Outlining a novel? What’s a pantser to do?

I’m a pantser – I like to start with an idea, concept, character, situation, whatever, and see where it leads.

Writing a novel for me is an exploration. Plotters do the opposite – they discover everything they can before they write, or at least enough to be happy to write.

Quite often I won’t have a clue what a story’s about or where its going until I’ve written it, which is fine in its way, but really makes it hard to edit without an ingrained knowledge of story structure.

The best solution I’ve found is that with a bit of pre-thinking, I can generate the key points I’d like to hit while writing, so my story comes out with all the right elements in the right place.

I won’t necessarily stick to whatever ‘pre-writing points’ I generate, but if I know them in advance I can change them as needed.

So, if you’re a pantser, study up on story structure. Even if you don’t sit down and prepare before writing something, it helps to know what your story’s going to need.

Check out my Story Structure Diagram for the basics.

Make your story both intellectually and emotionally stimulating!

There are two sides of a story, but they’ll usually fall toward one side or another, some more strongly than others. On one side are stories with a stronger intellectual pull, and on the other, stories with a stronger an emotional pull.

Different genres generally lean toward one of these categories, but the best stories, no matter their genre, do both.

Take Hard Science Fiction for example. Hard SF is likely to feature complex science and ‘big ideas’, and would therefore be more likely to draw readers looking for a high concept, original story.

Murder Mystery readers would fall into the same category, but for different reasons; there’s a mystery to be solved and that’s what works for them. Its the intellectual pull that draws them in.

On the other side of the fence are the readers looking for emotional content. The obvious example is the Romance novel.

Romance readers already know how the story’s going to end, yet romances sell better than anything else.

Why? Its the emotional rollercoaster.  Fantasy readers would also sit here – it’s a hero they want, and it’s a hero they get. Usually.

For readers looking for emotional content, how it happens is more important than what happens. You can almost be certain the ‘dark lord’ is going to lose in the end or the romance will work out.

So how do you make this work for you?

Do both. Throw in a high concept and blend it with emotional content.

Don’t believe me? Here’s some examples:

Harry Potter – Orphan Boy must defeat Dark Lord – standard fantasy tropes. Throw in a mystery or three, exceptionally clever plotting, and then make the boy the object of almost everyone’s ire – whalah! Bestselling series.

How about Dune? Hard SF revolving around the ecology of the planet Dune and the byproduct of giant sand worms which more or less grant supernatural powers. Throw in a couple of romances and a hero that must rise up and defeat an empire – whalah! One of the biggest-selling SF novels of all time.

Titanic (the James Cameron movie). A ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Its inevitable – history. A documentary would just show the facts – a tragedy. However, throw in a romance between two starcrossed lovers, book-end it with a search for treasure and show it from a survivor’s POV, and Shakespere couldn’t do much better.

How about The Hunger Games? Twenty-four kids from a distopian society get thrown into an arena to fight to the death – as high-concept as it gets. However, give them something to fight for – something even bigger than their lives – and suddenly you’ve got a story everyone wants to read. It’s about them, but it’s bigger. Its a love story. Its a story about defying the unjust authorities.

The Girl Who Played With Fire. It could easily be seen as a standard mystery, but it’s not. There’s something of a romance between the two protagonists, but that’s just part of it. They also have their own stories – one is unfairly put in goal while the other gets physically and emotionally abused -and suddenly you’ve got a story thats bigger than all the parts put together.

So how do you use this to your advantage?

Simple. Borrow from both sides of the equation. Make your story both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

Read more on the craft of writing.

How I wrote a novel in 60 days!

One of the most common questions/problems I come across, and one that I find is a problem for myself too, is how to find enough time for writing.

Back in my student days I had all the time I needed to write, but rarely took advantage of it.

Fast forward a few (cough cough) years and there’s far too many demands on my life to allow me the luxury of writing when I want to – job, family, social life, house/yard work etc.

So how did I manage to write the complete draft of a novel in under two months (November/December) – about 90,000 words, with so much else going on in my life?

Well, here’s how it happened.

