WRITING: Outliner or Pantser?

Do you outline your novels beforehand, or allow the story to take you where it wants to go?”

Popular opinion tends to divide Novelists into two camps: the Outliners and the Pantsers.

  • The Outliners are this anal bunch who take an almost mathematical approach to the novel, writing down the number of chapters and a synopsis of exactly what will happen to whom in what order. And they rigidly adhere to their Holy Outline, or Hell and Damnation will follow them into a pauper’s grave.
  • The Pantsers are this hippy trippy bunch who belief that Inspiration is the Holy Grail and that any attempt to harness the Flights of Fancy will result is stale, dull, utterly formulaic Hack Writing that is devoid of the Literary Liberalism that will elevate their prose to the Zenith of Literature.

Truth is, they’re both wrong. Writing a novel is work. Like all work, there are some structural necessities – for instance, you need to write, and if possible you have to write every day. Then someone from the Peanut Gallery will shout ‘You have to set yourself a word count goal!’. Yep, works for some, not for everybody. Just like deadlines get some people off their asses and paralyses other people.

The writers who have written novels can agree with me that the words sometimes flow and sometimes dribble. Distraction can help, but can lead to procrastination. Some turn off all distraction to force the brain into creativity, but that can also lead to despair and alcoholism and drug abuse.

Creative processes can go through phases – like the cycles of a werewolf, or the passing of the seasons. Changing habits can work – people who tend to Outline start to plan less and all for more improvisation, people who write by the seat of their pants realise that structure is not always a bad thing…

Most writers fall somewhere in the middle.

I soaked up a lot about structuring novels through osmosis by reading lots of great books. But my greatest revelation in the art of writing came through the art of sword fighting.

I started writing at a moment in my life when I was sick of the life I was leading, and it was pretty clear that I would die a violent death if I continued down the path I was taking. So I turned away from that path, but I had certain issues that needed channeling into positive activities: martial arts and writing.

I’m never one for taking the easy road. When I chose a martial art, I didn’t chose a martial art that would capitalise on my strengths, like my long reach, strength and resilience, but I chose aikido, which required grace and technique and to use the other person’s strength without using more strength than absolutely necessary. When I chose to write, I didn’t start off with a creating writing course and short stories, but I dove straight into my first novel.

But what did kenjutsu teach me about writing?

Unlike modern kendo, where there’s a sporting element with competition and scoring points by hitting locations on a harness, kenjutsu teaches how to handle a live blade by performing kata with heavy wooden swords (bokken) and no protection.

I was taught postures. Sword in the high position, sword in the low position. There were no explanations, just a series of positions flowing from one into the next. Well, when I say flowing, it was more stumbling. And my teacher would walk around and mold my body into the correct posture, without explaining what was wrong with my previous position. In the beginning I had to do it slow and trust my opponent to light touch his wooden sword to the crown of my head before I moved into the next position and ‘attacked’ him, where he’d wait for the tip of my sword to touch him before he moved. When the structure became familiar, we would move faster and our teacher would comment on how sloppy we became and to do it slower and correct before we moved faster.

And still, no explanation was given. Just more structure, more rules, more positions, but the why and wherefore were absent. Then, when I was taught the third kata, after two years of training, my teacher explained to me why I did certain positions in the first kata, so that now I understood. And with this understanding, my performance of the first kata improved beyond what I had expected. I was enthusiastic, so when I was training with new students, I started to explain to them why they were certain things in the first kata. And my teacher took me aside and told me to shut up. He explained to me that the information was only given after I put my time in. After I showed that I could do something without asking all the time what the hell I was doing. By showing fortitude and polishing my technique until i was ready for the information.

Because receiving the information during the learning of the first kata would’ve muddled my progress. I would’ve been thinking instead of doing. I wasn’t ready for the information, I had to put my time in.

Writing is similar. When I started writing my first novel, I wrote a novel, not a draft. I worked on my first chapter until it was perfect. If it wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t move on to the next scene or chapter. Writing my novel became an exhaustive slog. And when I was finished, I realised that I had put together two storylines of which one was great, but the other sucked. So I had to take out that whole storyline and put in another one, like trying to match two different zippers together. Sometimes I despaired, but I hung in there and managed to turn that mess into a novel. Working on that first novel and all the mistakes I made were my school – the endless rewriting and editing taught me how to polish something until it shone.

By the time you learn the fourth kata in kenjutsu, the teacher no longer has to look at your footwork. You can wear the hakama that hides your legs beneath flowing robes, because the teacher knows that your stances are solid and your steps measure the appropriate distance.

When you finished that first novel, and you tackle that second novel, you know the pitfalls of either Outlining into Mathematical Precision or Pantsing like Improvisation is Key. When I began on my second novel, I knew what I needed and how to get it and I wrote down one scene after another, not stopping until I finished the first draft. Because I had learned not to write a novel, but to write a draft. A draft is like the four hours of film a director has when he enters the cutting room and the producers expect him to exit the cutting room with a consistent story of 90-120 minutes.

And your process changes again, because you stop being dependent on structure. When you train in kenjutsu, you reach a point just before your black belt level, where you start to let go. You are not actively thinking or repeating anymore, but the sword becomes an extension of your arm and you can feel through your sword and everything flows together – technique, timing, distance – and you look at your opponent who is not there yet and they are sweating and making mistakes and correcting mistakes and spending lots of energy, while you become so efficient that you only move when necessary and not a moment too soon, nor a step too far. And you look at them and you can see that they’ve almost reached that moment too and you know how happy they’ll be that they hung in there and didn’t search for the shortcut.

Because there isn’t one.

I write drafts that are just a string of scenes that I will transform into a novel when I take them into the cutting room. There is no Holy Outline, but that doesn’t mean there is no structure – I can clearly see the storyline to which the scenes will be hung like pearls onto a silver string. I’m not Pantsing, because I can trust in my ability to come up with the correct scene from the right perspective. And I don’t have to rewrite most of my work, because I become more and more attuned to composing in my head and writing down my sentences without tripping over my thoughts and stumbling into a garbled mess.

I’ve published four novels and four short stories in my Amsterdam Assassin Series – a total of some 600,000 words, but I easily wrote ten times that many words. I put in my time, and these are my rewards.

There are no shortcuts. You can sit at the foot of masters and study their books and adhere to all those rules that are taught in all those creative writing classes, but it’s like learning how to cobble together a pair of shoes from a Youtube video. You have the knowledge, but not the experience. And it’s experience that counts here. The experience of mucking your way through your first draft and finishing that first draft and realising that you have finished a book-length story, and despairing that it isn’t good enough and agonising over the manuscript and rewriting and editing the monster until you tame it into a novel.

Sure, I can give you some tips. Like: ‘Don’t write a novel, write a draft’. Don’t worry about the rules and the grammar and whether everything fits together, just get it all down. Make it 150,000 words, because once you drag that beast into the cutting room, that draft will lose all that extra weight until the lumbering beast has become lean and hungry and ready to feed on the brains of the readers.

And by that time, you realise that it doesn’t matter whether someone outlines or improvises, as long as the process has the desired results – a solid draft that can be polished into a publishable novel.