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The Pantser's Guide to Outlining

Forgive me writers, for I am a pantser. It has been 438 days since my last outline.

Pantsers, I know we hate outlining. It’s in the name. A pantser flies by the seat of their pants and a plotter plots and outlines. Over my years of writing, I have learned an unpleasant truth for pantsers like us. If you want a well put together story that will leave a reader turning the pages at 2 am, then you have to outline.

HOWEVER! Outlining does not have to be the first thing you do.

As a pantser myself, outlining before I write the story is a special kind of torture. I go in with an outline and I’m focused on how to get to the next plot point. I don’t get to enjoy my favorite parts of writing when I start with an outline. I like to have an ongoing dialogue with my characters and learn about them through the actions they choose. If I’m being honest, I like it when my characters surprise me. Of course I know they are fictional people of my creation, but I’d be lying if I said that every creative decision is a premeditated one.

The truth of the matter is that the plan I set out with will never be the plan I end up with. That is the reason I don’t outline. I am a writer, but I also minored in mathematics, and the math side of my brain hates an unsolved problem. If I do outline, I will eventually run into a problem with that outline. Then I will freak out, hyper-fixate on that problem, redo the whole outline, and lose the core message of the story as I’m doing it.

If any of that resonated with you, or if you too hate outlining, there is hope! Here are five steps that I use when approaching a writing project.

Step 1: You Are Struck With an Idea

It’s probably 2 am, or somewhere very odd. First thing you’ll want to do is write down everything you can. The order does not matter. The ideas don’t need to make sense together (oftentimes they won’t). You can write it with pen and paper, on the notes app of your phone, even crayon if you have to. Yes, I have used crayon before when I got struck with the idea for Ella and The Prince of Rosailles at my cousin’s 4th birthday party. I did say it was usually somewhere odd. It’s important to get those ideas down as fast as possible, otherwise you run the risk of them disappearing into thin air. Inspiration is a fickle creature.

Step 2: Get a General Grasp of 1-2 Story Elements

Personally, I like my stories character driven, so I tend to focus on who I think my characters are and what they want. I also spend an absolutely absurd amount of time picking out character names, but don’t we all? You’ll also want to know the main conflict of the story. These are the primary building blocks of any story. It’s important to know both before going in, but you do not have to know them inside and out in order to start. Like I said before, my characters often surprise me, and as a result so does the plot. Your story elements do not have to be ironclad at this stage. If your little writer heart is begging you to write, then make this step short and move on to step 3!

Step 3: Write!

Pantsers! Are you ready to boggle the minds of all of the plotters? Of course you are. Once I have the most general idea of the characters and aesthetics of the world, I start to write. I do this with the FULL understanding that the resulting draft is not going to be anywhere near ready to publish and that most of the story might not stick. So why start writing now?

We pantsers typically hate the idea of knowing exactly where the story is going. We like to write our first drafts to discover the story for ourselves. Even with an outline, there is no such thing as a perfect first draft (or a perfect final draft for that matter). After dispelling the myth of a perfect first draft, we free ourselves up to be our true creative selves. I love first drafts now, because I am just dying to know what happens next. When following this method, do not expect your first draft to be perfect, but do expect to have a lot of fun writing it! A bad first draft is better than no first draft, because now we get to do something with it.

Step 4: Tracking

Remember how I said that in order to have a masterfully written story there has to be an outline? Baby steps here people. Let me introduce you to something I call tracking. I came to realize that tracking is just gathering information about your story.

We start with an initial read through of our hobgoblin draft. As we read, we track story elements. The first two I usually tackle are the general storyline, quite literally, what happened in this chapter? And character development, how did my character’s react? How did their reactions and thoughts change over the course of the story? There are several other things you can track if you’re feeling up to it too!

Here’s a list:

  • Worldbuilding

  • Antagonist’s motives/development

  • Timeline and scene changes

  • Clues, foreshadowing, and red herrings

  • Romance and friendships

You can pick and choose to fit your needs. At some point I will usually go through that whole list, but I like to start with just two and work my way through that list in subsequent drafts as the book becomes more polished.

Step 5: Drumroll please… Outlining!

Now that we have a bunch of story possibilities and a really good grasp of our characters, it’s time to actually outline: Reorder, Reuse, Rearrange. One of my favorite college professors once suggested cutting up and rearranging essays, because sometimes you have the right ideas, but in the wrong order. If you need to, literally cut and paste! When I was writing the first draft of The Marbhaven Reaper, I found whole fight scenes that actually needed to be moved around in order to build proper suspense to the Big Bad. In my original draft, the stakes fluctuated instead of building steadily. To build up the Big Bad, the stakes had to be raised for each fight. I laid each fight scene out, tracked the stakes, and reordered them until they made sense.

Think of it like a puzzle. Some people like to find all of the edge pieces first and work their way forward. Other people like to look at the big picture and arrange their pieces according to what they see. It’s easier for me to start by seeing what the picture could be and arranging my pieces that way. With any puzzle there’s a lot of trial and error.

Allowing myself to choose my own writing journey and find what works for me has helped me fall in love with writing over and over again. It’s never the same draft to draft or book to book, but it always follows these five steps. Sometimes I plan more, sometimes I plan less. When drafting, there are always going to be people telling you that the way you write is wrong. It’s not efficient, you aren’t going to end up with a good story. I’m a big advocate for finding whatever works for you. Don’t worry so much about how you should be doing it. Instead decide what you need to do to get it done.

What is going to get you excited to come to the table and write?

Meet Maile Starr

Maile Starr is a Romance and New Adult author working towards her dream of becoming a self-published author. Her current works in progress are Ella and The Prince of Rosailles, a dual-perspective Cinderella retelling Romance, and The Marbhaven Reaper, an adventure into the world of Reapers in the New Adult genre! She believes that storytelling is the best way to teach and the best way to learn. In her free time you can find her singing incessantly, pining after Disneyland, or being an absolute nerd with her husband.

Contact Maile on Instagram @linesinthestarrs or visit her website

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