How A Pantser Outlines: My Method

by Molly Greene, @mollygreene

READY​I’m a panster at heart. But there’s no denying that outlining does help an author write faster, so I do a bit of it before each book. Outlining helps. I have to backtrack less, revise less, and it gives me an opportunity to think up cool scenes I might have otherwise missed. Bottom line, it increases productivity. As a matter of fact, I am working on my next book, working title Memory of Hours, while my current mss is with beta readers. So it’s a perfect time to describe my method – not just outlining, but the method I use to I establish a plot and develop it.

And the plot thickens …

I maintain a folder in DropBox that I add to as much as possible, filled with articles I’ve found about strange and interesting real-life happenings and incidents, ways to make bombs, poison people, expensive treasures that are missing, odd murders, bizarre events. I refer to these gems when I start a new book outline because they stimulate ideas. They’re a springboard. They make the creative juices flow. Here’s how and where I find these plot ideas.

Begin with a concept

I always start with a single plot element​, something that has grabbed my attention. Before Lock the Cellar Door, I read an article online about a teenage boy’s skeleton found in an unmarked grave in the basement of a seventeenth century house on the East Coast. Cool beans. My plot developed from there.

Once I have an idea for a book – however brief – I create a new folder and name it the project’s working title. Inside, I create three more folders – 1) MSS, 2) Cover, and 3) Resources (this is where I keep my research).

I LOVE to begin work with a series of images that will someday – hopefully – become the cover. A name and cover image helps me focus. I find my images on Depositphotos, Dreamstime, and Big Stock.

Flesh out the main character

Whenever the mood strikes me, I open a Word doc and do a stream-of-consciousness sort of description of the main character (Gen’s new client) by answering questions such as, How does s/he meet Gen? What does s/he look like? What is their demeanor? What’s their secret and their goal – does it have to do with the actual problem? How will s/he change over the course of the story? How will Gen change as a result of meeting him or her?

I also decide What does s/he know/ have expertise in? This leads to tons of Googling. For instance, Amanda in Swindle Town knew about wine, so I got to learn about wine and corks, too. I’m considering giving my current character OCD to account for her obsession with the minutia of her life, so, of course, I’ll learn all about OCD.

I also ask myself what I want Gen to learn in this book. In Cellar, she learned to shoot a gun. In Swindle Town, self defense.

List potential scenes

Answering all this will determine a certain amount of the book’s content. So, then I begin a list of out-of-order scenes – in a single line description – that must happen to reveal the answers to these questions. Then I add the scenes I want to write to move Mack and Gen’s (my main series characters) relationship forward, plus which friends will make an appearance. More questions for me – will Mack reveal more about his past? How will Gen react, and how will it impact their relationship?

I don’t try to establish every detail, as I trust my imagination enough at this point to resolve sticky plot problems along the way, often things I never coulda/woulda thought up at the outlining stage. So I dive in and let ‘er rip, adding to my scene descriptions as I go.

Believe it or not, driving in the car often helps me put it all together. It’s half an hour on a rural two-lane road from my home to the nearest shopping in any direction, and these drives are conducive to developing ideas. I have a small digital tape recorder in my glove box, and I use it – you can also use your phone – to record my flashes of brilliance (lol!).

Goal: A brief 35 chapter outline

And, as I work through it all, the order in which all this happens begins to make sense. Some of it is obvious, some not so much. I shoot for 68k-70k words in a first draft, so I try to settle on 35 scene/chapter ideas that will, hopefully, then become 35 chapters of 2k each. Trust me, they never do. Some get pitched, some don’t work, some ideas are too short for 2k, some are too complicated to fit in a mere 2k words. And that’s okay. What this DOES help me do is to be sure each idea will move the plot – or Gen and Mack’s relationship – forward. If it doesn’t, the idea doesn’t get included. That really, really works for me.

… with plot points/beats

This method also helps me define the chapters where I’ll be writing climax, debrief, wrap-up and conclusion. In other words, plot points and structure, which I have been lax about in the past and have warned myself to stick to. I have basics “rules” for my books. One is that all characters, motives, goals, locations are in place by 20k words, or (around) Chapter Ten. This will not apply, of course, if you’re introducing a surprise character.

I’ve written about my mss method before: I use Word. Each chapter is written in a separate doc. Once I begin to write, I keep track of chapter content, timeline, and word count in an Excel file. I also use this file to make notes about places to go back and add clues – say, in a conversation between Gen and somebody in a position to drop a clue. Clues that I don’t know yet. This makes it easier to track as the plot develops. Then, when I’m ready, Word neatly tucks them all together into a single doc.

What I know going in

  • I will NOT stick to my outline. Characters will think, do, and say marvelous things that trump the outline, and I will go with these detours 99.9% of the time.
  • I try to have an idea how it will end, but I often do not stick to it.
  • My basic writing goal is only – really! – 1,000 words per day. That means I have cobbled together the first rough draft in 70 days. Sometimes this actually happens.
  • I write faster in the colder months, slower when it’s hot. I’ve written long enough now that I see this is true, and it helps me manage my expectations.
  • I write in the morning, and every afternoon and/or evening I conjure up the scene I will write the next day.

The truth is, some books flow and some struggle to be born, with or without an outline. I’ve done it both ways. The books that challenge me benefit from an outline, and the ones that race to get out of me never really needed one.

Additional Resources: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, How to Craft a Page-Turning Plot, and Russell Blake’s system, Outlining made simple.

Note from Molly: Check out my novels on Amazon, join my Reader’s Club for freebies and book news, and follow me on Twitter. This original content is copyright protected. Thank you so much. Mwah!

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