organization · Writing

How to Outline as a Pantser

I know the title looks like an oxymoron, but just bear with me for a moment.

Before I get into detail about what I do as a pantser, I want to talk about what I mean by a pantser, gardener, and plotter, which are terms I’m going to use throughout this post.

A pantser is someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” while they write. Meaning that they do no pre-writing or minimal pre-writing. Pantsers typically don’t use outlines, though they may have some idea of the direction of their stories when they start.

A plotter is someone who uses outlines, pre-writing, and various organizational methods to sort out the plot of their book before they start writing.

Gardeners, or plantsers as they are often known, fall somewhere between plotting and pansting, meaning that they may use some organizational techniques ahead of time but they may be scant or only used sometimes.

The problem a lot of pantsers and gardeners often run into is that they don’t like to outline because it sort of sucks the magic out of the creative process. Half the fun of writing is discovery, so when you get told everything in the outline, there’s no drive to discover. Then the next problem that arises is, if I have a beginning and end, how do I bridge those two pieces if I don’t have an outline?

What I would catch myself doing is constantly rereading what I had written in hopes that I would figure out how to get to the ending I imagined. As you can probably guess, I wasted A LOT of time rereading the same passages, and as the book got longer, I found myself skipping writing days to reread 100 pages, which then put me behind. A few times I tried to outline like a plotter when I got stuck and found myself staring into the void because I still didn’t know how to get to point B from where I was. I wasn’t a plotter and would probably never be, so this type of outlining didn’t work for me. Luckily I did find something that helped a lot: reverse outlining.

I highly doubt I am the first person to come up with reverse outlining, but I figured out this sort of retroactive outlining technique on my own after having reread the same draft every day for 3 days. What a reverse outline is, is writing out what happens in each chapter as you write them. So I make a bulleted list with Chapter # as a header, then put a bunch of bullets under it of the major things that happened. Sometimes I also include character descriptions, important objects or settings, etc. You can do this digitally on a Google/Word Doc or on Scrivener or you can make one by hand in a notebook or on index cards. Something I started to do as my story got longer is to color code the events. General main plot got one color, the romance arcs got a different color, subplots another. You could also do this if you shift point of view as well. That way, you see main points and how they work together at a glance. Here’s an example from my current project, THE REANIMATOR’S HEART:


Chapter One: Foolish Choices

  • Oliver Barlow introduction- he is the coroner at the Paranormal Society and is also a necromancer
  • He autopsies Mr. Hezekiah Henderson who was apparently killed by his own pet tigers (could talk to animals). He gets this info by reviving him briefly
  • His BFF Gwen comes in, she’s in the midst of an asthma attack. Oliver helps her, and she tells him that Felipe Galvan is looking for him. Oliver is flustered because he likes Felipe but begrudgingly agrees to go

This reverse outline can be as detailed or scant as you wish, but it should help to cut down on having to reread and reorient yourself constantly. For some chapters, these entries can be quite long, but it’s worth it. I tend to write these out after I’ve finished a chapter rather than after each writing session. This reverse outline should also help during the editing process as you can target where certain plot points/threads that need to be adjusted at a glance.

Something else you might consider after reverse outlining that helped me was micro-outlining. Half of the reason I use the reverse outline is because I’m not good at thinking too far in the future, but I often have scene ideas along the way with no means of connecting them. I tend to have a detailed reverse outline on a doc and another one of just major events written on index cards. Once I have the preexisting bits done, I make cards for future events I have in my head. As I work forward, the stepping stones to get to those events become clearer, so I start making notes (or note cards) for myself of what I need to do to get there. I think of this as micro outlining because it doesn’t take away from that discoverability aspect that I enjoy with being a pantser, but it keeps me moving forward more smoothly (as someone who forgets things, writing ideas down is key to actually using them later). It also helps me to figure out where to put things I want to include. If you’re someone who is very visual, I highly recommend using an index card based system for reverse outlining. It just makes it a lot easier to visualize what comes next. Plus, moving things around can sometimes jog ideas loose. If you are afraid of losing your index cards, Scrivener also has a digital index card feature.

