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Outlining? What’s that?

September 19, 2013

So, late last week I decided that my current novel outline wasn’t going to cut it. Much of it felt felt too slow, the stakes weren’t high enough and the climax went in my protagonist’s favor just a little bit too easily. Something had to be done about this, I thought. I therefore took a short break from writing new material in order to revise my plan based on what I’ve learnt so far.

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After two days, the revised outline remained incomplete but was nonetheless looking good. It significantly tightened the story’s beginning and introduced an element of time pressure to make things harder for my protagonist early on. Better still, it looks as though I’ll be able to implement it in the first redraft without too much hassle, as many of my existing scenes can easily be adapted to fit. The climax and ending, however, remained a problem. Thus, rather than lose any more writing time, I decided to go back to the novel and hope the ending would come when I got nearer.

Naturally, I managed to stray from the new outline within 500 words of a new scene.

This scene was originally intended as little more than a comedown from the “big” scene I mentioned a little while back. When I actually wrote it down, it turned out to be more pivotal than the scene that preceded it. While the earlier scene revolved around my protagonist making a life-altering decision, this new scene marks the beginning of the fallout from that decision. And while there was always going to be a fallout (this is around midway into the story), what happened was far more brutal than what I originally had in mind.

Quite how this will affect the outline, I’ve yet to fully work out. What I do know is that at least one new character needs to be introduced. This character will be interacting with the protagonist a lot from now on, and so is likely to have a big impact on subsequent events. Since I have no idea what that impact will be, I’ve decided to go with the flow for a while and see what happens. In other words, I’m going to be pantsing again.

My track record with pantsing is…not great. My earlier novel attempts were done this way, and none ended remotely well. Thanks to the snowflake method and other resources, however, I know a lot more about plot and structure than I did the last time around. Therefore, I’ll hopefully be able to tell early on if my novel is starting to derail, and thus will not have to delete too much text the next time I make a outline.

At this point, I’m at 55k on the main WIP. I’m still playing around with short stories, but have yet to write one through to completion. Still, this has proved to be the best bout of writing that I’ve done in years, and I can only hope that it’s a sign of things to come.

Has anyone else tried swapping back and forth between planning and pantsing?  How did it go? Feel free to leave your thoughts below.


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  1. I’ve dabbled with both. I’m really trying to resist the urge to hit the pants (not my best metaphor…) at the moment as I soldier on through the snowflake method. But its hard. I want to write, and I have started to stray too. I generally find though that without a strong outline, the pantsy writing (TM) I do usually ends up as garbage, the idea not holding up to scrutiny, which makes me more frustrated and I give up. Two novels have gone on the shelf in that manner.

    Dunno mate. I think if it feels right then it’s working. If your pants start to smell (seriously, what’s up with me tonight!?!?) then you’ll know and that’s the point the discipline should probably kick in and say, “right, pants off. I’m going back to the rigid way.”


    • The same’s happened to me before now: without an outline I tend to put wordcount ahead of all else and go off on long tangents, which killed off almost every project I attempted. Rigid outlining seemed the obvious solution, but it now seems that I’m unable to stick to such outlines. I’ll probably still produce such outlines in the future as a kind of “draft 0”, but I won’t then go in expecting to follow them all the way.

      Seems to be working so far; I’m set to introduce the new character today or tomorrow, so I’ll soon know if things are going wrong…I think…

      What step are you on in the snowflake at this point, by the way?

      • From what I’ve seen you’ll figure it out. Plus, if you’re anything like me, playing with techniques and approaches is half the fun!

        As for my WIP, still on step 5. ‘Still’ because work and life have been manic the last fortnight. At best I’m getting an hour a day to write, and that’s never in chunks of more than 10 minutes at a time! So, still on step 5 (story from characters POV). Got 3 POV characters so its taking a while. I know that for future novels (oh, the optimism ;-)) I’ll play with the methodology, but I want to try it completely once. See what works, and why.

        On the plus side, got two short stories coming together. The few minutes I get seemed better spent on them and is keeping me from ‘abusing’ my novel ;-).

      • Well, fingers crossed :). Playing around with techniques has indeed been fun, though I think the best part will be looking back in a few years time and seeing how I’ve changed. When I first started writing, I never planned ahead and only ever wrote in 1st person. Nowadays…yeah.

        Fair enough with regards to your main WIP. Here’s hoping things quieten down further down the line. And yeah, I reckon that every writer should try the snowflake at some point, really. I’ll probably won’t use the whole thing the next time around, but there are certain parts of it that I’ll be using again.

        Best of luck with those short stories :). Still struggling with those, myself. I keep on having ideas for individual concepts or scenes, but can’t yet seem to put them together in any meaningful way.

  2. From the Urban Dictionary–


    1. to forcefully remove another person pants as a form of embarrassment

    Well, I’ve frequently been embarrassed by my writing, so it kinda fits. Actually, we had this discussion previously, and, yeah, I generally pants first and tailor later. Or something like that.

