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No Outlining Involved! Organizing for Pantsers with Post-its

Being a writer who doesn’t outline — called a pantser or an organic writer — has its special challenges. Even the organization process doesn’t always work quite the same way. So it can be frustrating at time to look for ways to make things work and only get things that work for outliners.

But Post-its are a great tool for pantsers. They’re actually fun to play with because you can rearrange them as you need to.

What we’re not going to discuss:  This is not going to be about a scary looking thing like Post-it Plotting.  There’s going to be no mapping of scenes on Post-its, or anything even remotely related to outlining.

Tools You’ll Need

  1. Post-its: Have fun shopping for them. They come in a variety of colors, and there’s currently a color scheme for locations like Greece and New York. You can even do different shapes if you want like hearts or daisies, though these tend to be a little more expensive than the square versions.
    What size should you get? I’d recommend the 3×3, if nothing else because there’s a lot of color variety to pick from. But they’ll give you a lot of room to write on, whether you write big or want to add more notes.
  2. Pen: Try a Sharpie pen. It’s got a nice soft tip, but is bold enough to stand out on most Post It colors. Better still, it comes in lots of colors and you may be able to grab packs on sale when the school items start popping up.
  3. Sketch Pad: Try 11X14, which can be found at art stores, office supply stores, and Wal-Mart. You’ll want large and blank, to give lots of room for your Post Its. An alternative: White board.

Post-its to build a list of characters

One of the problems I have is that it’ll take me a little while to get to know the characters, and names can be very hard to remember. Especially when I’m writing and another one pops into the story unexpectedly, or, in the case of a character I had — his name changed three times within 6K.

Enter the Post-it. Keep a large sheet of paper near your desk. I use an 11X14 one from an art pad. A white board would work, too.

When you add a new character name, write the name on a Post-It and slap it on the page.

If your character name changes, write the new name on a Post-It and put it over the old name. That way, you still have a record of the name in case you find it while you’re revising and don’t remember that John changed to August.

The nice part about this list is that it’s very flexible. You can do different Post-It colors for certain types of characters, like you might want to know how many male characters you have versus female characters, or family factions, or just pick random colors that work for you at the moment. It’s really up to you.

The Post-its can also be rearranged in whatever way you want, so you can shuffle them alphabetically or just slap them on the page in any old order.

A character list by Post-it

A character list by Post-it

Post-Its to build a story bible

A story bible contains really pretty much anything you want about your story that’s hard to remember.  The term originated from television, where TV series had to keep track of (sometimes anyway) details:

“This is ideally a binder with everything about your book contained in its pages: plot outline, character sketches, notes, bits of dialog, small details, scene description, research, etc. You’ll find this extremely useful. The habit to develop: get a binder, write notes on characters, plot, scene, dialog, and keep it updated, as soon as you’re done writing. So: write, log it, then update your book bible.”

When describing a story bible, most writers start talking about three ring binders, tabs, and then it gets complicated very quickly.  They also include planning, which is tough for a pantser.  We’re not sure where the story is going, so what would we record?  Like other parts of pantsing a novel, some stuff may come in and then, ultimately, never get used.  Then it becomes a question about time investment, because pulling out that binder, finding a new sheet of paper, making the notes, punching the page, and then figuring out where it should becomes a lot of time.

But a Post-It note is a good, temporary solution. Write down anything you need to remember and attach it to the page. Rearrange as needed. Once the story is settled, sort through them for what you need and order them into categories. Then you can transfer them to a more permanent document if you need to reuse them later.

Post-Its for additional novel research

During the course of the writing, you’re likely to hit spots where you realize you need to do more research. Like you need the names of local birds or a name of a place.

But being a pantser, you may also find that if you race off and do the research now that you end up not needing it because the story can change sometimes very drastically as you write. Conventional wisdom says to put the research note on a to do list in a spreadsheet or in a binder.  That goes back to the same problem of dragging out a spreadsheet or a notebook while you’re writing and recording this.  Or writing it down on a slip of paper, hoping you remember to record it in the appropriate place later.

Enter the Post-its again. Write a comment in the manuscript like “fussy (DOG BREED)” (mainly so you can find it again!) Then write the research note on the Post-It, slap it on the paper, and you’re done. Once you’ve finished the novel, you can screen them for ones that survived and still need to be done. The Post Its can be transferred to another paper and taken to the library. Pull off one and throw it away when it’s researched.

One of the great things about Post-its is that they only require a few seconds to pull out and dash something off on them. That makes them a very flexible tool to cope with the messy nature of being a pantser.

No Outlining Involved! 5 Pre-Story Time Saving Tips for Pantsers

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?
Post-writing and services for proofreading help online coming in another post.

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The Travel Guide to NOT outlining a novel

What mystifies outliners about pantsers is how they can produce a novel without knowing anything about where the novel is going.  If you don’t know what a pantser is, Bryan Thomas Schmidt has a definition here:

In case anyone doesn’t know the terms, pantsers are those of us who, rather than outlining, prefer to discover the story as we write. We may make a few notes about plot twists, characters, scenes, etc., but mostly we write unstructured. It allows us to experience the story in the same way a reader or POV character might. For strict outliners, it sounds like craziness, living on the edge. Might as well jump off a cliff. But for pantsers, it’s liberating.

