Outlining a Book: Beyond Pants

Uncategorized Sep 18, 2023

You've got choices!

Let’s talk pants! If you’re anything like me, you gave up on anything without an elastic waistband early on in this pandemic -- leggings, yoga pants and sweats are all I’m wearing, when I’m not in my pyjama pants.

If you’ve seen me on Zoom, be assured that no matter how much I may be rocking the mascara, with a bright top and some snazzy earrings, down below it is all comfy pants.

(Fortunately, the folks I write with in The Writer’s Flow Studio are very much a come-as-you-are kind of people!)

But the pants I want to talk about today are part of that age-old writing debate…

Outlining a Book: Pants On, or Pants Off?

There are fierce proponents on both sides of this debate, which essentially boils down to should we outline our book in detail -- down to the scenes and even the beats in the scenes or the individual moments that comprise the scene -- or should we just take it one page at a time as the story comes to us?

Folks who like to take the story as it comes are referred to as “writing by the seat of their pants,” and therefore “pantsers.” Those who prefer to outline in advance are called “plotters.”

There we have it: pants or no pants. So, now is the really critical part of the conversation...which is better?

I’m guessing you probably already have an opinion on this, and maybe you feel strongly about one or the other.

My answer is…

You can wear your smarty pants, you can wear your fancy pants, you can wear any pants you like, or rock a Commando look and not wear pants at all.

Wear whatever-the-heck will get you to the finish line.

I think you need to decide for yourself if you're someone who wants to write with your pants on or your pants off, and of course this is a deeply personal choice, but I also think there are options in between these two. More on this below... 

In my own writing life, I do both pants and no pants, depending on the particular book I’m working on and the stage of development of my manuscript.

In my First Book Finish program (registration for the next group will be opening up Feb 22nd: woot! can’t wait!) I don’t push one particular way and instead we talk about OPTIONS for outlining a book.

Here’s why…

There are a few reasons why writers get stuck in the process of writing their first book. (It happens sometimes with other books too, but is super common with first books.)

Often, a writer will start out “pantsing” a book, only to find themselves paralyzed in the messy middle. She's got a protagonist and  knows her primary goal or desire, but things just fizzle out after the first 50, 75, 100 pages.

This writer finds themselves paralyzed and doesn’t know what to write next, so what happens? She puts the manuscript in a drawer and start avoiding her writing sessions. OR she may start out with another bright and shiny idea, only to run up against the same wall.

If this is you, I am sending you the biggest virtual hug down through the Internet wires right now. It’s a hard, hard place to be and really common with writers working on their first books.

But there’s another approach that leads to dismay and disappointment just as often. This is the writer who decides that before she can really sit down and write scenes for her book, she must create a detailed outline. 

Which of course would be just fine as an approach, except she gets all up in her head about creating the perfect outline and whether she has it “right” or not. 

This writer may have a great outline -- certainly a “good enough” outline! -- but she sets her manuscript aside because all the outlining process did was show her all the things she didn’t yet have resolved in her story.

Here’s a secret no one tells you about outlines…

Book outlines are all about structure. And the time to determine the full structure of your book is not at the start. Structure comes when we know our story. 

The deepest and most profound work you will do on your story structure will come during the revision process, not while you’re writing the first draft.

So in order to minimize the amount of creative anxiety involved in the book writing (and book FINISHING) process, we can look at different options for outlining a book and select the one that feels right to us now -- knowing we can change it up as we go if we need to AND knowing it really doesn’t need to be super detailed in order to do the job.

Because you can’t edit -- and you certainly can’t publish-- a book you don’t finish!

Your job at the start is to get to the end of a complete first draft of your book without being derailed by your (very normal, very natural) creative anxiety.

The solution is to Keep It Simple, Sweetie. (KISS)

Outlining a Book: KISS & The Pants Debate

Trust me and “KISS” your draft. 

It doesn’t matter what the experts say -- you have to know yourself as a writer and how your creative anxiety manifests itself. Then you do what you need to do in order to get that critical first draft completed.

Whichever option you choose, I want you to downgrade the level of detail required and the amount of pressure you put on yourself to have it all figured out at the start.

Keep it simple, and remember that outlining is just a tool to help you tell yourself the story.

