Session: Take Off Your Pants!: How Outlining Can Save Time, Increase, Efficiency, and Create a better Book!
Learn how outlines can increase efficiency and create a more predictable production schedule; why all outlines aren’t equally effective; how to structure a story so the compulsion to keep on reading is built into the fabric of the story, regardless of genre, setting, or theme; how to use the basics of outlining to your benefit if you’re a die-hard “pantser” at heart.
Format: Video Interview
Audience: All Levels
This post is part of London Book Fair Self-Publishing Advice Conference (#SelfPubCon2019), an online author conference that showcases the best self-publishing advice and education for authors across the world — harnessing the global reach of the Alliance of Independent Authors’ network. Our self-publishing conference features well-known indie authors and advisors, for 24 sessions over 24-hours, in a one-day extravaganza of self-publishing expertise straight to your email inbox. We hope you enjoy this session. Let us know if you have any questions or input on this self-publishing topic. Visit our Facebook Group and join in the conversation there, or leave your questions and feedback in the comments section below.
Hi everybody. My name is Libbie Hawker and today we’re going to talk about plotting your novel. Not so much the how’s, but the why’s and when’s of plotting.
For those of you who have never heard of me before, I’m a full time novelist on a hybrid track, which means I combined self publishing with traditional publishing. I currently have two active pen names, but I have operated as many as four at once in the past in several different genres. My other active pen name is Olivia Hawker and under that name with my most recent book, The Ragged Edge of Night, I hit number one on Amazon twice in the same month and also landed on the Washington Post bestseller list and on Amazon’s Top 20 Most Read list for the Kindle.
I tell you all that so you’ll know I’m coming from a place of experience.
When I talk about the methods that have worked for me and have helped me bring my career into focus. I know I’m not a household name by any means, but despite that I make good money from my books. I am able to write for my sole living and I’m even achieving big goals like landing on national bestseller lists without the need to become famous. If I can achieve these goals I’m pretty confident that you can too.
Now today I specifically want to talk about outlining your books before you begin writing them. Plotting. I know they’re very idea kind of raises a groan from some writers. A lot of people who write find the idea of plotting in advance really unappealing. They probably imagine a rigid structure that makes them feel kind of creatively impinged and I’m sure there’s also a sense of, “Well, if I sit down and figure out everything that’s going to happen in this book before I really began working on the writing itself then I’ve taken all the fun out of the writing process, writing becomes a drag and a chore instead of what I wanted it to be, which is a process of discovery and a source of creative expression.” Let me put some of those fears to rest for you.
I use an outlining method that still leaves broad swaths of the story unknown to the author, so you still get all the enjoyment of discovery and that nice creative buzz that all artists crave because I know how important it is sometimes to stretch your artistic muscles and have fun with your writing to keep it more play than work whenever you can, but knowing how to outline in an effective useful way can play a huge part in your financial success as an author.
So this is a skill that’s really worth developing. You don’t have to use it all the time. I don’t. Some of my books are written without any advanced planning whatsoever, but you should know how to do it and why and when you should do it so that your toolkit is fully stocked and you can pull this skill out and deploy it in the right situations and give yourself a nice leg up over the competition.
Earlier I told you about some of my fiction books, but among my fellow authors, I’m probably best known for writing the bestselling guide to plotting,Take Off Your Pants. This book has been out for a few years now and I’m really pleased to say it has become a staple for many authors, even people who have always been diehard pantsers have told me they love the book because it allowed enough creative wiggle room to keep writing fun while speeding up their process significantly and helping them bring books to market much faster than they ever could before. And that’s what I’m going to talk about in this presentation. Not so much the how’s of outlining, though we will touch on that a little bit, but the why’s of outlining, why it’s important and why it’s something you should know how to do and how specifically it can help grow and maintain a stable flourishing career.