  1. I did Nanowrimo (and decided to do it to write a new novel, just just to finish).
  2. I kept the pace up afterward and finished what I started.
  3. I told my wife I was doing Nanowrimo, and asked for a little slack.
  4. I got up half an hour early and wrote before work.
  5. I wrote after work whenever I could.
  6. I wrote on weekends when the opportunity presented itself.
  7. I aimed for an average of 1667 words a day, but wrote more if I could in order to make up for the times I couldn’t.
  8. I still did everything else I normally would.

Essentially, I stopped wasting time and used whatever spare time I had for writing.

  • I got up when the alarm when off instead of lazing in bed.
  • If I wanted to watch a show on TV, I recorded it and watched it when I’d got ahead (as a small reward) or when I was too wiped out to write.
  • If I had to do housework or yardwork, I tried to get through it faster.
  • If I had to run the kids to sports training, I took the laptop or a notepad.
  • I did simple things like turning the computer on when I got home so that when I had a spare ten minutes I could write a couple of hundred words.

And the funny thing is, the more I did it, the easier it got.

I started thinking about the story all the time – planning ahead in spare moments so that when I sat back down again I was ready (and keen) to write the next scene or chapter.

I didn’t go back to ‘fix’ things. Just soldiered on, making notes of things I wanted to change later.

As often as not I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write next – but when the time came, I wrote anyway. Apparently, Muses are overrated.

It was a little tough at the beginning – there was a certain amount of discipline I had to develop. Inspriation only took me so far.

After that I relied on discipline, and from there it all changed.

Find out more about novel structure.

Editing – I’ve finished writing. What next?

In my previous post on editing, I covered a rule I wish I’d come across a long time ago: Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing. But where does that leave you?It leaves you with a finished manuscript! Any day, that’s better than a half-written toy that has some bits you’ve managed to get ‘right’ and a whole swath of chapters you’re unlikely to get to for months, years or even decades.

So, lets assume you took my advice, added new words every chance you got, and you’ve just typed those magical words: ‘The End’.

What now? Well, it’s pretty simple really. Don’t start editing.

‘Doh!’ I hear you say. ‘Why not?’

Because you’re not ready to edit yet. You’re too close.

Instead, make notes on things you didn’t act on because you were busy writing. Create a big list of them in bullet point form. Include all the things you’re desperate to add or remove, concepts you want to introduce or changes that need to be made.

Throw in all the ideas you had or couldn’t find a means to put in, add anything that need to be changed for consistency, or whatever else that comes to mind.

Now, unless you’ve got a pressing need to present a polished manuscript to a publisher (like maybe you’ve landed a contract), put the novel away along with your notes and begin another one.

Yes, start another novel (not a sequel! You can’t sell a sequel until you sell the original, and if that never happens you’re wasting your time!). So, write a second novel – something entirely new, and finish it.


Two reasons. Firstly and most importantly, by putting it away for a while you’ll get distance from your first novel. You’ll be able to spot the flaws, the inconsistencies, the mistakes. You’ll also be fresh and ready to tackle it again.

The second reason is a little different – but just as valid. You’ll be less precious about it. Your masterwork will no longer the be-all and end-all of your novel writing endeavours. There’ll be a second novel waiting for your attention. And if you’re smart, a third one on the way.

So, where do you go from there?

Like I just mentioned, start writing a third book, but don’t fall into the trap of just writing new books. You need to finish the first one now.

While you’re working on number three, begin editing the first. Set a time limit and aim to have a complete redraft finished by the time you’re done writing the third novel.

Editing – first things first

What’s the first thing you need to know about editing? Don’t start editing until you’re finished writing.


I spent a couple of years writing my first novel – only to realise I never got past the first few chapters because I kept going back to play with them.

Occasionally I’d move on a little, but I always found myself going back and reworking/changing/playing with the text in the first few chapters: ‘getting it right’.

It wasn’t until I made a decision to FINISH IT that I actually got the first draft done. What’s more, I’ve heard this same advice from dozens of successful, published authors.

Finish it, first and foremost. Edit it second.

If you get a brand new idea you’re busting to get into an earlier chapter – make a note of it and FIX IT LATER – after you’ve completed the first draft.

You want to change something? – make a note of it and fix it in the rewrite!

Anything more complicated than a global search and replace – fix it later!

In case I’m not clear:

  • Write the first draft.
  • Edit the first draft.
  • In that order.

Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing or you’ll spend weeks, months, years and even decades getting no further than the first few chapters.


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