Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review of "Take Off Your Pants!" by Libbie Hawker, and Thoughts on Outlining a Series

"Take Off Your Pants!" was recommended on some forum threads about writing faster. The paperback is just 8.99 (cheaper still as an ebook but I need this kind of thing in paper for SURE) so I gave it a whirl. I'm somewhere between a plotter and a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) and always trying to perfect the art of the outline so I'll stop waffling around.

So far this book has been pretty effective for me. She gives a lot of props to John Truby's "The Anatomy of Story", which I have not read, so I can't say how they compare...but The Anatomy of Story is over 400 pages and this is about 100. I really liked how lean, mean and focused this book is, because I already know a lot of the fundamentals of telling a story and in many cases a quick and dirty plot breakdown is EXACTLY what I need. This book does that beautifully. I found her outlining techniques much easier to work with than I've seen in some other books.

If you're a beginning writer, however...although this book certainly IS accessible to beginners, I might start by reading a few books with more depth because it will help you when it comes time to actually write the outline.

The reason I've been particularly keen on creating an outline is because I am currently plotting book #3 of The Hidden Lands series. This is certainly the most ambitious writing project I've taken on thus far. Five books, four main characters and many side characters, multiple antagonists... How I love this story, but sometimes I look at the work ahead and think... "............................"

On the other hand, I've gotten better at what I do! That's such a good feeling! Enough so that I can actually tell you some of the things that help make plotting a multiple-POV, multiple-book series work. It's pretty hard to find advice on this, so I hope it helps! Mind you...I don't know if these rules will apply to all such series. I really won't know that until I try to apply them to my next series!

Tips Ahoy:

--When developing multi-POV, multi-book character growth arcs, keep sight of your theme.

It has helped me a lot for all the characters have a push and pull between two contrary desires. In this case, three of the characters--Alfred, Olivia, and Lester--are torn between a desire for power and a desire to have a peaceful life. They all have slightly different motives for wanting power, however, so their arcs are not quite the same..but that remains a theme for all three of them, and in each book, they make different moves toward one or the other. At the end of book 1, Alfred moves toward the peaceful life. At the end of book 2, he moves back toward power. In book 3, he tries to balance both. In books 4 and 5, he has renewed his commitment toward power, but his MOTIVES for wanting power change as his character matures, so the pursuit doesn't feel repetitive.

Some variation of this is repeated for Olivia and Lester, but sometimes they are shifting in different directions from each other, and this creates conflict.

Thessia is a bit of an outlier. She is more trapped than the others, and for her, power = freedom. She doesn't feel the same pull toward a peaceful life. Her motives for gaining power are more pure than the other characters from the start, and her inner conflict is simply that she is afraid to stand up for herself. But she still ties into the theme of "What is the benefit of power? Why would we want it? Are we growing up to be good guys or bad guys?"

Throughout the series, these questions are also echoed in the side characters, such as Det, who made an infamous choice years ago to commit a serious crime for the greater good, giving each character a chance to ask themselves whether they agree with Det's choice and whether they would be willing to repeat it.

--Give the characters in a multiple POV book series every possible chance to meet one another, grow together, and impact each other's lives. 

In the beginning of book 2, Alfred, Thessia and Lester are at school together, while Olivia is not. In the first draft, Thessia's best friend at school had a lot of influence on Thessia. Meanwhile, I had the problem of Olivia seeming detached from the other characters. In the second draft, I decided to downplay Thessia's best friend and instead found ways for Thessia and Olivia to meet, and Olivia to bring about the character revelations that had previously come from Thessia's best friend. In book 3, once again, I have a character separated from the rest, so in the outline, I tried to find regular spots where the characters would communicate or their actions would have a bearing on one another. Otherwise it'll end up feeling like you have two different books and you risk losing the reader when you switch POV.

--Don't lose sight of the antagonist.

If you're writing a multiple book story and you want to keep the reader invested, make sure you identify the ultimate antagonist from the very first book, and keep them in mind. This has been especially important for me because ideally I want this series to lead into future series, so I've planted the seeds of future plots throughout. However, the first series MUST stand alone and feel complete and satisfying. In this case, I've used the Marvel movies as an inspiration. There are ongoing hints about Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet throughout the Marvel movies, but if you watch one, you don't feel cheated because you don't get the story of the Gauntlet right now. The movies establish clear boundaries between the plot at hand and the suggestions of future conflicts.

Even if you are not planning THAT far ahead, one should still take some time to consider the ultimate antagonist of the story from page 1, book 1. It is highly effective when every minor antagonist somehow feeds into or sets the stage for the ultimate antagonist. Voldemort is an obvious example...from book 1, every individual Harry Potter book's antagonist plays into the overall Voldemort vs. Harry conflict. The character arc of the antagonist should follow a similar pattern to the protagonists, as outlined above. If your characters are, in fact, going to meet the same antagonist in every book, then consider how that antagonist will have evolved into a new and escalated challenge with each encounter.


  1. Plotting a series must be intimidating. It's like having one long book, only you can't go back and tweak the beginning to fit the later parts, because it's already published! Makes me think of those authors whose books came out in installments while they were still writing them. How did Dickens manage it?

    You've seen this snippet of the amazing chapter-by-chapter outline J.K. Rowling did, right? I remember reading that, once the first book got accepted by a publisher, she sat down and outlined the entire rest of the series.

    1. It is a bit intimidating! That's why, even though I finished this book months ago, I only put it up for preorder now...I was waiting to get book two done so I still had the ability to go back and tweak 1 based on 2. Now 2 is done but I won't put it out until 3 is done...I want to be able to at least work one back.

      OTOH, I've told so many stories with these characters over the years...they are very flexible but I also know them so well. I know I'll find a way to make it all work.

      Rowling's is fascinating and sooo detailed. I definitely can't think in THAT much detail!