Pretty much, a pantser can jump into a novel with little more than the basic idea.  They might not even know what characters are in the story yet, any of the plot points, or how it ends. The way I’d describe writing a novel as a pantser would be like being on travel.  I just got back from California, so we have some pictures from that. You have a car, but you’re in an area you really don’t know too much about.  You get in the car and follow the main road.  Maybe a street name sounds interesting, or you see a sign pointing to something that sounds interesting, like “Valley of the Bears” (Los Osos, California).  Sometimes you find a surprising place to visit, and it changes the direction of where you’re going.  Maybe you discover the ocean and follow that for a while.  You stop to get out and a squirrel attacks you, hoping for food.

A speckled ground squirrel looks up hopefully for a snack. Beach is in the background.

Ground squirrel on Morro Strand Beach by Morro Rock, California. The squirrel came out of its nest in the rocks and ran at me because he thought I had food. Clearly the tourists have well-trained the fellow! This photo was taken at three feet away.


Then I’m off to follow the road again, and I run into this cool beach with a cave.  Ooh — what I can I do with that cave?  Protagonist has to run inside?  Finds something inside?

A rocky beach against a giant rock formation with two caves. A seagull flexes its wings from a rock in the waves.

The beach at Montana De Oro, with a seagull and caves. There are more caves on the outer side of the rocks. It was high tide, so I didn’t do any exploring. The waves really crash and move fast on the California coast.


Then maybe I find something I don’t expect, and the story changes course.

A lenghwise view of a DSRV named Avalon sitting in a parking lot on a trailer.

Yes, it’s a DSRV — a vehicle for traveling under the sea. It was next to the power plant, parked in the site of a future museum. When we passed it on the way to the beach, I was like, “Wait, that’s a DSRV! What’s a DSRV doing out here?”


I’ve tried outlining before, but when I’ve done it, it’s like the destination becomes more important than getting there.  It would be sort of the like the trips we took when I was a kid — all the focus was on getting to the end and trying to stop at as few as rest stops as possible and avoiding fog, rock slides, and construction.   Granted, in real life, avoiding those is probably a good idea, but to a pantser, all the wanderings to get there are part of the story.

Which is more important: Story or Grammar?

Let me make a confession:  I don’t have a copy of Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style.  I’ve seen it as a required reference for writers on many lists, and when the question of “What writing books would you recommend?” came up on writing boards, it was always on most of the recommendations.

Sometimes I think writers focus too much on the words, and the grammar.

Sometimes I think writers are still treating grammar as if they are in that high school English class, hoping for a good grade.

It is true that people need to be able to read your material, and that means the words need to be coherent.  That’s where grammar can come in.  I remember a while back this young writer — believe it was a teenager — posted a story on The Writer message board.  The grammar was really bad, to the point where the story, if there was one, was incoherent.  He wanted to send it out right now and said, “Tell me what I need to fix.”  We told him to fix the grammar, which he didn’t want to hear.  He kept telling he wanted to know what needed to be fixed so it would get published.

But, at the same time, having a grasp of grammar might not have helped.  In my last critique group, there was a writer who regularly submitted his novel.  He was 70K into the novel.  The writer had to do a lot of writing in his job, so he was pretty good on the grammar-side.  He even had an agent who was interested in the book (or so he said) if he could work out the problem with it.

He didn’t have a story.  He had a collection of scenes where things were happening, but he couldn’t tell a story.  He could pass an admin assistant’s red pen for a boss, but he would only get rejection letters from agents because he didn’t have a story.

Story is a difficult concept to understand,  and is probably one of the reasons writers fail at getting published.  I used to do query critiques, and I could tell instantly when a writer didn’t know what his story was about.

It’s also not something that can be easily explained by any how-to book.  Or, unlike grammar and punctuation, you can’t go down a list of rules and check them off.  In searching for “What is a story?” I was surprised to find very blogs address it.  The entries quickly evolved into story points, Biblical stories, and non-fiction stories.  But here’s two entries that I did find.

Philip Martin on Jane Friedman‘s blog says this about story:

Stories connect events and create meaning; they also connect people to each other.

Elizabeth Moon says:

Story is a particular kind of narrative that produces a particular kind of pleasure in the listener or reader.

So which is more important?  If you were to wander the writing message boards, it would be the grammar.  Grammar’s got all these nice rules everyone can follow and is easy to define.  Story is shrouded in fog.  Writers really like rules because the industry is way too much like the lawless Old West.

But here’s the catch:

If the grammar’s poor, it will probably keep the story from getting past a first reader, or the first few sentences.  The agents are receiving so much material they’re probably not going to work with someone with poor grasp of grammar.

But if the grammar’s perfectly mastered and the story’s not there, it still probably won’t get past the first five pages.

But if the story’s there and the grammar so-so, it might still earn a rejection, but it could get a personal comment.  It also could get accepted.