And so let's walk through some outlining options so that you can select an approach that will work for you. 

Outlining a Book: Pants On

The advantage to outlining a book, obviously, is that you know the full story in advance. Many writers find that this helps them be more clearly guided from the beginning of the narrative arc to the completion of the narrative arc. 

What’s lovely about outlining in advance is that you typically won’t end up with a book that lacks narrative drive or momentum, because you’ve baked it into the story from the start. (That’s the theory, at least!)

As I mentioned above, this work is deeply structural and so when we’re outlining we need to think about all of the elements of our story in advance and plan them out, so that when we start writing we’re in known territory.

Outlining a Book: Pants Off

Writers who don't outline typically say they like to be “surprised” by their story. When we write with our pants off, we are giving over fully to the unconscious creative process -- which can be both exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time.

But we also still need to pay attention to the full narrative arc so that when we get to the end of our completed draft, we know we’re not missing anything critical. 

We don’t want to end up with catastrophic gaps or holes in the story -- or a difficult to resolve structural challenge -- because we’ve been surprised by our story in the wrong way. Right? 

Outlining a Book: Other Options

So let's look at some other outlining options. 

I want to offer you some options for outlining your book that you can use to keep you on track, but that are not the full detailed scene-by-scene-beat-by-beat detailed outline, but somewhere in the middle between that detailed outline and the complete seat of your pants approach.

In my First Book Finish program, I offer a few different options to help you accomplish this…

Chrono Outline

Using the Chrono (or chronological) Outline, you use a key question of “What Happens Next?” as the guiding principle from start to finish, to help you write one scene after another where the next scene is guided by what happened for your protagonist in the previous scene. 

The Chrono Outline is a great outlining option for a book with a relatively straightforward structure -- if your book has multiple protagonists and alternating timelines, this is not the option for you!

Sketch Outline

The Sketch Outline is the most versatile of the outlining options. It provides you with an overarching outline that offers the support you need to develop a full narrative arc, but still leaves lots of room to be surprised by your story as you write.

This option is a simple 1-page outline that frames the central organizing principles of your book. Once this is in place, you can just keep writing new scenes based on this initial premise. 

For short story collections, you’ll want to do this sketch outline exercise for each individual story.

(If you’re interested in trying out this option for outlining a book, scroll down to the bottom of the page where you’ll find a link to get your hands on one of the worksheets from the outlining lesson in First Book Finish!)

Scene Inventory

In First Book Finish, I also teach something I call the Scene Inventory approach, where you’re not writing to a specific outline you’ve set out in advance but you are tracking your scenes as you go in order to see them laid out as you write and be better prepared for the Revision phase.

The Scene Inventory is an outlining method that is completed after-the-fact. You complete your writing sessions regularly, and simply keep an inventory of your scenes as you go, noting a few key elements. You can then use the scene inventory to generate ideas for new scenes as you ask yourself “what happens next?” 

Keeping a running scene inventory also helps when you get to the Revision phase of your book, and supports your thinking about structure. I highly recommend using the Scene Inventory whether you decide to “pants it” or not -- it will save you so much time in Revision.

And again, if you want to not wear pants at all, go right ahead!

Outlining a Book: More KISS, the Better!

However you decide to approach outlining your book, I recommend that you release the expectation you may have placed on yourself to make it complete and perfect: that way lies madness, and a good solid case of writer’s block.

So when you’re outlining a book in this way, you're really sketching out the broad strokes of your plot, the broad strokes of your character arc, and the major events, but you're not getting into the details. 

With a Sketch Outline, you’ll have a sense of where your protagonist stands at the beginning, the middle and the end of your book and that’s enough to start -- and enough to get you all the way through to The End of your draft too, if you’re willing.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

-- E.L. Doctorow

Whichever outlining method you choose for your book (or no method at all!), I want you to have faith in the process. 

If you are not yet invested in an outline structure, then I don't want you to feel anxiety around needing to create one. 

So your next steps here really are around choosing. You've just got to choose your one method of outlining. How are you going to keep yourself writing all the way to the end of your draft? 


Click here to get a FREE copy of one of the worksheets from my First Book Finish program (from Lesson 6 in Module 1) where we go through all of our outlining options. This worksheet walks you through the Sketch Outline option and you can click here to get your copy.


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