Pantsing, Plotting, and Outlines

Please welcome guest blogger Christopher T Nugent. This is his first ever blog post! 

Nugent-Handwriting
Christopher’s actual hand

Welcome to my first blog post EVER!

Hi, I’m Christopher T Nugent, and I’m a reformed pantser.

Becoming a novelist

Back in 2000, I attended GenCon Indy and sat through a panel which featured Tracy Hickman, some other dudes I didn’t know, and my favorite author: R. A. “Bob” Salvatore. The consensus on the panel was that amateurs will write a few chapters, or maybe only one, and they’ll try over and over to perfect the start of their novel without ever finishing the book.

Someone in the audience asked about the writing process, and Bob Salvatore said something along the lines of, ‘When you’re writing to put food on the table, you don’t wait for the perfect music, the perfect setting, the perfect time of day. You write. You write until it’s finished, and when your first book is done, you’re a novelist.’

Pantsing

If you started like me, you picked up a pen, or opened your word processing program, and started putting words on a paper/screen. Maybe you knew you were in for a boatload of revisions, but I didn’t. I started by handwriting my novels (a bad habit I continue to this day). With a solid understanding of my characters, coupled with several notebooks full of fleshing them out, it took me 8 years to handwrite my first novel and another two years to type it up. But it didn’t matter at the time how long it took; I was officially a novelist.

Nugent-Novel-Notebooks
My entire first novel, in eight notebooks.

 

Plotting

I was thrilled with that accomplishment, but after ten years with those characters, I wasn’t done telling their story. However, I didn’t want to spend another ten years writing their sequel, so I outlined it. I knew my characters well enough by that point and had an idea of how to follow up the first book. With that outline, I wrote out my second novel in 4 months. Oh, the happy dance I did! With those two books under my belt, I started revising and editing, getting beta readers, and submitting chapters at a time on sites like Critique Circle. (But don’t go looking now; I took down all that old crap.)

Testing the power of plotting

As an official novelist twice over, I still wasn’t satisfied with my results. I wondered if that outline was truly the reason I finished my second novel in months not years. For NaNoWriMo 2014, I loglined and outlined a book and started writing on November 1st. I finished that novel in 35 calendar days and patted myself on the back. Two years of revisions and editing later, I’m competing in contests with that book, but the point was proving to myself that outlines matter.

Outlining

So what goes into an outline? Think of the outline as directions to someplace you’ve never been, as drawn by a friend. Maybe that friend has given you detailed instructions, or maybe the directions contain little more than arrows. That outline tells you how to get where you’re going. So where are you going?

Below is a sample of my outlining structure. You may have learned this in high school as I did, but how you structure your outline is less important than making sure it’s as detailed as you need it to be in order to get somewhere with your writing.

Scan0001
My formal outline structure.

I begin my current projects with a log line. If I can summarize an entire novel’s plot into a single sentence, I have arrows pointing me where to go. It’s then my job to outline how to get there. Writing my novel is thus driving down the road, and chapters represent road signs, transitioning me from one road to the next. If you’ll forgive me extending the metaphor just a bit more, if your writing takes you on a detour, the outline helps you get back on the right road.

Plotter4Life

Now, I can’t give up my natural pantsing ways, but I’ve found I’ll be a plotter for life. The solution my writing methods worked out is to create my logline and outline, and then start paving the road myself. If a few chapters end up taking me away from my outline, I adjust it and keep going. One benefit to writing every page is I never go back to revise myself until the work is done. On a computer, I’m constantly scrolling up and down through the earlier parts and making endless revisions to chapters one through three.

Parting thoughts

I would encourage everyone to consider creating an outline for his or her novels. For one, it helps prevent plot holes if you have an idea of where you’re going, where you’ve been, and what the journey is supposed to look like. For another, even a simple outline makes writing the query and synopsis much easier.

My first novel wandered, my notes were extensive, and my writing was crap. I’m rather proud of all 8 notebooks it took to finish that first book, but with a good outline, I now finish a novel each November in around a month and under 400 written pages (two college ruled 200-page notebooks).

I swear, before I’m through, Mead 5 Star and Pilot pens are going to be my official sponsors.

If you have thoughts about your conversion from pantser to plotter, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. And if you’re a diehard one way or the other, well, I’d like to hear what your writing process is like from “Page 1” to “The End.”

About Christopher

editor-Christopher

A native of an off-central, black hole of a Florida county, I completed my Associate Degree in 2011, Bachelors in 2013, and Masters in 2016. I’ve worked as an editor beginning in 2009 with Upper Deck Entertainment as a contributing editor to their Warcraft Miniatures table-top game. I started freelance editing at the end of 2010.

Related Posts from MS Editors

Chapter Outlining like a Pantser by Lara

10 thoughts on “Pantsing, Plotting, and Outlines

  1. I’m a pantser at heart, and I tell ya, that first draft seems to be my outline. I think I’d need fewer revisions if I could outline a plot, but the thing is, I don’t have the whole story in my head when I start. And when I try to think of the whole story, I go blank, freeze up. So I start writing. My characters start speaking to me as scenes begin developing. I’ll have no idea how a story is supposed to end until I’m almost there.

    I’m not against plotting. In fact, I want to be a plotter. It would be more efficient that way. But my brain doesn’t seem to work that way. I wrote my first draft in three weeks, and it was a bit of a mess. I had to do a complete rewrite after that, but I was able to reuse large parts of draft 1, so it wasn’t all bad. And considering it didn’t take me that much time to do it, maybe it’s okay that I’m not a plotter. I dunno. Maybe it’s a skill I can learn.

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    1. You are plotting! You just do it with an “exploratory draft” 🙂 Every writer has a different style. Some plan their route with a road map and take detours when necessary. Many others just start driving, and can’t see further than their headlights!

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      1. Hi, Zoe!
        I love how Lara described it, ‘driving but unable to see past the headlights.’
        Congratulations on such a blisteringly fast first draft!

        If you are looking to train your brain to plot a bit, you could practice describing the whole book you plan to write in a single line. Think of it as filling the gas tank, which tells you how far you can go, and then get driving.

        What I mean is, it might cut back on rewrites if you know your manuscript’s version of a mission statement. Then, as you’re writing, you can keep it in the back of your mind to remind you to stay on track.

        But, if you’re having success with your method, keep going! I was aiming this article more for people who get stuck as pantsers.

        Happy writing!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oooh. Nice elaboration of the metaphor! I can’t take credit for it. I got it from Anne Lamott, who got it from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Kyra!
      I can’t give up my pantsing ways completely, but outlining truly drives my writing much faster than putting pen to paper without a map.
      There’s a freedom to the open road as there is to free writing, but I hope my analogies and metaphors help someone looking for more structure to their writing process.
      No matter what, I respect all authors who reach their writing destinations.

      Liked by 1 person

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