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Sep 23, 2021

Confessions of a (Not So) Reformed Pantser

commentary by Kat St. Clair

A poet friend once decided to try her hand at novel writing. Seven pages in, she called me. “This is hard!” she said. “It’s like moving furniture!”

That’s about right. 

Especially if you’re like me, a pantser.

Not the kind of writer who can sit down and write an outline of her novel before she begins, divide it into chapters, and then fill in the blanks for each scene, each chapter. Oh, how I’ve envied those organized plotters! And what guilt I’ve felt about my own messy method! It’s like an octopus with all eight legs flailing, each a possible direction for the story.

And I can’t seem to get the hang of the “should” and “should not” methods in craft books. I wasted weeks—months—trying to apply the Save the Cat method to my own work. I could see how that outline fit for other works, but mine? I was lost. 

Yet, in the trying, I realized that I had such difficulty outlining my manuscripts beforehand–worst of all, trying to divide them into chapters–because at that early stage (and even later) I didn’t know the stories well enough. I’d know what they were about and have a vague beginning, middle and ending. But where to start a story? How to tell it? I knew I would end up moving things around once I dove in and started getting my tale on the page–and draft after messy draft after that. And what about the feel of a story, a scene? That’s so important to me. How do I incorporate that into an outline?

Evelyn Skye, a New York Times bestselling YA author—and self-proclaimed pantser—has similar struggles with outlining. At a book launch at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, she talked about it as an impossible task. How could she stick to one anyway, she said, when as she wrote, the story always changed? Then Evelyn’s editor required an outline for her next novel. Starting with the question, what is the story about? she fussed and fumbled, and the best she could come up with was, “I see the color purple, and then something, and something…”

I could have hugged her.

But Evelyn’s friend, author Stacey Lee, came to her rescue. Stacey, it seems, is an organized plotter. She explained to Evelyn that a beginning outline needn’t be detailed, and it’s not something you are bound to till the end. It can change—and probably will change—with the writing.

Change… Not chained to the original structure? 

I was further freed from my organizational angst by a Writer’s Digest article by Aaron Elkins. Although the title is, “Three Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters,” I was struck by his first rule and how it could apply not just to outlining, but to my whole writing process: 

Focus on the writing first, he says. When you begin working on your book, structure your outline by episodes and events, not chapters. 

Episodes and events… Not the linear structure of chapters, one following the next? 

I tend to write scenes—episodes and events—as they come to me, like a movie in my mind, and later figure out where and how they belong in the story. Yet, outlines are linear. Aren’t they? 

The image of that octopus keeps coming to mind. Finally, I realize what it reminds me of: Clustering. Gabriele Lusser Rico, Ph.D., a writing instructor at San Jose State University, described it in her book, Writing the Natural Way. Rico says to write a word or phrase in the center of a piece of paper and circle it. Then, as rapidly as possible, write down whatever associations come from that central nucleus, circling each of these as well and drawing lines to connect them. Rico considers clustering a magic key to touch the mental life of daydream, random thought, remembered incident, image, or sensation. 

Those are the things that fuel my writing.

But could clustering also serve as a non-linear form of outlining? Perhaps one that would make more sense for me? Like my octopus metaphor with its many arms, I imagine clustering as an outlining tool for seeing how and where episodes, events, and scenes can connect to one another in a story. 

Yet, I came across a post on blogging by Tom MacWright These lines stood out for me:


…most people…get distracted and sidetracked by tinkering and other things that increase the complexity of the project, instead of working toward the original goal. 

Distracted…sidetracked… Have I been complicating my writing by avoiding outlining? I think about my manuscript drafts, rearranging, discarding, and adding scenes, concepts, trying to clarify what the heck the story is really about. As my friend said, moving furniture. I feel chagrined. 

And yet, Rico writes,

…we often get the most done by tolerating ambiguity and resisting the desire to see ahead of time exactly where we are going.

Pantser vindication?

I imagine Rico and MacWright duelling out their theories on the page. But they and Skye and Lee have given me ideas for developing outlining styles that work for me, not against me.

I understand more clearly that an outline need not be a construct that dominates my writing, a rigid form that must be adhered to, but it can be a tool to help manage what I write, to help me not get distracted or sidetracked, and instead work toward my goal–even if that goal isn’t completely clear to me as I shuffle, twist, and rearrange things on the page, the way I am prone to do.

I think of what Rico said about not needing to see ahead of time exactly where I’m going. I smile, reminded of Doctor Who in that campy sci-fi series.I don’t know,” he says, when asked how he plans to escape from the dreaded cyborgs. “I don’t know. That’s the thing about plans” (read: stories), “they come to you a little at a time.”

So, here’s my new writing formula: loose outlines that serve as reference points to help keep me focused, on track, while creating stories that unfold, a little at a time.


For more KidLit Craft Commentaries, check out these posts!

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