• Take Off Your Pants is a wonderful book about the benefits/how-to of outlining over pantsing (discovery writing). It’s definitely worth the read.
• Outlining has the potential to help write faster and better over pansting.
• Start with a character who has a flaw. That flaw is at the heart of the story.
• The plot is taking the character from emotional point A to emotional point B, facing the flaw along the way.
• Every major character needs an antagonist and a protagonist.
• Your book should be build out of Story Core, Character Arc, and Theme (and Pacing).
• Try new things in your writing to see what improve it.
I read this book on a whim. Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker showed up in my feed for 99 cents (on sale). I’ve never heard of this author, but I’ve been interested in outlining for a while. I’m naturally a discovery writer but have been looking at outlining to better my writing (Discovery vs Outlining). Hawker, like many others, calls discovery writers pantsers (hence the book title for take off your pants to become an outliner/plotter) but the concepts are the same. Since it was only 99 cents, it wasn’t too much of a risk to buy, and I’m glad I did!
Take Off Your Pants is a fascinating, albeit short, look into the benefits of outlining–how to do it, how to be motivated, how to structure, and is well worth the read.
The Promise Outlining is better than discovery writing if you want to be a professional
Hawker starts out the book sharing a meeting she had with her publisher. She’d just signed another book with them and they wanted the first draft as soon as possible. Hawker told them she’d have the first draft done in three weeks.
The publisher was flabbergasted. Three weeks is not a lot of time to complete a first draft. Hawker’s response? “I’ve done it before-written a novel of the same size in just three weeks. In fact, I’ve done it a couple of times. I’ve already got the entire book outlined.” She completed it on time, all 92,000 words in under a month.
I was stunned. I’ve longed for a way to produce and finalize more content faster. Larry Correia and Brandon Sanderson stand out as incredible writers who produce amazing books quickly. Could Hawker’s outlining process be something for me?
She then declares the following:
“. . . At the risk of making myself very unpopular, I’m going to . . . boldly state that there is . . . a superior method for writing a book . . . ‘if’-your goals include establishing a full-time writing career [; and that is outlining].”
Bold indeed! But she had me hooked. Beyond that, the book is beautifully written and engaging. She definitely practices what she’s preaches.
(As a side note, she’s careful to state her goal isn’t to share the best outlining practices, it’s to share a way of outlining that’s greatly helped her. I appreciate sentiments like this because people are so varied in what works for them.)
The Process Getting to the heart of the matter
As Hawker relates, you start with a character, and it’s a character who has a specific and a powerful flaw. A great example of this (not one that Hawker uses) is Walter White from Breaking Bad. He’s a chemistry teacher who gets cancer and eventually cooks meth to fund a retirement for his family. The entire show revolves around his flaw-his pride. He refuses to get help from anyone even when it’s offered: he refuses to tell anyone about his cancer until he can no longer hide it; and he slowly but invariably sacrifices everything he’s held dear to preserve his flaw. It’s a tragedy show, so when confronted with his flaw he fails to overcome it. The engaging thing about him, is we get to see his progression, which is the next point Hawker tells us.
Every Major Character Needs an Arc: It’s simply taking the character from an emotional point A (where they start) to an emotional point B (where they end up), having them confront their flaw multiple times along the way. In the end, they can fail to overcome their flaw or not, but the important thing is they face it through the story.
Each Major Character Needs an Ally and Antagonist: Hawker beautifully and simply describes the antagonist as the person who’s set against the goal of the character, while the ally is the one who reminds the character of their true goal and sets them on the right path again.
Story Core/Pacing: The Story Core a simple 5 question checklist that is the heart of the book: Who is the character? What’s their goal? What stops them? How do they struggle? Do they overcome or fail? In addition to that being the overarching structure of the book, it should also be the structure of each chapter, which leads to pacing. I didn’t really get Hawker’s point with this at first but do now-each chapter is like an inverted pyramid with lots of options initially that funnel into a narrow climax at the end. Each chapter is a miniature story core ending in an exciting ending that makes readers want to read on. The structure of the entire book should also be an inverted triangle with lots of options initially that funnel into the climatic ending.
Theme: What is the book about? In Breaking Bad (again my example) the theme could be looking at the consequences of crime, or double lives, or pride (as Hawker states, themes are even more powerful if they’re connected to the character’s flaw). It doesn’t have to be a grand theme either (one of Hawker’s books is about what happens when cultures collide).
Plot: The plot is a bridge constructed of only three kinds of bricks. You can’t use any other bricks besides Character Arc, Theme, and Story Core. Everything has to fit into that. Further, the Story Core is supported on a three legged stool: Character Arc, Theme, and Pacing (you’ll notice some overlap). And each needs as much love as the other ones. Make sure your focused on all three!
These were some of the most helpful pointers in Hawker’s book for me, but I barely scratched the surface of what she wrote. She has very convincing arguments for trying an outlining approach, even if you’re a lifelong pantser; she goes way more in depth on each of these subjects, providing a detailed map that brings out the nitty gritty of plotting; she provides great examples, such as Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter, and others (she does use Lolita a lot which I find odd; having never read it, I can’t offer an opinion on a literary sense but I find the content problematic/controversial). She goes over step by step with her own novel, leading the reader along by the hand. I highly recommend purchasing it, even if it’s not on sale. It’s a short read so very accessible.
Fulfilling the Promise Results may vary
As a discovery writer, I often only outline after I’ve finished my novel. I’m currently in the throes of revising one of my novels and decided to give Hawker’s outlining process a try. It worked. Especially her emphasis on character flaw and uniting the story around that and a central theme. I now feel I have a cohesive whole. Characters make more sense as they either entangle with the flaw or show different aspects of the theme (there’s two of those bridge bricks!).
I’m especially excited to try this out for NaNoWrimo, which I’ll post about later. So far, my brain is still having trouble putting the story into Hawker’s structure, but MANY of her techniques have been helping me see how to make my book better.
Like in most things, mileage may vary according to your own personality, but I definitely recommend giving this book a try, and more important, try taking your pants off!