Outliner? Pantser? Which kind of writer are you?

As a writer you may feel like you’re on team outliner (or plotter) or on team “pantser.” Maybe you haven’t decided which side to join. Or maybe you’ve joined one or the other but haven’t really had total success with either in your writing career—or with a particular book.

What are the major differences? Pantsing allows you to be wildly creative. You can be completely spontaneous in your story and have it come to life as you write, which can help if you’re feeling stymied by a this-must-happen outline. It’s also exciting to accompany your characters on their journey—even you don’t know where they’re taking you.

The flipside is that if you’re pantsing and you hit writer’s block (conversely, from not having an outline), you have no direction, not even an inkling of where to go—so there’s a danger that you’ll abandon your novel because you can’t figure your way out of that writer’s block.

But then there are a few cons for outlining, and, in my opinion, con number one for outlining is…I hate it. I just want to write (like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I just want to sing!”). I love being creative, and outlining feels so technical. Outlining also reminds me of an English 101 term paper, which makes me shudder.

But consider the pros. An outline helps you see your plot and storylines and where there might be holes or problems. It helps you flesh out your story and build it by major scenes. It can help keep your storylines straight and your plot organized, especially if you structure your novel in creative ways, such as events happening out of sequential order. Don’t be afraid that keeping your story within the outline’s parameters will limit your creativity. Use your outline as your roadmap and guide, but don’t be scared to go off the beaten path every now and then. You may find the yellow brick road there. Sure, you’ll most likely have to redo your outline, or adjust it at the very least, but that’s a pretty small con, all things considered.

What all of this boils down to is that neither (just) pantsing nor (just) outlining will be right for every writer or for every book you write. Everyone needs an outline, and everyone needs moments of pure spontaneity. So take the best from each camp and let that all-star team go to work.

What makes a book a page-turner?

There are three things that make a story a page-turner: story structure, scene structure, and character arcs. My favorite part of stories is their structure. I know we’re artists and creatives and structure makes us uncomfortable and inhibited, but story structure is different. It’s not formula writing. Content and structure are not the same thing. Story structure supports all different types of content–just like a skeleton supports all different types of bodies. What’s your favorite story structure?

Query Tips!

I got to teach a class on the top ten querying tips for fiction and nonfiction writers. The tips I shared all come from conversations and interviews with literary agents and editors, and some of the advice is surprising.

One of the first tips?

Don’t make it an easy rejection by not knowing the genre and preferred word count for the genre the agent you’re querying represents.

Another one involves hooks again. Yes, hooks! Get right to the heart of what your story is about. This is my hook from the query that got me my agent:

“When fourteen-year-old AnnaGrey meets a horned horse-like creature called an aeobanach in the forbidden Wildwood, she crosses the threshold from this world to a magical one in the hope of finding answers about her night-vision ability.”

What’s your query hook?


I am a reader of ghost stories.

I’ll read them while I clutch one hand over my eyes, peeking through my fingers like they were blinds over a forbidden window.

To be more accurate, I’m a reader of the ghosts inside stories. It’s the beauty of the prose, the very words that are used to tell the story, that are the ghosts that stay with me. Words are the tangible imprints of ghosts and can be embodied as characters that have been given life in paper and ink. Words can make a mark on someone else’s soul, can take someone to a place and a time they’ve never been. The stories that are created by those words take shape in my own life and make me homesick for places I once was, if only in my imagination.

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley is one of those books that has haunted me. The book was given to me by my mother, and it sat on my nightstand for weeks because I thought it didn’t fit my taste at the time. She assured me I would love it, if not for the story, but for the magic that was created by the poetry in Llewellyn’s pen. I finally cracked it open—and then I couldn’t put it down. His words were like a drug, laced with beauty and ache and joy and sadness. They took me to Wales and I didn’t want to leave. I could see the lush green valley, I could smell the taint of coal in the air, and I could feel the damp fog cloaked around me.

Llewellyn draws the reader into the story, and Wales itself, with his mastery of language. The Valley becomes a character as if it too were a living breathing entity that Huw Morgan, the main character, must leave behind. The Valley is personified like a lover, and Huw’s separation from it is just as painful as the loss of that love: “the Valley was a part of us and we were part of the Valley, never one without the other…and every blade of grass, and every stone, and every leaf of every tree, and every knob of coal or drop of water, or stick or branch or flower or grain of pollen, or creature living, or dust in ground, all were of me as my blood, my bones, or the notions of my mind” (231).

Llewellyn also gives the reader a taste of the Welsh language by placing verbs and nouns where they would structurally appear in Welsh:  “Beautiful is the voice rising to the quiet of the night. Nobody, now, to cough, or rattle paper, or come in late and make the noise of the devil with a chair or a dropped umbrella, and put heavy feet on loose boards” (304). This is a Welsh novel written so that English is made to sound Welsh, crafted beautifully by a masterful writer, using the device of words and language to immerse the reader even deeper into the land and the story.

I emerge from the novel’s pages breathless but also armed with new insight, knowledge, and even courage. Perhaps it isn’t a bad thing to be haunted. I’m taken to worlds I might not ever see in the flesh, but can visualize so clearly because of a writer’s pen. These are ghosts that help me to see my own world with an eye for the beauty in everything that touches me.

Works Cited
Llewellyn, Richard. How Green was My Valley.1939. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997.   Print.