Being an indie author is pretty amazing. I seriously love it. No matter how well I ultimately ended up doing with my traditional publishers I don’t see myself giving up as an Indie. It’s too lucrative, for one thing. For the first five years of my full-time writing career, I actually made significantly more for my self published books and I made from any of my traditional titles or all of them put together most months, but also I really loved the control we have over our own careers as indie authors. The more copyrights you control, the easier you can pivot and the faster you can adapt to all these big changes that come in the industry. And honestly, this industry changes all the time. It’s never static. Some big disruption is always landing or about to land and if we are in control of our own copyrights, we can adapt and move into emerging spaces much faster than any traditional publisher can.
I will tell you after 35 novels so far, I have a pretty good feel for what dictates success in this business. Part of it is luck having just the right book and just the right time to tap into an emerging trend early or to speak to the sort of Zeitgeist of the moment. You can’t control luck, so don’t even try. There’s no point. Focus instead on the things you can control, those things are excellent cover art and I could go into what that means and how to determine what constitutes excellent cover art for your genre, but this presentation is about other stuff and I’m sure you can find a great cover art presentation through ALLi. Your title is also incredibly important, believe it or not. Again, you can get specifics on how and why to finesse your title elsewhere, we’re going to stay focused on plotting here today.
Advertising and most importantly of all, keeping up with current and effective methods of advertising will also play a huge role in your success. But what we’re here to talk about today is this one here on the bottom, regular new releases. This is a major part of success, especially as an Indie, but it also does come into play in a traditional or a hybrid career. So it’s critical to take control of your writing schedule regardless of how you publish or how you may plan to publish in the future.
Now, you’ll notice that this list here, it doesn’t include anything about the quality of the book because honestly, quality doesn’t determine success. That my chap your hide a little, if you’ve grown used to thinking of writing for a living as something really exceptional that only kind of the chosen few can pull off, but you might have been harboring a fantasy, maybe subconsciously that full time writers are kind of blessed by the Muse and you’ll only attain that mythical full time career once you’ve bled, sweat, shed enough tears to have earned it, but I have to be honest here, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference how well you write as long as you’re retaining a baseline of fulfilling reader expectations.
Quality is hugely subjective anyway. I really love literary fiction and tons of juicy, gorgeous descriptions and carefully chosen words and artistic flourishes and you might hate that kind of thing in writing and you wouldn’t consider it to be high quality because that’s not what you’re looking for as a reader. So let me say right up front, as long as you’re clearing some very basic bars in terms of editing, clarity of communication, and a logical plot, there’s almost certainly an audience out there for your book.
Let’s take a look at this bullet point here in greater depth. What do I mean by regular releases and how does that affect your business? Well, like the idea of quality, regular release is kind of a subjective concept too. Different genres cater to different audiences and each audience has a sort of average member, kind of, like a hypothetical individual whose tastes and behaviors are mostly representative of the entire audience as a whole.
It’s critical that you get familiar with your average reader and this is one of many reasons why it’s so important for you to be able to apply a genre label to every single book you write. Saying, “My book is totally unclassifiable. It’s like no other book in the world.” is not going to help readers and it won’t help you, more importantly. Saying, “I don’t know what genre my book fits into” also won’t help you. Figure it out.
Spend some time comparing other books to yours and finding where the greatest number of similarities lie. You have to be able to slot your book into a genre so that you can start studying the average audience member of that genre. Your audience will dictate all the other critical choices you’ll make, what your title will be, what your cover will look like, how and where to advertise, and how often you need to offer a new release.
For example, romance readers are mostly women. The average age range is 30 to 55. most romance readers are married or in committed relationships, and most romance fans have the average household income for the United States, which is about $55,000 a year. Romance readers tend to be more highly educated than readers in other genres and most critically evolve from a volume perspective.
Romance readers are very brand loyal. They will stick with favorite authors and support them with great enthusiasm, and they’re also incredibly voracious with the average romance fan reading more books per month than fans of any other genre and buying more books per month in any other genre too. Romance readers have bottomless appetites and will spend money on books like nobody else. So this is a great genre for faster writers who can deliver a book every one to three months and keep a loyal fan base engaged.
