Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Adventures in Outlining, Part II, by Natalie Charles

Remember when I said I was a pantser who wanted to give outlining a shot? These days, I'm a pantser who must outline to maintain her sanity and keep her word count goals on track.

I was a victim of Second Book Syndrome, during which I was nearly paralyzed by self-doubt. For that book (The Burden of Desire), I pantsed the way I always do, but then when I got stuck, I found I couldn't get unstuck quickly. I never want to be in that position again, and so I'm working with an outline for book three.

I started off by writing a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book, which came out to about five single-spaced pages. It’s not a detailed outline by any means, but it loosely sets forth the story, character developments, and major plot points. I then began writing without referring much to this outline. When I get lost, my synopsis is there to remind me where I'm going. As a bonus, it was useful when creating a proposal to send to my editor.

Thing is, I'm still pantsing around. I can't help it. My characters will do or say something, and that action or statement will illuminate an entirely new path I hadn't anticipated. Those kinds of surprises excite me and keep me writing, so I embrace them. Also, these developments end up feeling organic to the plot in a way that some of my initial outlining plans don't. I inevitably learn about my characters as I write, and some of the outlining plans fail because I didn't know my characters well enough at the outset. It's fine with me when characters direct the plot. At least the plot is moving

This is the part where I look into the computer screen and say: Pantsers, it's okay to outline. Really. You're not going to lose that seat-of-your-pants thrill that you get from writing. What you're going to reduce is the wasted time that comes from having a great idea at the outset and then writing yourself into a corner. It's much easier to solve plot problems up-front than to face the excruciating prospect of chopping off a chapter or two. I treat my outline as a safety net. I know it's there when I need it, but otherwise it's really just an exercise to get my thoughts straight before I began to write. I don't adhere to it rigidly. In fact, some parts of my outline are still a little murky. Okay, okay…a lot murky.

But hey, I'm a pantser at heart. Murky is kind of my thing.


  1. Great post, Natalie. I also think of my outline as my safety net. I often stray or things take a natural turn, but it's nice to refer back to when I need it. Good luck on the WIP :-)

    1. Thanks, Olivia! Writing a book is such a huge undertaking, so having a safety net in place has worked wonders this time around. I don't think I'd attempt another book without it. :-)

  2. Loved the post. Your process sounds very similar to mine. Always the synopsis/outline first then the writing. And it's the detours that makes the writing exciting and fresh for me. Then I revise my synopsis to fit the actual story. ;-)

    Best of luck with your current story.

    1. Thanks so much, Jen! I think that discovering the story along the way is what makes writing fun, don't you? That's the part that keeps me coming back for more. :-)