If you’re a pantser or gardener who is constantly rereading your work or forgetting what you’ve done, I hope you’ll try using a reverse outline to mark out where you’ve been and figure out where you’re going.

organization · Writing

On Doing Things Wrong as an Author

Let me preface this by saying this is not a how-to on how to fix your screw ups. This is a post about things I screwed up that I didn’t realize were even a problem until I did them [repeatedly].

There is no right or wrong way to do most things as an author, especially in regards to writing. There will always be people who are really into your niche genre or dying for this very specific type of character you’re writing, but on the business end of things, there are, let’s say, less desirable ways of doing things. Things that don’t benefit you/the writer or the reader/your audience.

How I F-ed Up My Newsletter

I am incredibly guilty of doing those less desirable things because I’m either a) tired or burnout b) didn’t know better c) didn’t want to bother anyone. I bolded and italicized the last one because not wanting to bother anyone has been a lifelong mode of operation that I probably need therapy for, but we will not get into that. The problem with that mindset is that you treat everything you do as a chore for others. I only send emails to my newsletter occasionally because I don’t want to bother them. Or I don’t want to advertise my book because I don’t want to bother people. This means I am treating the books that I love and spent hours and hours of my life working on as something unworthy of attention, and in the long-run, I am setting myself up for failure because people don’t know I have books or think I’m only reaching out to sell them something, which is not a great look.

So what I’ve been working on is creating a monthly newsletter that will cover the following things:

Join my monthly newsletter for: sneak peeks, freebies/deals, book recommendations, life updates, pet pics, and book research
The background is grey with teal writing and there are 2 bats flying behind the words.

If you join my monthly newsletter, I’ll share things I’m working on, some cool research (and let me tell you, writing historically set books, there is a lot and it is weird), pics of my dogs, and books that I’ve read and loved and think you’ll love, too. When you sign-up, you’ll also get a free prequel short story, and over the next few months, I plan to send out another free short to subscribers. After the initial thank you emails, you will get monthly emails, which will be sent out at the end of every month.

I decided to change this to a beefier, monthly email because I was doing a disservice to my readers/subscribers by “not bothering them” except when I had book updates, and when I thought harder about that, it felt wrong to only send messages when I published. You could just follow me on Amazon or Bookbub if you wanted that kind of bare bones update.

How I F-ed Up my Back Matter

The next giant thing I screwed up is not keeping up with fixing my back matter. Back matter is the about the author, also by the author, newsletter/social media links, etc. that are found at the back of your book. Between changing laptops several times since 2014, switching writing programs, and just being overwhelmed at the prospect of going through like 10 Word docs, I put off updating all of these things for YEARS. This means that my first book had an “also by” list that only went up to like book four of the series. I facepalmed hard when I realized I hadn’t updated my back matter since 2017.

Something I would also recommend other authors doing is going back and formatting their docs, so the chapter headers are in a heading style and the body text is one uniform style. This makes it easier for the Kindle and eReader software to convert your book to something that makes sense. Guess who went back and properly formatted all 10 documents? And I was shocked to find that once I got going, it took significantly less time than I expected. I was able to do all of them over the course of a week and reuploaded the new files to my distributors. Amazon/KDP also has a new bit of free software called Kindle Create that is a lot like Vellum or, if you’ve used D2D, their autogenerated software, which will break your book into chapters and add pretty flourishes if you’re so inclined. Once again, very easy, highly recommend to make your books look spiffy.

If you’re an author, this is your sign to fix your back matter and formatting as it won’t take you nearly as long as you think once you finish the first book.