Let’s contrast your average romance reader with your average historical fiction reader. This is my main genre, which was why I chose it. But you can dig around on the Internet and find analyses of readers, statistics in your genre. I promise you that information is definitely out there somewhere on the internet. Publishers, distributors and various organizations frequently poll readers to gather this data because it plays such a huge role in so many industry decisions.
So we can see that the average historical fiction reader tends to be female in the US and the UK. It’s actually more men reading the genre than women. They tend to skew older than in romance, about 45 to 70. They typically have higher educations including lots who have advanced degrees and they tend to work in or be retired from academia and they also will work in the sciences and the arts at a pretty high rate. They still prefer print to any other format. It was, I like to joke, we who love history enjoy living in the past and they’re very slow readers, especially compared to romance. The average historical fiction fan only finishes one book about every two and a half months, so in this genre you could easily get away with just two new releases per year instead of the book a month pace of a romance author.
You’ll need to evaluate the ideal pace for your own genre, but knowing what your ideal schedule should look like and then doing everything in your power to stick to that schedule is a key component for indie success and that’s because nothing sells back list quite like a new release. That’s true in the indie world. It’s also true in the traditional publishing world, there are always going to be different advertising methods that come along and different advertising methods that will work better at any given point in time or for any particular audience you’re trying to reach. But the one thing that always brings the strongest results is getting a new book out there.
New books generate buzz. They give people something to talk about on social media or in their book club groups and there’s just human nature to be curious about something new. Each new book you finish and publish is also a new opportunity to catch a new readers eye. Maybe some individual readers just weren’t attracted to any of your previous books for whatever reason, but luck might be on your side with the next new book. It might be exactly right for the readers you were missing before and once they realize they like your work, they’re going to try all those past books they ignored before. In a sense, new releases are a lot like throwing spaghetti at a wall. Some of those noodles are going to stick and once you’ve shown previously reluctant readers how tasty your spaghetti is, they will start coming back for more.
Now if you’re considering a hybrid or even an all traditional career, at some point in the future you might think you’ll be free from the need to outline, but you won’t be, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. If anything, outlining actually becomes a more important as you cross over into the traditional publishing world. When you work with a traditional publisher, you’re going to have deadlines, sometimes very tight deadlines, and you’ll need to be able to commit to delivering the promise product by your deadline because it’s often very hard to get deadlines changed.
Contracts and legal departments and sometimes large sums of money come into play here too.
So you don’t want to leave anything to chance or to the muse knowing you can definitely finish a book by your specified deadline will take a huge burden off your mind and you’ll also develop a reputation within your publisher and perhaps within the wider traditional publishing industry as a whole, as a very reliable author and that can open some amazing doors for you at your imprint and other imprints too. I mean, believe me, I’ve learned from my own experience as a relatively fast and efficient writer.
That seems to be a pretty rare thing and the traditional publishing world and when a publisher finds out that you can deliver as promised on a deadline, even a very tight deadline and the product you can turn in is still good, they latch their claws into you and they are not going to let go. So outlining becomes, if anything, even more critical when you’re working in a traditional context.
Alright. Remember how I said luck plays a part in success? That is true, but guess what? The more books you’re publishing every year, the more chances you have to hit a streak of good luck. You could be the author who was just in the right place at the right time to start a brand new trend, or at least you can be an early adopter of an emerging trend instead of kind of following along with the rest of the pack and that’s always a very good thing.
Now I’ve just spent a lot of time pounding it into your head how important it is to know how to outline so you can commit to a schedule of regular new releases, but not all outlines are created equal. With my first few books, I was pretty dissatisfied with how long it took me to get them to the point where I could send them off to an editor. It was taking me one to two years to finish a book and that was largely because I kept finding myself adding a lot of extra stuff that really didn’t need to be there and then the resulting book would feel just wrong somehow, but it would take me months of rereading and revising to figure out why it felt so off and how to fix it. But I did start to figure out that I was putting extraneous things into the plots like subplots and various scenes that weren’t moving the overall story forward.
