ve already written the story.

    How does being a professional author who prefers to ‘pants’ their writing tally with being asked to hand in outlines when submitting to publishers? My understanding is that once you’re established they want to be able to yes/no an outline of your new book before you start writing. So how do you combine the two – not being a planner but being required to supply a plan?

  • Englishpixie,
    that’s precisely what pushed me into outlining: contracts demanded it. I figured it was better to make the required outlining something useful to me rather than have to draft the entire book and then outline it, or throw together something I had no intention of following.

  • Englishpixie, from my own experience, the outline I turned in wasn’t the formal style either. It was more of a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, with all the random thoughts, plotting directions and reminders to myself cleaned out. I’d guess you’d want to check with your agent or with the publisher’s guidelines on what sort of outline they expect.

  • When I first heard people at cons talking about being a pantser, I thought they were talking German WWII tanks . Now it all makes sense. Funny.

    If you’re enjoying this new system, perhaps it’s more like Organic Outline Hoopla (OOH)!

  • englishpixie

    AJ and Misty, thanks for your answers! I feel a little scared, though – my plans are nothing like so organised even as that! I have a plot arc, roughly, but I have no idea what’s going to happen inbetween points I do know, or how long each point is going to take, until I get there.

    A lot of my writing happens organically, with something in my hindbrain supplying the clever connections when I reach the right place to put them. It’s like a little voice goes ‘See how this fits in here?’ But I can’t predict it ahead of time. So I think this is going to be a major tripping point for me if I do manage to get published ๐Ÿ™

  • Razziecat

    Wow. These comments are all fascinating to me. First, I never heard anyone but me use the term “organic” to refer to the way they wrote. Rewrites are hard for me because of the way my stories flow; taking stuff out is always easier than expanding it.

    I had very good luck outlining a couple of short stories, but I may have killed a novel because by the time I finished the outline, I’d lost my excitement about the story. I’ve found that doing the story in scenes, as Mark Wise says, works well for me, so I may try that to relight the spark of that novel.

    I also write out my thoughts, questions, ideas and intentions on a story as I go; then remove them once I’m firmly on the right track. And sometimes I just write an idea down as a series of impressions, sounds, colors, characters’ thoughts, etc. One of these pieces ended up as a poem, quite unintentionally (a dark one that frankly scares me a bit!)

    I guess I’m all over the map on outlines/planning/seat-of-the-pants writing.