How I Forgot to Publish an Entire Box Set

The last thing I did to get my work back into shape is to add a new box set for the Ingenious Mechanical Devices series. A while ago, I made a box set for books 1-3, which is 20% off the cost of buying the books individually, but I thought I’d wait until a year after book 6 came out before I made the next box set. Well, then I got overwhelmed with life and then enough time passed that I forgot. A couple weeks ago, I reached out to my cover designer (Lou Harper at Cover Affairs), made the file, and got it all listed, so if you’re interested in getting a box set of books 4-6 for 25% off buying the books individually, now you can. Both sets are available on all major retailers, BUT I had a little hiccup with Apple Books and Kobo. They have the set as a preorder that releases January 29th. I’ve reached out to fix it with no answer, but the 29th isn’t that far away, so if it doesn’t get fixed immediately, you will get your books by the end of the month.

TL;DR

If you’re an author, research best practices instead of assuming you’re being annoying because you could be in a totally different way than you though.

You may also want to join my monthly newsletter as it starts up in earnest this month.

If you’re an author, fix your back matter and formatting.

Check out my latest release, which is a box set of books 4-6 in the Ingenious Mechanical Devices series for 25% off the cost of the books individually.


Let me know in the comments what kinds of things you like to see in author newsletters!

organization · Personal Life

How I’m Getting My Sh*t Together

If you saw my post on “Life’s a Mess but There’s Hope,” you know that I have been having a rather rough time. Earlier in the year, due to life/emotional stress (or from a potential asymptomatic covid leftover), I was struggling with brain fog, checking OCD, and general anxiety. This combined with work stuff and writing malaise had wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and self-worth, so while I was mainlining YouTube videos, as one does when they feel shitty, I came across Sarra Cannon’s videos about her quarterly planning.

I already am a big proponent of using planners and have used a bullet journal every year since 2016, but when my downhill mental spiral started in earnest in 2020, I stopped setting concrete goals and my organization devolved from there to the bare minimum. So when I saw Sarra’s planning videos, I was excited, especially since she is a writer and entrepreneur, and it turns out her HB90 system is centered around exactly that. Before I go on, I’d like to say that I am in no way affiliated with Sarra’s classes. I just took the HB90 course and felt that I benefited from it.

What is the HB90 system?

The HB90 system was created by author Sarra Cannon (YouTube channel is Heart Breathings) as a way to help others stay organized and move toward the ideal life they want. Instead of focusing on a year at a time, she breaks things down by quarter. Some of you might shrug and say it sounds like every other planner, but there were certain aspects that greatly appealed to me.

The first one was that this system focused on quarterly goals instead of yearly goals. A problem I often faced was getting off track due to life and my yearly goals would rapidly spiral into why bother land. I wouldn’t be able to right that ship and would give up. By having quarterly goals, they are smaller chunks, and after each quarter/90 days, you do a review and figure out what worked, what didn’t work, and what you need to do. That way, if you know you were doing something self-sabotaging, you can sort of check yourself and figure out how to move forward. Also, you can decide if you want to continue a half-finished/unfinished goal or shelve it next quarter.

The other thing that appealed to me was the visualization/ideal life aspect. At the beginning of the course (and each quarter), you fill out questions regarding what you truly want your life to look like. The idea is that if you have a specific direction/vision, you know that your goals should aim you toward that vision and you can eliminate or minimize things that won’t move you toward that life. It wasn’t done in a “you should be rich in the future with a mansion and a convertible” or girlboss kind of way. She’s simply asking you to find an ideal in order to make sure your choices make sense. Something I struggle with is “spaghetti flinging,” so if I don’t know what I need to do, I will do all the things instead. This means, I do a lot of random stuff that doesn’t amount to much. This is meant to eliminate that because I can say, “Yes, this idea is great, but this isn’t what I’m focusing on right now.”

I don’t want to go over every aspect of this course (this is what taking the course is for), but something I appreciated was that Sarra Cannon is mindful of reality and different realities. She asks you to be realistic but also kind to yourself. Don’t set yourself up for failure by being like “New Year New Me!” while still having old you’s habits and abilities. You have to work on that gradually, and I was so relieved to hear her talk about if you have chronic health problems and budgeting your time based on how often you know those things take you out of commission. This really isn’t a hustle culture kind of thing, so that work til you drop and hustle harder wasn’t there. It was about knowing what you are currently capable of and potentially working toward different habits in the future or scheduling yourself better right now. As someone who has inflammation problems, migraines, and anxiety, I can’t live up to the ableist standard of hustle culture, so this took some of that pressure off me while I was working on my goals/schedule.

