PANTSING MY WAY THROUGH AN OUTLINE

In an effort to dispel the ongoing nonsense “battle” between pantsers—authors who get an idea and start writing “by the seat of their pants”—and plotters—authors who write detailed outlines to which they slavishly adhere throughout the writing process—I’d like to show you exactly what a working outline looks like. Here you will see my actual hardcopy outline for the novella Devils of the Endless Deep, one of the few books in the ill-fated multi-author series The Fathomless Abyss. I wrote a bit about my struggles with it about eight years ago in “Devils of the Endless Writing Process,” but looking at the outline, you’ll see me struggling as I realize my original outline had some flaws, both major and minor, and then doing something about it by “pantsing through it, heavily revising the outline as better ideas emerged from… I don’t know… my pants?

Here’s the cover page…

Notice the multiple pens. Also note the little checklist of things to add. I’m essentially talking myself through it, making sure I jot ideas down so as not to forget them as they emerge from my pants. This is the beginning of a living document that morphs from an idea into a story.

The next few pages were character sketches and some worldbuilding stuff not germane to the discussion, so we’ll pick up again on the first page of the actual chapter-by-chapter outline…

Not many notes here. I must have felt as though I’d gotten off to a pretty strong start. There are a few little notes about word count goals—I honestly have no idea how that matches up to the finished novella.

On the next page…

…we see the first time I crossed out an entire scene with the note: not necessary. This is only chapter three and I’m already going off script. Then things get even more real…

More stuff crossed out, more questions I had left unanswered, or didn’t realize I had to answer, scribbled onto the outline. Parts of Chapter 6 were deleted and replaced with new stuff, and Chapter 8 was moved down past a new Chapter 9.

This page looks fairly clean but I’m moving chapter stops and starts, probably reacting to pacing issues.

And then disaster strikes. By what was Chapter 14, now, apparently, Chapter 12, I’ve realized I have no idea why my villain is doing anything he’s doing. What obviously felt fine in the outline rang terribly hollow in the actual writing. I stalled out here, suffered the tortures of the damned, then started crossing out whole chapters, scenes, and parts of scenes. In a few instances I changed which character was doing what, and made a little list to make sure I remembered who was in the war party.

At least two different pens indicate where two whole new chapters were added, like: 15: G saves A+K—lets herself be carried off by anipar * Guillermo & H 2010. It’s significant to note how little detail was in that note. By now I knew the characters, the world, and the story enough to… yes, you guessed it, pants my way through the chapter.

I can’t make any sense of the arrows indicating scenes moving from place to place—at least not anymore. Still a lot of the outline appears to have been kept, so it isn’t all “pantsing.”

And by the end we see another whole chapter simply X-ed out and two scenes made into chapters of their own, clearly not in the original order. And finally…

This little piece of scratch paper stapled to the end—a list of things to “add to my book.”

And of course none of this indicates the couple of revision passes that came next—just the writing itself.

So then where are we?

Outline? Sure, you bet I do.

Write by the seat of my pants? Just as soon as my outline fails me.

And guess what? Every outline has failed me at one point or another.

This plotters vs. pantsers thing is nonsense. We’re all some portion of both.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to PANTSING MY WAY THROUGH AN OUTLINE

  1. DM Woolston says:

    Holy heck! Thanks for the peek into the deranged mind of an author.. Uh, I meant sharp mind, yeah thats it. I often struggle the same way since Ive always outlined first.. and my how the story evolves. Interesting that you outline with chapter numbers. I quit doing that, then after I have a very loooong 1 chapter story, I start trying to figure out where to break.

    • Philip Athans says:

      This is not a bad idea at all: “after I have a very loooong 1 chapter story, I start trying to figure out where to break.”

  2. Dawn Ross says:

    Some people can fully plan their novel, giving no leeway for pantsing. I also know some who completely pants it. But you’re right. Most of us probably do a little of both. I create a detailed outline and I stick to it for the most part, but there are places that I pants it and find the outline may need to be adjusted slightly.

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