Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How do you outline your stories?

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "What do you use for an outline of your stories?"

A year or so ago, I would have proudly told you that I don't outline, that I'm what they call a "Seat of the pants writer," or a "pantser." Typically writers are either pantsers or plotters, but more and more I find people who fit into both categories. Which is where I am now. (A plantser?)

Here's what my writing process is now:

1. I have an idea that I'm pretty sure will support a novel.

2. As soon as the perfect first line/opening scene hits me, I write the first three chapters. These first three are a very exploratory time. Sometimes I drop in lines that foreshadow things I'm still feeling pretty fuzzy on. If a character wants to say something totally random and borderline stupid, I let them. This is my time to get a handle on who these people are and what kind of potential they've got.

3. When I finish the first three chapters, I write my synopsis. (A one- to two-page summary of my book with all the important details. For more information on this, click here.)

4. I write the rest of the book, referring back to my synopsis on occasion.

The first time I did this, it was because I had to. My agent wanted a book proposal, which is the first three chapters and a synopsis. I grumbled the whole time I was writing my synopsis and vowed that as soon as I became the next Stephenie Meyer, I was totally going to return to my way of doing things.

Then about 75% of the way through my book, I got seriously sick. I actually fainted one morning and had to be rushed to the ER, which lead to taking a week off writing and got me seriously out of my groove. When I returned to work and my characters and plot felt like strangers, it was so nice to be able to read my synopsis and get back in the swing of things.

So that's my process for now. I'm always trying new systems/ideas I hear from other writers, seeing if anything else sticks.

I'm curious to know others' answers to this question. What have you found works for you? Do you tend to be more of a pantser or a plotter?


  1. I'm a plantser too. =) Traditionally, I've written the first half of a book on the seat of my pants, then outlined the rest so I could be sure not to skip a vital scene floating around in my little brain.

    In the world of being agented, I've started doing it much like you, writing the first three however I see fit, then my synopsis. From their I can just write the rest--though let it be noted outlines and synopsis does not equal Written in Stone. I change A LOT as I write and characters develop. There's still plenty of room for surprises!

    With my last book (which was a total monstrosity in terms of length), I ended up writing each scene down on a half-sheet of notebook paper so I could rearrange them and jot down notes on whose POV it would be in and what I needed to reference. That was solely because of the many subplots and intricacies involved--I had to play around with what should go where for the biggest punch.

  2. I meant "from there," not "from their." The grammarian in me just majorly winced as I reread that.

  3. Thanks! I really don't like outlines, but I always seem to get stuck. I haven't found something yet and that sounds like a good idea since I keep getting told I must use an outline to some extent...

  4. Fortunately there are very few things you "must do" in writing. There are lots of successful authors who don't outline ... and lots who do.

  5. I used to be a dedicated pantser, writing where I would and waving my long tail where I pleased - to massacre Kipling...

    Now I am a dedicated plotter. I use a plot board and post it notes and I have a chapter-by-chapter outline before I write word one.

    Why the change? My publishing house requires a chapter by chapter synopsis before they contract the book. :)

    Amazing what a good motivation that is!

  6. Funny how that can change things, eh? :)

    I've seen pictures of your plot boards. They look really cool.

  7. I like that -- writing 3 chapters and then the synopsis. I'm going to try it!:)

  8. I'm actually prob converting into a plotter... lol, I've written like 2 synopsis' of two books that I haven't even tried writing yet.
    But of course, I am a pantser most of the time haha. ^_^ I love writing spontaneously, its fun.
    Though I sort of have a whole synopsis of the books I write for each one, written out in my head... dunno why...
    Either way writing is a blast!

  9. I would LOVE to convert to a plotter. It would make my life soooo much easier. But I think I would miss the spontaneity...

    Erica, I don't know if you subscribed to comments, but how do you feel about that? Do you miss the spontaneity now that you have to turn in chapter by chapter synopses?