RedWhiteTrueThe cover for the non-fiction anthology is out!  The book is called Red, White, & True and features stories by veterans and families.  My story is called “War Happens.” I didn’t have a specific, isolated story that I’m sure the other entries will have.  Mine was more about what the experience of war does to friendships.

It is due out in August, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

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Finding Profanity in a Book

My experience with books has been that if there’s a lot of profanity, I stop reading.  It often seems to signal a level of taste in the story that tells me I’m not going to like other things.  But in recently reading Pieces of My Heart by Robert Wagner, I’ve come to think that maybe it’s more of a story or character issue.

I remember the first time I stopped reading a book for the profanity.  It was the movie tie-in for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it had quite a bit in the first chapter.  Yikes.  I didn’t realize it was that long ago — 1977.  But even then, I  had the sense the use didn’t add anything to the story.  Hollywood was just starting to get more profanity in films, so it seemed like it made it more easy to overuse it because there weren’t any boundaries.  It was more of, “Hey!  I can swear now!”

But it is a challenging subject.  The words can have high impact, but they also can offend people.  Depending on how they’re used, they can also distract from the story.  I think the fact that they can carry such an emotional connection and emotional baggage makes them a challenge to use, more so than other story elements.  That emotional part can override what’s right for the story.  A person who swore for the first time and is afraid someone will catch them is going to having a very different reaction than a person who grew up hearing it regularly from a family member.  I still remember seeing a little boy of about 3 or 4 who came out into his driveway and started swearing worse than most adults (a few years later, I drove by that house and there was a coroner’s station wagon outside it).

So it’s important to recognize that it can have that emotional baggage.  It seems like when the subject pops up, most writers will start argue about their first amendment right to use profanity, or accuracy of a certain type of character.  I even had someone tell me it wasn’t realistic to have a military character who doesn’t use profanity.  Excuse me!  I never used profanity, and I was in a unit where there was an unwritten rule about using it.  There were also some male soldiers who simply wouldn’t do it, and others who would do it as a matter of course.  So “all soldiers swear” cannot be an automatic assumption.  It’s an individual thing.  For all I know, it may even vary, depending on the service.

Curiously, in the discussion, few writers focus on the story or the actual characterization.  Maybe that emotional baggage?

But for me, it goes to what feels right for the story.  One of my favorite films is Jumping Jack Flash, starring Whoopi Goldberg and directed by Penny Marshall.  Her character swears almost non-stop through the film, but mainly it’s only her character who does the swearing, and other characters call her on it.  But it creates some of the funniest scenes.  I also watched the version with all the profanity cut out, and it lost a lot of the story and the characterization.

The same happened with the Robert Wagner book.  I read the book, enjoyed it, and then looked at the reviews.  I was surprised to see some reviewers complaining about all the profanity, and I was thinking “What profanity?”  Then I remembered that there was one chapter where the actor told a story about David Niven, and it was the story itself.  The only way to deal with the profanity in the story was to omit the entire story because without the profanity, there was no story.

But there’s also what the readers want to see and their expectations.  They sometimes get left out of the discussion in the quest to please reviewers or booksellers, or to be trendy.  As a reader, where do you draw the line on the profanity?  What kind of reaction do you have?  As a writer, how do you determine where to push that line and where to pull back?

Good news!  A flash fiction piece was a runner up in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Mysterious Photograph Contest.  Also, my non-fiction piece “War Happens” will be in Red, White, and True, which is being released by University of Nebraska Press in August, 2014.

Why a Nook Instead of a Kindle?

Sometimes it’s hard being a Nook owner.  I see an eBook I really want and sometimes I have to pass on it because the writer only published it through Amazon.  A list of free books comes out through SF Signal every day, and I’m amazed at how many are only available on Amazon.

Yet, it’s better than my first eReader, the Sony one, because they had to create a bookstore for the eReader.  I got that one at the time because the Kindle was way too high-priced.  I was having a hard time understanding how we can build color cell phones for $100 and an eReader in black and white cost $500.

The reason I got the Nook though is because of Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and Borders.  The first two are bookstores I visited regularly almost my entire life.  B. Dalton was eventually bought out by Barnes and Noble, and Waldenbooks by Borders.  So they disappeared from the malls.

I liked Borders better than Barnes and Noble.  I liked the way they arranged their books, which might sound strange.  Borders put their thrillers and mysteries together and labeled it such.  With Barnes and Noble, it’s a guess as to where a thriller will land — might be in mystery, might be in general fiction.  Being able to find books is important!

But Borders went bankrupt.  Not because of a declining book industry but because of business decisions, and I still miss them.  That just leaves Barnes and Noble, and any local bookstores.  I don’t want Amazon to be my only choice for books.

I’ve seen what happens when there is only one choice.  Just look at cable TV.  I’m forced to pay a premium for basic cable and get a zillion channels I don’t watch.  The cable company’s response?  It’s too expensive to do smaller packages.  Yeah, they’d loose money.  Competition always helps keep everyone honest.

Besides, there’s something really special about wandering around a bookstore and spotting this new book that looks fantastic.  That’s hard to do on a website.

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