My Ideal Life

When I was asked to imagine my ideal life, I struggled a bit. Academia has been going through a weird time of upheaval, especially in the humanities where I work, and that has made my own life more complicated. What I decided to do for my ideal life was to create a vision board on Pinterest, and I quickly realized it would make no sense to anyone but me. What I want is a life lived creatively. I want a rich, fulfilling life that is focused on things that make me feel good: my partner, my dogs, going to museums, doing creative writing, doing more art. There’s certainly room in there for a full-time academic position if one should ever come available, but I don’t feel like I can bank on that due to the current climate at US universities. I would like to model my life a little on Vincent Price’s. He was an actor, obviously, but he also loved art and cooking, and I want a life that is filled with creativity in various forms (he also wrote a book about his dog, The Book of Joe). I already crochet, but I’d like to do more traditional art, maybe even pottery, and I’d eventually like to live off my writing (especially if teaching full-time is ever off the table). This means my overall goals should be pointing me toward being able to rely on my writing more and giving myself the space to treat my writing seriously.

My Goals for 2022 Quarter 1

Goals in the HB90 system are a little different from what we normally think of as goals. The HB90 system asks you to pick things for goals that are slightly out of your control. That way you can see whether the tasks you put under them worked or not. So I’m not posting ALL of my projects under these goals, but the idea is that you have an overarching goal, then projects under it (larger scale stuff that you would normally consider goals) and those projects get broken into tasks that can be accomplished between a few hours or a week’s time. So here are my goals for Q1:

  1. To work on publishing new books while reworking my back list to increase my monthly income to $X/$Y/$Z a month (numbers have been hidden because I felt awkward talking about how much I make off my books).
  2. To create an energized community surrounding my works and increase my social media followers by 10%/15%/20% (Focus on newsletter, blog, Instagram, Twitter).
  3. Continue to work on my teaching materials and to maintain my mental health by maintaining a decent work-life balance.

To accomplish these goals, I will be writing more (please see my 2022 Projects post for specifics), reading some books on marketing, taking another course to keep my author knowledge up to date, hopefully sending out more newsletters, fixing the back matter in my books, and working on some departmental stuff for one of the universities I work at.

The Kanban Board

The top level of my Kanban board for quarter 1, aka the to-do section. The other sections aren’t shown since they’re empty.

To keep this post from being 8 miles long, I will not go into minute detail about the Kanban board (you can check out one of Sarra’s videos for detail), but the Kanban board is part of the HB90 setup as well. It is originally a Japanese form of organization where you get a dry erase board/paper/digital board and divide it into three parts. It goes to-do, currently working on, done. The idea is that you put everything in the to-do part, and as you work on it, you move it down until it ends up in the done section. Sarra uses sticky notes, and because my tasks aren’t super granular this quarter, I decided to use dry erase magnets as they are less likely to fall off.

The things written on each magnet are tasks that I need to do this quarter. I’m sure I’m missing some, but that’s what the extra magnets are for. What I like about this technique is that it is very visual. I am a tactile, visual person who needs lists in front of my face in order to remember to do things. If I can see progress (aka things moving down the board), I think I will feel better about myself and maintaining my mental health with be easier. Something I have struggled with is feeling like I’m doing so much but not getting anywhere. Something I’m still gauging is how much will fit in 90 days, but that should come with practice and will vary based on what classes on I’m teaching and such.

Final Thoughts

I’m excited to have some sort of framework in which to organize my writing and indie author stuff because these last few years have been a shit show for me. Sarra Cannon’s videos and course has helped to reignite my focus and zest for being an indie author. I’m cautiously hopeful that this will get me back on track.

Let me know if you want to know anything else about the HB90 program or how I use planners in the future! I do plan to update you all on how this is going at the end of the quarter.