Pantsing, Plotting, and Outlines

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

How Improv Can Improve Your Writing

I’ve mentioned before (in 7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue) that trying improv (the art of performed improvisation) can improve your writing.

Well, currently I’m reading Bossypants by Tina Fey, and in it she gives the rules of improv and describes how these rules have changed her life. The rules are as follows:

  1. Say “YES”
  2. Say “YES, AND…”
  3. Make statements
  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Applying these rules to your writing will help you soldier through a crummy first draft by shutting up your internal editor. The trick is to improv against yourself.

Say “YES”

Stop arguing with yourself and start writing. Stop saying you can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or you need to learn more before you can start. Just start. Your improv partner (you) might be crazy, but go with it. In fact, craziness usually translates into energy, so embrace the crazy and hammer out that draft.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

You can't be that kid standing at the top of the water slide overthinking it. You have to go down the chute_Tina Fey
Jason Merritt / Gettyimages

Say “Yes, AND…”

Rather than tearing at or criticizing what you’ve already created, build on that and create in a different direction.

If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth”–now we’re getting somewhere.

Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. Maybe you’ve hit a writer’s block. Don’t stop, don’t backtrack, don’t correct. Just blast through that obstacle in the weirdest way imaginable. Keep moving forward, as Walt Disney would say. Don’t stop moving forward until you’ve typed “The End;” then go back and start revising.

See Speed-Writing Your First Draft: 5 Tips as well as 10 Steps to Finishing a Novel for more ways to silence your inner critic while writing.

Make statements

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” … In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.

Have enough confidence in yourself that if you come to an obstacle, you’ll be able to get through it. If you need to, take inspiration from fictional characters. It’s their job to overcome obstacles.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.

If your improv partner (you) screws up a scene for you, just go with it. If your characters don’t cooperate with your plot, change your story. In fiction, you might be a writer who outlines or meticulously plots beforehand, but between Chapter One and The End, your characters are the monarchy. You might be an omnipotent god-with-a-keyboard, but your characters still need free will. Forcing your characters to abide by your plan turns them into objects, not characters.

In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

Look, as an editor, I’m not going to tell you that everything you write is going to be good enough for publication. But it is good enough for you to spend time writing it. Every thing you write is one step towards becoming a better author, even if those pages live in a drawer or only twelve people read your book and ten leave horrible reviews. You are enough, whether you are published or not. Even if you count a scene or an entire manuscript as a failure, you are not a failure. You accomplished something. You wrote something no one else could.

Everyone falls and everyone fails. The difference between an unpublished writer and a published one is grit—perseverance and resilience despite mistakes.

When you think you’ve messed up, work with it. When you’re knocked down, get back up again. I’m rooting for you.

This video is a great illustration of perseverance:

Psst: be sure to read Elizabeth’s post from last week, too!

Struggling writer? Listen to “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.

I don’t watch the show “Mad Men,” but I was inspired when fellow MS Editor Lara Willard sent me an article by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner.

His is a story that most writers and creatives can relate to: the need to write no matter what, coupled with years of rejection. He didn’t let it stop him; on the contrary, he says,  “Rejection enrages me, but that ‘I’ll show you!’ feeling is an extremely powerful motivator.”

I know that feeling. I had two “I’ll show you!” moments with college mentors, and both have stuck with me ever since. The first was my advisor, who told me straight-up, “You’ll never be assertive enough to be a freelancer.” When I got the taste of the work, though, of using what I knew about good writing to help other writers become better writers, I was hooked. I knew I had to prove her wrong, so I grew, I did the work, and I succeeded.

I got a chance to talk to that advisor the other day, and I told her that story. She told me that I hadn’t been assertive enough in college, but that she could tell that I had grown. We parted happily, and not until after she had told me that she was really, really happy to be wrong.

An “I’ll show you” moment also came up in my own creative writing. I’ve always loved to create using words, but the pressure to perform in college creative writing classes killed my storytelling almost completely. A teacher told me that the thing I wanted to create didn’t and couldn’t exist (side note: it does!), and I knew in that moment that it was going to be my life goal to prove her wrong, too. I wanted to write, and well. I wanted to create my specific thing, and  I wanted it to succeed.

I hope it does. While my journey as an editor is well underway, my journey as a writer is just beginning. Matthew Weiner has something to say about that, too:

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, ‘I’m going to give it a couple of years.’ You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul. There’s no shame in being a starving artist. Get a day job, but don’t get too good at it. It will take you away from your writing.”

My “day job” is editing now, and I do want to stay “too good” at it. Having said that, I am working to set aside time in my days for creative writing. It’s not just the “I’ll show you!” feeling motivating me; it’s what I need to do.

I know that many of you are in that same boat. You’ve had people tell you that your writing just doesn’t cut it, or that your stories just don’t have a place in this market. You’ve received more rejection letters than you would care to admit, and you’re starting to wonder if you’ll ever make it. If that’s true, read Matthew Weiner’s full piece here. See how rough the journey to “Mad Men” was for him, and let him tell you why he stuck with it. Then, think about what it is that makes you stick with your work.

Don’t ever give up–if writing is who you are, it’s worth every ounce of struggle and work you put into it. As long as you’re writing, you’re succeeding at being who you have chosen to be.

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Stakes: You need them!

This is a topic I’ve covered quite a bit on my own website, but I still see a lot of writers struggling to include stakes in their query. So we’re going to talk about it again here.

So you’re writing your query. It’s going well. You’ve established your setting. You’ve established your characters. You’ve even got some good conflict going. That’s all great! Now you want to end your query with maximum level impact. Something that will leave the reader with that I-gotta-have-this-immediately feeling.

How do you achieve that effect? If you can’t guess from the title of this post, the answer is stakes. Character, setting, and conflict are all necessary aspects of your query. But really standout queries also rely on clearly established stakes.

Stakes are more than just conflict. Stakes are what your main character stands to lose if they don’t win the conflict you’ve already presented. Without stakes, there’s no real reason to care whether the main character succeeds or not.

Would we care whether Frodo could destroy the ring if the fate of Middle Earth didn’t hang in the balance? Would we care whether Katniss could win the Hunger Games if failure didn’t mean death? Probably not. In your query letter, you need to be clear about what happens if the main character can’t successfully resolve the conflict.

If you’re unsure how exactly to do this, I have a simple formula I recommend. It goes as follows:

Main character must do [insert really hard thing] or else [insert really bad thing] will happen.

You can play with the wording, of course. But that’s the gist of it. Not too hard, is it?

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Don’t leave your reader wondering why they should care. Give them stakes!