I had to learn how to identify what the actual core of each story was and how to tell whether these subplots and scenes were relevant or not. So all these frustrations with my early drafts gave rise to the outlining method I detailing Take Off Your Pants, now Take Off Your Pants lays out kind of a roadmap for planning a book so you can avoid including extraneous stuff that’s destined for the cutting room floor, so to speak. Right from the start, you’ll avoid writing a bunch of words that are just going to be deleted later on in the editing process and you’ll also sidestep that backend work which will get you through the entire process of producing a book from writing the first word to publishing it much more efficiently.
Now, my outlining methods certainly is not the one and only one out there and I don’t try to claim it’s like a grand unified theory of storytelling or anything crazy like that. There are countless ways to write a book and almost countless ways for a story to feel satisfying and complete to the reader when they get to the end. I’m not trying to teach you the silver bullet that can crack all the secrets of storytelling forever. I’m just trying to teach you an outlining method with the specific purpose of streamline your workflow so that you can increase efficiency and produce more new releases faster.
This is a relatively short presentation, so I can’t go into all the specifics of the outlining method here, but I will cover the basics. If you want to learn more about it in detail, you can grab yourself a copy of Take Off Your Pants, but in a nutshell, this method is great for speed and efficiency because it focuses on the main character and relates every scene in the book to the characters inner growth. Your book doesn’t have to be overtly about inner growth for this to work.
In some genres like Sci Fi or fantasy, readers are most powerfully drawn to world building or high concepts first and to other aspects of story in sort of a secondary way, but no matter what your genre is or what its average demographics may be, your readers are always going to be human and centering all the action in the plot around an inner struggle to grow and become an improved person.
Even if those themes of growth and improvement are very subtly conveyed, we’ll set a very powerful psychological hook and readers, which will make it really difficult for them to put the book down. By the way, I’m saying person here, but I’m referring to characters of all kinds like alien species, animals, artificial intelligence, whatever. Even non-human characters will still be relayed to your reader in relatable human-centric terms. So this applies even to a cast of non-human characters.
Now, my book goes into much greater detail about this part, but I’ll briefly touch on it here. By ensuring that every scene you write somehow serves one of these five foundational features of a character arc, you will ensure that the scene feels relevant, logical and urgent to the reader. Every scene needs to bear directly on either who the character is, what they want, what stands in their way, what they’re willing to do in order to get what they want and what is at stake for them if they fail. Preferably each scene will illustrate more than one of these points, but every scene in the book must bear directly on at least one of these five points.
I think the example I use in Take Off Your Pants is if you have a scene where your character is just examining their collection of a collectible travel teaspoons that they have gathered at all the various exotic locations they’ve visited and nothing else happens in that scene, that’s dead wood that’s not serving any of these five key points here and that can go. What’s so interesting and different about this outlining method is that it really doesn’t take cause and effect or the action of the plot into much account. By which I mean you aren’t planning your story by saying this happens, so then logically this happens next and then of course this has to happen next.
The logistics of action fall into place naturally while you remain laser focused on what’s going on inside your main character’s head and heart. What’s truly important from the reader’s perspective isn’t all the external stuff like the ins and outs of your world building or the big plot twists you’ve come up with. Those things are all really great and add a lot of color to your work, which readers definitely do appreciate, but neither action nor plot twists create that inescapable hook for the reader.
This utter compulsion to read on no matter what, it’s only an intense focus on what’s going on at a personal level inside your character that can make a story feel so emotionally gripping and impossible to put down. The biggest portion of your book will consist of all the time the main character spends trying to achieve some external goal, which I know it seems a little bit contradictory based on what I just said. I just told you it’s not the action and the external stuff that pulls the reader in. It’s all the internal stuff, but with this outlining method, the external goal your character is struggling to achieve is a reflection of the inner journey.
The character probably doesn’t realize that, at least not at first, and the reader might not even realize it until the end of the story, but that external goal will become a formative part of the character’s arc of change and whether the goal is achieved in the end or not, either way you can produce a satisfying story that will determine whether your character becomes the true hero they’ve secretly been trying to be or whether they fail in heroism.