    • I haven’t been embarrassed by my writing all that often, but only because I didn’t used to show it all that often. There’s a creative writing group at the uni I’m going to, so I ought to be getting embarrassed a lot more starting from November 😉

      Ah, right, I remember that :D. I’m probably still going to outline next time around, but won’t actually count on following said outline. That probably sounds very strange and pointless, but it seems to be working so far :).

  3. So I sort of jumble a bunch of methods together. I might have mentioned this before, but I start with my strongest idea and write that scene (For Other Systems, it was Orchid and Abby’s separation and Abby’s escape) Then I outline and describe important things, write quick character dossiers/name them, then rewrite important points of outline on 3 x 5 cards. For Example

    Chapter 1:
    Abby watching stars. Introduce Boyd Lei Kids and Rory.
    Describe Abby’s poverty and Seattle

    I give myself one day per card for my rough draft so it takes me a month or two at the most to write. Then I rewrite and let me characters take over. Note I normally write 4 – 7 drafts, but getting the first one out quickly means I don’t throw away the project when I am sick of looking at it.

    • Not sure if you’ve mentioned this before or not, to be honest, but it does sound like a very good way of doing things.Out of interest, did you already have a clear idea of background details (say, the political situation on Kyrios and the trouble back on Earth) when writing the first set of scenes?

      Also, I just wanted to say that finishing a first draft that quickly is seriously impressive. I’ve taken nearly three months so far and will probably take at least another three to get anywhere near to the end. Speed does not seem to be one of my strengths at the moment.

    • Aaaaand…that should have been Kipos, not “Kyrios”. And this is why I shouldn’t rely on memory >_<

      • To answer your question: no idea, just basic things.

        In that early draft, I did make a note that said “Kipos: scientifically and financially rich. Light speed tech. FTL communications. handheld radiowave communication, Stasis.” while “Earth: huge income disparity and technological decline, methane recycling.”

        Another early scene that was completely changed was Abby waking up beside Arely (this person split and became Helen and Harden) knowing no idea where she was only that she was in bed with this woman and then puking all over her. The reason this was important was that I began to describe the billet and attached head. One I figured out the billet, I went back and figured out the room the DePaul’s kept her in and then her housing situation on Earth.
        Though the scene changed, the descriptions of the room didn’t.

        I hope that answers your question.

      • It does indeed answer my question :). Thank you very much for taking the answer; I’ve really found this quite enlightening.

  4. The trouble with outlining is that the plot reveals itself as thin or forces the characters in directions they don’t believably go.
    The trouble with pantsing is the story can get stuck in natural-feeling scenes or inner monologues that offer no drama or narrative shape/drive.
    What I do is have a sketchy outline which satisfies ‘hero’s journey’ checklist, then I start pantsing within it. When the outline reveals itself to be pants, I get new ideas not by pantsing but mainly from my subconscious (what Stephen King calls ‘the boys in the basement’) in down time – walking, dosing, gym-ing, in the bath etc.
    OR, as happened to me this summer, I realise – shucks – the plot can’t go forward until I get deeper into the character who has to drive it, and I’m forced to put a stop on pushing forward and go back and rework him/her in more depth as a rounded, authentic character. I do this with both editorial brain and the boys in the basement until the character feels alive in my mind (rather than a chess piece I’m moving) and ‘shows’ me the way forward.
    In the summer this going-back process cost me 6 weeks, but it wasn’t time wasted. The chapters behind me will need 6 weeks less reworking on the second draft, and I did eventually find a forward outline, phew. It is as ever thin, but it’s so far supporting the weight of my pantsing within it. 3 chapters to go, and key details are still changing.
    When I’m horribly stuck for what happens next, I cheer myself with the thought that, with luck, the reader won’t find it easy to anticipate the next plot turn either. Following an outline runs the danger of predictability or give an impression of joining the dots.
    Hope this makes sense!

    • Agreed on both accounts; the latter point is what killed most of my earlier writing projects, which is why I went for a more planning-heavy approach this time around. All of that planning sounded brilliant until I actually tried to write it, at which point the stilted nature of the plan became all to clear.

      Makes sense to me: I can’t imagine that further pantsing would ever help if the novel has already derailed (I used to try this; I should know). I do think I’ll go with a slightly looser outline the next time around, since I’ll basically be expecting to deviate from it at some point.

      Regarding your final paragraph: I’ll be sure to keep that in mind from now on :). That ought to make me feel a bit better the next time I get stuck on something.

      Best of luck with the final chapters; I hope you’re planning to celebrate when they’re done! 😀

      • I sure am! Lots of flopping and doing anything but write for a while, before starting to give it the major facelift a lot of it still needs.

  5. melorajohnson permalink

    I’m moving into the realm of combining pantsing and planning myself. It’s a new thing for me. I’ve always been a pantser but another writer helped me outline a short story recently and it flowed really well as I wrote it. Hopefully this is the beginning of something beautiful.

    • Looks like we got to this point via opposite routes, then. Really hope it works out for you :). Are you planning to blog about this down the line?

      • melorajohnson permalink

        Sure. I’m working on using the Snowflake method, both for short stories and a novel. I’m also working on distilling Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal information on how to plot a novel into steps that I can combine with the Snowflake Method for plotting my NaNoWriMo campaign so I expect that will be my next post, sometime later this week.

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