Outlining Methods Part 1: The Myth of Plotter Vs. Pantser, and What That Means for Your Next Book

It took me some time to claim my love of outlining. I had a close friend whose greatest epiphany was that she was a pantser (a writer who finds her greatest creativity when she skips the outline and goes straight to writing). Hearing her whoop with each outline she tossed overboard convinced me that outlining was a creativity-draining force of evil. Imagine my surprise when, years later, I had my friend’s same epiphany–except backwards. I realized I found my greatest creativity by starting with an outline. I was a plotter.

Now, this may be sparking a thought for you–to outline, or not to outline, that is the question. But before we get too existential, let’s take a step back. As I’ve talked with other writers who identify as pantsers or plotters I’ve seen that these terms have brought up a false dichotomy. In reality, we all benefit from doing some of both.

K.M. Weiland, on her very helpful site, Helping Writers Become Authors, articulates this same realization:

No matter who you are or how you prefer to approach writing, you cannot be exclusively a plotter or a pantser. You’re both. We all are.

We all plan some parts of our stories—whether it’s extensively on paper, exclusively in our heads, or retroactively during revision.

We all pants some parts of our stories—whether it’s coming up with interesting scenes while brainstorming the outline, diving headfirst into a first draft with no idea where a scene is going, or just piecing together the specifics of generally planned scenes.

I love this explanation! Plotting and pantsing are two tools that we all need in our tool belts. We might each have our favorite tool–monkey wrenches are good for everything!–but that does not mean we should just throw out the screwdrivers.

Outlining can take a lot of different forms, but I’ve found there are four categories that help me flesh out the passing “interesting idea” into an actual book, and each of them can be useful for both plotters and pantsers. Let’s explore how outlining can be a gorgeous, creative tool to stick in your tool belt. Here is the first one.

1. Capturing Inspiration: “The Feeling”

Whether you have a concrete premise in mind, or just a vague direction you want to go in, this step is a life-saver. Not only can this step help you develop a fuller outline, but it can also be your lifeline whenever you jump into the drafting process.

Once we are in the middle of drafting, it is devastatingly easy to lose sight of what made us love this idea. When there is world building, character backstory, politics, creatures, and complex events all jumbling together, we can get pulled into the current of just doing what works, and our writing can drift further and further from what we wanted.

That is why this stage is not only wonderfully fun, but essential. All you need to do is gather together anything that fits “the feeling” of your book idea. You can revisit these ideas anytime you need to rekindle the spark that started this journey.

Here are some ways you can search for and save that spark:

  • Create a Pinterest board. Pinterest has a wonderful collection of images, and you can upload your own as well. A Pinterest board is a great way to quickly amass images that get you excited for your book, and help you explore new ideas as they crop up.
  • Create a playlist. This is one that I ignored for a while. But with my most recent outline, I finally caved, and turned on my favorite tracks from Two Steps from Hell. I couldn’t believe how the music changed my approach to brainstorming! All of my thoughts became more vivid, and formed around the feeling of the music. Many of my author friends have talked about blasting their book’s playlist when they started feeling lost in the draft. It is a wonderfully immersive way to shock your senses into experiencing what you want from this book.
  • Make a physical collection. I was able to attend a keynote address from Kelly Barnhill once, and her writing process was beautiful. She told us she keeps a special box where she tosses anything that sparks ideas for her next book. It can be a scrap of paper with a scribbled idea. It can be a leaf, a feather, a stone, a comb. Anything around her that sparks ideas goes into the box, until she can start to feel the “texture of the language” in her head–and that is when she knows she is ready to outline. Another writer I know will search Etsy to find a pendant or curious item that captures the essence of what she wants, and will place it prominently in her writing space. It becomes her guiding star through her draft. Physical collections can be a wonderful way to remind us of “that feeling” as we hold them in our hands.
  • Browse Wikipedia. I know one writer who does this whenever she feels stuck in the writing process. Just pulling up random articles can spark new ideas and possibilities! You can save the articles that resonate with your book on your Pinterest board or in your outline document.

Alright, there are some ideas for capturing the “feel” you have envisioned for your book. As your idea evolves, you can always add to these resources, and expand the “feel” you want. Now you have a sure way to return to that feeling you fell in love with even in the trenches of drafting.

I will be posting articles on the other three components I use for outlining soon, so keep an eye out! (Second article now available HERE.) You can also click the “Subscribe” button at the bottom of the page to be informed of new posts. In the meantime, here are some recommended readings on this first point:

  1. http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2014/03/31/reconnecting-with-characters/
    Here is a great example of how published author Susan Dennard has used these methods when she starts to feel lost in her drafting.
  2. https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/should-you-outline-your-novel/
    Here is K. M. Weiland’s first post in a series about outlining. She addresses common misconceptions and gives some great pointers! (The quote at the beginning of this article is from this post.) The entire series of posts is definitely worth reading.

What are your favorite methods for capturing the “feeling”? Did I miss any? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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