From Pantser to Planner: Tips on Outlining your Novel

Would you believe me if I told you that not four years ago, I sat down to write a four-book fantasy series with nothing written down, just ten years of thoughts swirling around my head? What if I said I did it in Comic Sans because I had read on Tumblr that it “promotes creativity?”


Well, you better believe it because I did.


Since then, I have grown immensely as a writer, as we all do when we get stuck, research, learn from our mistakes, and improve our craft and habits. One thing I learned throughout these years was how valuable taking a little bit of extra time could be to get organized.


So, if you are interested in converting from frantic pantser to a possibly still frantic but more organized planner, then come along on a journey with me.


Let me dispel some notions first.


First, remember that every writer is different. It took me a lot of trial and error to find out what makes my writer-brain click when it comes to the process of laying down a story. Look at James Patterson who has written over 200 books. Co-authoring and writing style aside, the man can produce. If you watch his Master Class, he swears by meticulously outlining his books and redrafting those outlines two, sometimes three times. Now look at George R.R. Martin. Will he ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire? We may never know, but he will never, ever change the way he writes (“gardens”, as he puts it) because it works for him.


Second, just because you are outlining does not mean you are losing out on moments of creativity. Don’t let that scare you away from pre-planning. You may even become more inspired by seeing all your moments and scenes organized before you in one place. That’s where the magic happens.


Finally, remember that you don’t have to label what you do and therefore feel like you must remain in that bucket. Planner, pantser, plantser, gardener, architect, discovery writer etc. The point is that you write and you have to start somewhere, which is why I recommend doing a little bit outlining to help guide you in an organized way on your writing journey.


Now, let’s begin.


1. Start with what you know.

Do you know the ending already? Great. Write that down. Maybe you have had this vivid, exciting scene for the beginning of Act 2, but you don’t know what happens before that. Amazing, write that down as well. Then, when you have everything that you know about your story already, written down in the general order you see them happening in, just go in and fill in the cracks. Any major plot holes, how your characters got from A to B, important story beats that your character makes along the way, etc.

It’s like painting; one brush stroke at a time. At first it looks like weird chaos, but as you add more, cover some things, erase others, it starts to come together.


2. Decide on what type of “bones” you prefer.

The story structure that you like to write in is like the bones of a house. It’s structurally necessary to every house, it holds everything together, but there are many ways to construct it. When I outline my series, since I have multiple characters, I outline each character’s journey according to the Save The Cat! 15 Point Beat Sheet. It could be because film school hammered it into my skull, but personally I like writing each important beat for my characters to hit.

When I am writing a novel with one singular character and perspective, I section it off into four-part acts. For The One-Horned Heretic, I used Orphan-Wanderer-Warrior-Martyr which is a variation of The Moral Premise.

You may like a simple Three Act Structure, The Hero’s Journey, or Kishōtenketsu, Japanese four-act horror structure. There are many ways to write a story! Whichever it is, keep it in mind when you begin the next step.


3. Break it down by scene.

Don’t start sectioning off chapters yet or you will lose your mind. Visualize the scenes and break them down into concise one to two paragraph summaries. CONCISE! Pretend that each scene breakdown is an elevator pitch, which is good practice in and of itself. You will have plenty of time to world build and create beautiful prose later. Get down all the necessary plot points, characterization, maybe a line of dialogue you know you want to include. Keep these lumped relatively into the structure buckets that you decided on in the previous step so you know you are hitting the important story beats.


4. Give it another once-over.

If you are like me, then the first outline is pure, unbridled chaos. I have notes in the margins for twists and secrets. I have brackets with information I needed to figure out later, names I haven’t named yet, maybe a few plot holes. Go through and clean it up but – and this is important – don’t go crazy over the details. It’s a basic road map, not a topographical one. You just have to know where you are going, not the elevation or geographic data.

James Patterson claims that your outline should be so complete and polished a publisher would buy your book based off the outline alone. When you are as famous as James Patterson, that’s fine. But for now, just make sure it makes sense to you and makes your life easier, not harder.


5. Begin writing!

Now you can dive in headfirst and let your creative heart finally sing. For me personally, at this point I will be bursting at the seams with creative energy after working on this outline. I have spent so much time summarizing the entirety of my book, I will have so many scenes and moments ready to be unleashed on a first draft that I hit the ground running and it all comes pouring out.

And here’s the thing; because you have it outlined, you don’t have to start at the beginning. *gasp* Writing out of order?! I know, it’s scary, right? But I like at least knowing this in the back of my head, that if I get stuck somewhere or a scene just isn’t coming to me, I can go write another one!


Things to always remember:

It’s okay if things change from your outline. They almost always will. But you will write faster and be less stressed about where your story is going which in turn leaves more brain space for creativity and connection to your story and characters.


Outlining looks different for everyone. There was a point where buying corkboards and writing scenes out on color coded Post-Its was what worked best for me. That helped me so much in discovering the basics of my story before I then switched it over to a more structured, linear Word document. For some, it could be handwriting outlines in a notebook, or using thought map software. What matters the most is that you find what works for you and don’t become discouraged when something doesn’t.

Finally, remember to be patient. With yourself, with your story, with your process.


If you are worried that taking the extra time to outline would “set you back”, then I ask you, what is the rush? Are you rushing to get published? You won’t be published until you finish the draft. Are you rushing to the invisible finish line of the first draft? Having an incomplete draft when you get there will just mean more time editing and revising.


I am a firm believer the process of writing is the best part and the greatest reward. You learn so much along the way, about yourself, your characters, and your world. Take your time, savor all the moments, from the brainstorming to the final revisions, all the outlining and planning in between, because when you finish your book and you sit back into that content feeling of completing something, of pouring so much of yourself into it…that’s the greatest feeling in the world.


Meet Lily Hammer

Lily Hammer writes grimdark fantasy, speculative fiction, and a smidgeon of horror somewhere between New York City and the Jersey shore. Formally educated in film writing and employed in the AAA video game industry, she now works from home in digital marketing and can write consistently while her two cats wreak havoc around her. Kate is currently finishing the (hopefully) final draft of her debut grimdark novel, The One-Horned Heretic, while also swatting away short story ideas like gnats. Some of them make it through.


She has a monthly newsletter with a free social media marketing guide for authors and a quarterly author interview. You can find her on Instagram @lilyhammerwriting, on Twitter @lilyhammer0709, and on her website at www.lilyhammerwriting.com


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