If you’re a pantser, which is a writer who doesn’t outline, you know how hard it is to find any kind of tips that work for the way you write.  Just about every time saving tip either involves some form of outlining or tells us we should be outlining, and frankly, it doesn’t help!

Bria Quinlan says,  “To people outside pantsing, sometimes it looks easy. You just sit down and write and the words flow. Um, yeah. No.”

Maybe this is why there’s a lack of anything much out there for us.  So try these ideas out, see what works, and make up some of your own.  This is some stuff you can do before you write the story that doesn’t involve any kind of outlining and might be kind of fun.

1. Researching when you don’t know what the story is yet

Now I don’t know if you’re one of the people who likes research or not, but as a pantser, research to me has always been a barrier to getting started on the fun part: writing the story.  I also don’t like research.  It reminds me too much of school homework, and the way writers act about digging out obscure details makes me feel like everyone is grading me.  But as a pantser, I have the additional challenge that I don’t actually know what I need for the story!

The result is that when I research, I end up doing it while I am writing the story (story stoppage!), and I’m often grabbing everything I find so I don’t have to do it again.  And I still don’t get enough of the right things and have to go back and do more.  Grrr!

So I decided I had to do it differently so I could focus on the writing part. I looked around for a topic list for setting.  Finding the right list was hard — most of the people making the lists really love research, so there’s a lot more than what I needed.  I found a list I liked and pasted it into Evernote.  Then I scanned through it and eliminated questions I wasn’t going to need for the setting, and any that I knew I would never use.

Then I did two a day, which took two weeks.  For questions like “What kind of animals are in the area?” I looked for ten animals.  That way, I would not only get enough and not too much, but I’d also think about which animals I was choosing.  What might I actively use in the story?  What would be an animal everyone would associate with the location?  I also added two categories of my own because the setting was a town with a beach, so I needed animals characters might see in the waters, as well as what they would find on the beach.

2. Setting up characters for your novel the pantser way

One of the things I’ve always done is start writing, and then I’ll toss in a character that I had no idea I would need until I got there. I dash off online somewhere and find a name.  Plop!  It goes into the story.  And the process repeats itself.  Then I realize I have three characters with very similar sounding names, and now I have to change them.


Before writing the story, come up with a list of ten names of characters who might be in the story.  Make sure you have a first name and a last name.  Also try coming up with a short paragraph about what this character might do in the story.  When I tried this, it started out as a chore, but as I finished the list, I started getting excited about the story and the characters that might populate it.  I even took one of the character names and plopped him in a short story.

As I started to write, I added to the list because there were always more characters who came in that I didn’t think of.  Then this list becomes a reference when I couldn’t remember a name.  That usually takes me about half the book before I start connecting the names to the characters.

Don’t spend a lot of time on this, though.  Just an hour or an afternoon.  It’s just meant to help you once you start writing.

Why not a character worksheet?

Character worksheets are an outliner’s tool; in this case, outlining the character.  It’s a very mechanical way to characterize, and it didn’t make sense to me to identify things like this when I could write the story and find out who the character is.

3. Setting for Pantsers

The reason I started doing these “10 of” lists is because of setting.  I like characterization when I read; setting doesn’t do much for me.  The result though is I tend to focus on the characters and not pay enough attention to the setting.  Kate Paulk (who I met a Virgina convention) says this is a common problem for pantsers:

“Most of the pantsers I know – me included – have a tendency to include only the setting information that their characters notice. This isn’t enough. When you think about it, you mostly don’t pay much attention to familiar surroundings: it becomes background and not worthy of mention. I’d describe my workplace environment as “a cube”, for instance, and not think to mention the Demotivator poster I have on the wall, the way I use color coded highlighters on a large planner to give me a month-at-a-glance view of what’s happening, the assorted notes stuck to the cube wall.”

So this list was a way of making sure I paid attention to the places those characters would inhabit.  For my cozy novel, I started with one of the primary places, the bookstore the character inhabited.  What did it look like?  How had the character changed it from when her grandmother owned it (a name on the character list)?  This ended up requiring a little research into Art Deco and looking at some pictures of the style.   Then I figured my character needed a house, so I spent a little time on that.  I added eight more settings, including one for a meeting hall that I changed in the story to a church with a fellowship hall.

For each one, I tried to associate a character from my 10 character list who would be at this place so that it wouldn’t just be a vague “place” to me.

4. Make a map of the most important story settings

This was a next step from the settings, so I could get a picture in my head of some of the locations.  That way I didn’t have to stop and figure it out while I was writing and toss some random thing in (which I am very good at doing).  I just did two to start with because I knew I was going to use those settings and later added a third.  Graph paper and pens will work.  In my case, I used PowerPoint.  I found a floor plan of a bookstore online and traced it. I’m a PowerPoint speed demon, so this took probably an hour.

For the third one, I was writing a scene and having a hard time with the picture of the fellowship hall.  I went to Google Earth and found the church I went to when I was a kid and used the overhead view to build it in PowerPoint.  I also explored as much of the building as I could with Google, so I noted some windows that were in hall.

If you’re saying “But I’m not an artist,” neither am I.  In her maps workshop, Holly Lisle notes:

“This doesn’t have to be pretty. You do not get extra points for artistry. I’m showing you a technique for generating ideas and creating a story where you didn’t have anything before, not trying to turn you into an illustrator. If you can’t draw a straight line, no problem. You aren’t going to need any straight lines. Wobbles are part of the process. Nobody but you ever has to see this map. Nobody but you ever has to know it even exists.”

Why spend time on maps for your story?  

We get a lot of people saying things like this aren’t writing; therefore we shouldn’t do it.  As a pantser though, I’ve discovered how easy to fly through a scene and not think about basic things like what the inside of a room looks like.  Surprisingly, it does work.  I found myself incorporating in the room elements as I wrote and mentioning specifics like the “science fiction bookshelf.”

5. Use Ten of for anything else needed in the story

If you have anything else you might need for the story, such as made up place names, create a list of ten of those items.  I have a 1.5K dog walk in mine and a character who is a dog, so I came up with the names for dogs.

Do just make lists for things that you will use in the story, and do reuse them for other stories.  I could easily reuse my list of dog names if I write a short story that has another dog in it.  But don’t spend valuable time on “might needs.”  In this case, err on the side of under doing it, and make another list during the writing if you realize you need it.

Why ten?  

I’ve used ten here four times, and there’s a good reason for that number.  As a pantser, I want to jump in and get started on the story.  As a result, if I don’t like doing something, I simply won’t do enough of it, and I won’t pay enough attention to it.  Ten’s not too many that I’ll start getting impatient.  It’s also a number I can easily finish with an evening of work.  And, most important, it’s enough that I can’t dash through it to get to the story.

But these lists are really about having the information already available while you create the story, and have enough that you can pick what appeals to your muse at the time.

Writing without an outline has its own special problems.  So it’s important to try out new techniques and see what works for you and not just assume that what works for outliners will work for you.  Are there any additional pre-writing tools you’ve used that have worked?

About the author

Linda Maye Adams Linda Adams has been published in Enchanted Spark and Fabula Argentea and has a non-fiction story in the upcoming Red, White, and True from the University of Nebraska Press. She is a female war veteran from the first Persian Gulf War, and least likely to have been in the army.