From Pantser to Planner: The Evolution of A Writing Process

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You have never written a novel. You have started numerous projects, made some decent progress into them—around 10-15k words, maybe—but then…you fizzle out.

Every time.

Once you make it past the part of your story planned out in your head, beyond whatever nugget of narrative you were able to steal from the word-gods, you just stop writing. You run out of juice, and nothing you do works. You stare at the keyboard, and when you try to poke it back into action, nothing happens. Your novel is dead on the screen.

Which sucks because your idea was good. Oh well, you think. There will be other ideas. And you move on to anothe project, and the same thing happens.

So…does that sound familiar? It does to me.

Before the summer of 2010, I had never written a novel, but my hard-drive is still littered with the 10k-corpses of good ideas. Now, though, I’m a novel-writing fiend. I beat my keyboard like it owes me money, and I like to think I’ve matured as a writer.

Even if I haven’t, I’ve matured as a planner, which is my point. If you’re not sure how to go from being a pantser to a planner, let me show you how I did it. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do it, or even the right way. But it was my way, and I think it has improved my writing.

From Pantser to Planner – Book 1

When I started writing Birthright in 2010, I knew very little about what was going to happen. I had a general idea, but as far as the whole, over-arcing narrative? Pfft. Pfft. All I had to do was write, and the story would tell itself. Right? That’s what pantsers do, isn’t it? Write by the seat of their pants?

Well, kind of. The seat of my pants was indeed stuck in a chair, and I pounded out a minimum of 2,000 words every single day, and by the end of the summer, I had an 86k-word manuscript. No outline, no plans, no nothing. Just butt-in-chair and a lot of determination.

Too bad the book kind of stunk. (Disclaimer: first-drafts are universally stinky.)

But I’d done it. I’d written a novel. I let the story tell itself, and I had a novel.

Long story, short: I’m still revising that manuscript. There have been three major overhauls already, and I think there are going to be two more passes on it before the November release. It’s finally in a good place, and I’m proud of the story it tells.

But I learned a good lesson from it: plan better for book 2.

From Pantser to Planner – Book 2

When I started working on Lineage, the way I approached the project was marginally better. My writing process didn’t change that much for Book 2—I was still writing every day for a set quota of words—but I made sure that before I started, I had a plan. I knew where the story was going to go before I even tapped the first key.

But it wasn’t an outline; it was a 900-word synopsis of the major plot points for the book.

I felt that an outline was too restrictive, too much bad mojo for my creative flow, and I just couldn’t see the story that well in that format. So I made myself a series of 7 paragraphs and 3 subparagraphs that worked like waypoints for me as I wrote.

I had goals for the characters to reach, places they had to be for the story to move from Point A to Point Z. I didn’t necessarily spell out how they had to get there—that was up to the daily keyboard beatings, after all—I just had to have a few big, flashing, neon sign that read “HEY GUYS! OVER HERE!”

The process worked well for me. Finishing up at just over 75k words, Lineage was much easier to write because of the structure my planning provided, and I feel that it’s a heck of a lot stronger in its first draft than Birthright was.

While I know it’s going to be edited into a completely new shape and form by the end of it, I don’t think it’ll need the Tally Youngblood treatment that Birthright got.

From Pantser to Planner – The Nimbus Interlude

When Austin and I started working together on Nimbus, it was my first real experience with chapter-by-chapter outlining. I had never been able to see a story in that way before. But each week, as our deadline approached, I was unabashedly glad that I had those chapters planned out ahead of time.

I use simple, to-the-point paragraphs to structure my Nimbus outlines. 3-5 sentences that tell me pretty much all of the events that have to happen during that chapter. My half of Nimbus: Part One was approximately 18,000 words, and they were planned from 5 itty-bitty paragraph-nuggets.

From Pantser to Planner – Book 3

Those paragraph-nuggets apparently spoiled me. I am currently working on the outline for Legacy before I dig in on the nitty-gritty, and I thought it would be a lot like Lineage. I expected to write 900-1500 words of a synopsis, and then use that as a general guide through the 100k-150k+ narrative.


As of this moment, I have 700 words written about Legacy, and I haven’t even moved past what I expect to be the first three-ish chapters.

And I love it. It’s coming naturally to me. The idea of starting to write the book without this kind of plan is terrifying. If you had told me two years ago that I would come to have a hard time writing by the seat of my pants, I’d have thought you were crazy. Because that just wasn’t how I wrote.

Now, though? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Outline or bust. I guess it goes to show that Malcolm Gladwell is right, ten-thousand hours at something teaches you how to do it right. The more I write, the more I have to learn about writing. And the more I learn about writing, the more I understand how little I knew and how little I still know.

Like my director in college used to say: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” I did what I thought was perfect when I started Birthright in 2010. It wasn’t, or I’d still be doing it. And now in 2012, I’m doing something else that I think is perfect.

Is it? Who knows.

I’ll tell you in 10,000 hours.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I really admire your dedication and work on your novels. I started mine with (what I thought was) a strong outline, but it fizzled the more I was writing. A few years (and many false starts) later, I’m stuck: too scared to outline (because I know I won’t stick to it) and too scared to write without an outline. I’m aware how totally stupid it is.

    The compromise I found is to have an idea of the ending I want to reach, and plan 2-3 chapters ahead. It’s like writing in the dark with a flashlight. I don’t see very far but I slowly make my way.

    Do you have writing buddies or work with a writing workshop? I’ve been contemplating this idea, weighing if it’s worth getting out of my shell 😉 Any advice on that would be welcome.

    1. Thank you, Maryse. It’s taken me years, as you can see, to be able to get to where I can reliably put words on the page. At the point I’m at with Book 3, I’m okay with leaving gaps when I begin actually writing it. I have most of it vaguely planned, but a lot of it will definitely be writing in the dark with a flashlight. Love that image.

      As far as writer’s groups…not really, no. I have a fantastic group of people I’ve Circled on Google+ as Beta Readers, but that’s just my catch-all. They are more of a feedback/critique group than that. For me, it’s been worth every bit of getting out of my shell. It’s hard for me to share something that’s unpolished, but the end result is a lot stronger.

  2. It’s really interesting to see the way your style has evolved. It gives me hope that if I ever get around to trying my hand at fiction I might have a shot at it. For now I’m still content with just my blog.

    Out of curiosity, do you approach short stories in a different way or is it basically the same as planning for a novel for you?

    1. Short stories are an oddity for me. It’s really hard for me to see the entire arc at once, and when I try to plan it out–as you’ve seen from the ‘mancer story synopsis–it ends up being a lot bigger and lengthier than I have room for in a short.

      So I tend to write a brief outline or synopsis, or at least try to figure out, as Tobias Buckell says, “what’s the fucking point” before moving too far in.

      Sometimes I don’t have anything, and I start writing and revise it enough to make it shine. That’s actually how I did WORKING RETAIL, the story I sold most recently. I wrote a draft because I had an idea for a cool scene, let it sit a while, then went back when I had a point and made it into something. No outline, no nothing.

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