In Take Off Your Pants I do present a really easy way to choose an external goal that will serve the function of reflecting the inner journey. So if you’re pulling out your hair right now worrying about how the heck you’re going to do that, don’t sweat it. It’s a lot easier to come up with than I think you’re imagining for now, I’m just going to ask you to take my word for it, that the external goal is a direct reflection of the characters inner journey.
Now, throughout the course of the book, your character is going to try to reach their goal, but not quite get there. How many cycles of struggle and fail you put into the book will dictate its length. You’ll want at least two, but preferably a minimum of three cycles of struggling and failing. For whatever weird reason, humans are really drawn to threes and having at least three attempts to do something makes the story feel so much more satisfying when the character either succeeds or fails for the last time and learns their lesson.
Now you can put in as many of these cycles as you want. You can even carry on the cycles over multiple books within a series, but while you’re outlining the action in your book, know that you’ll want to aim for three rounds of the struggle at a minimum. Throughout your book, your character is also going to be up against some sort of an antagonist. This is the character or force against which they’re struggling. Eventually the cycles of struggle and failure will reach an emotional peak and then you have your main character square off against their antagonist for one last confrontation.
The outcome of this confrontation will determine whether your character reaches their goal or not and what kind of lesson they learn, how they grow internally as a result of this story, but that final confrontation with the antagonist is crucial so that the reader gains a sense of closure and is able to say, “Wow, yes, this felt like a complete and satisfying story.” So let’s recap a little bit.
Outlining before you begin to write as a critical skill that you can use specifically to speed up production time.
The speed comes from reducing time spent in the revision process where you’ll be cutting away dead wood from your story, all the stuff that doesn’t need to be there and you probably shouldn’t have written in the first place because it doesn’t serve your purpose. Your purpose is to make loyal fans by giving them stories they find ultra compelling and highly satisfying. In short, you want it to become the prime rib of your genre and make everybody else the readers try out seem like cold bologna by comparison. For the vegans out there, you want to be the incredible tofu chocolate silk pie and leave everybody else looking like a half melted handful of carob chips with like some cat hairs and lint stuck to them. The best product produced quickly and efficiently so that you can keep up with a schedule of regular releases timed appropriately for your genre.
Now like I said before, you don’t always have to use this method or any other planning method if you don’t want to. It’s perfectly okay to write by the seat of your pants. And in fact, some of my favorite books have been written that way. And I’m talking about both my own books and those I’ve read that are written by other authors. But pantsing is almost always going to slow down your production significantly, both because you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what ought to happen next and because you’re going to write a lot of stuff that later turns out to be unusable and needs to be cut from the manuscript, usually with the need for rewrites, added in, well, hate rewrites.
So you want to make outlining a part of your regular practices when you’re starting out in a new genre and trying to build an audience, when you’ve got preorders set up, so you’ve created deadlines for yourself which must be met, when you’ve committed to finishing a series by a certain date so you don’t drive your poor fans crazy with waiting and looking at you, George R. R. Martin, and if you intend to work with a traditional publisher at all so that you can commit to contractual deadlines and not give yourself a heart attack trying to meet them.
Like I said before, I go into a lot more detail in Take Off Your Pants about all the ins and outs of these parts of the outline, and I also cover several other important features of a tight, efficient plot such as allies, theme and pacing. I don’t have time to hit all these things in this presentation, unfortunately, but my goal for this presentation wasn’t so much to tell you how to outline, but why you should and I gave you a little bonus cat there as well. Just in case you want to see my little kitty Merlin Spike.
If I’ve piqued your interest about the outlining process and if I’ve convinced you that it plays a big role in an author’s career, I hope you’ll check out my book on the subject to learn more about it. Thanks again for being here with me for this lesson. I’m Libbie Hawker, wishing you happy writing.
Do you have any questions or feedback about this Self-Publishing Advice Conference Session? Leave a comment below, or send us a question using hashtag #IndieAuthorCon
Register for #SelfPubCon2019
Our next online conference for authors runs in association with the Digital Book World, September 2019.
Register now and we'll send details of our speakers, sessions, sponsors and competitions closer to the time.
Hosted by the non-profit Alliance of Independent Authors. Always free.