Thursday, August 4, 2016

For All The Pantsers Out There

*This is a re-post from 2011, but I got several questions at Murder Goes South about my very pantsy outlining process, so I'm sharing again.

Are you an Outliner or a Pantser? My guess is you know.

As a former English teacher, I'm supposed to be a fan of outlines. But here's my dirty little secretI hate the things. I taught my students how to create them, use them, revise them, but deep inside I was all bletch.

And then I wrote a mystery novel without an outline, flyingas it wereby the seat of my pants. I went Pantser all the way, baby. It took me seven years to get the thing in somewhat novel-shaped form, and I swore I'd never do another mystery novel that way ever again. Outlines started looking pretty sexy.

But they're not. Outlines are mean snippy things, the schoolmarms of pre-writing. My Muse went on vacation. I was alone with the blank page, and the Outline was just sitting there, mocking me.

But then I got a visit from that other MuseDesperationand she suggested something radical. And so we have this thing now (see right).

This is my version of a timelinethe eight-day span of my novel with descending business card-sized chunks of the scenes that happen each day. I can see the WHOLE book this way, plus move bits and pieces around as I see fit (or even take them out). I still get to write like a Pantserjust diving right in, scribbling scene after scene, letting the story go where it willbut when I'm done, I have a very tactile, spatially-coherent way to give those scenes some order.

I stole this idea from Trey, one of my main characters. He likes things organized and linear (he loooves outlines) and this is one of his ways of making sense of a whole lot of information. And surprisingly enough, it worked for non-linear me. I could never create a book this way, but it sure helped while revising it. And I'll take all the help I can get (thanks, Trey. You're a mensch).

PS: For you word mavens out there, here is an interesting explanation of where the phrase "flying by the seat of your pants" actually originates.


  1. Very cool! I could see adapting this for the classroom - would you mind if I stole and adapted?

  2. Wow, that's so cool! Very impressive. I did something similar once while plotting my sequel. You've done it in a very organized way.

  3. Pantser all the way!
    Now classes require an outline and detailed notes before the outline. I`m all bletch about that too.

  4. Steal away, Kathy. I had all these defunct business cards lying around that turned out to be the perfect size.

    Thanks, Elena. I'm curious what your similar method looked like. Please do share if you don't mind?

    And hey, Daedalus! Why am I not surprised you're a Pantser (and yet I also know you do your research and do it well). So I'm curious how you balance planning/seat of pantsing?

  5. Outlines are pure evil. Although I'm am beyond impressed with your notecard collage!

  6. Tina,

    I was trained before the arrival of inexpensive computer databases, so we were taught to make notecards first of every source, and then to arrange those sources in order as we worked though writing our monographs. Thus, in a way you could see the book develop in the notes, though the greatest sin was to see some author's "notecards turning." Instead, we should have been taught to make notecards for every event and argument, with sub-events and arguments on seperate cards, so that the book could be laid out like your photo. Love it.

  7. I do a hybrid version of this: I write beats and dialogue lines on separate index cards. I haven't thought of organizing all of this as a timeline the way you do - Brillant! I might give it a try.
    And still another version I've learned from a conference: write your thoughts/outline entries/timeline on post it notes. Open a manila folder and line up your post its in the order you wish. This is another good exercise for characterization too - write up traits and trade them around.
    Shared and thank you!

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    2. These are all such great suggestions -- very hands on. I love Scrivener because it allows me to organize scene by scene, but I still use this approach because it allows me to *see* the whole thing.