At Last, Another Blog Post! A Look at Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker
Updated: Nov 27, 2018
Hello, and thanks for checking out my blog. My name is Mike Myers. I am currently senior editor of 2018 British Fantasy Award Nominee Grimdark Magazine. I also edited the 2017 r/fantasy Stabby Award-winning anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective.
As an editor, I find books on writing very valuable, and I am usually reading one alongside whatever fiction I happen to be reading. I realize some writers scoff at writing advice books – Stephen King, perhaps ironically, called most of them “bullshit” in his own writing advice book, On Writing, which happens to be one of the best, or at least the funniest. I devour books on writing, and in this blog I will occasionally review them and also discuss writing and editing points that I think are important and valuable to fiction writers.
Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing: Revised Edition by Libbie Hawker (2015, Running Rabbit Press) is a guide to novel writing that purports to help pantsers (story writers who do not write outlines, instead writing “by the seat of the their pants”) become more efficient and faster writers by using a simple and effective outline as a guide. It’s only 163 pages. I bought the Kindle version for a pretty reasonable $3.99US. It’s a quick read, and overall worth the time, specifically for writers who struggle navigating the complexities of longer manuscripts and either find themselves lost or write themselves into a corner. Even if you have a system by which you confidently write your novels, you might find something here worth the cover price.
Hawker is mostly self-published, although at the time of writing Pants! she had recently inked a deal with a small press for two of her novels. She explains the need to write faster and more efficiently as part of the economics of self-publishing: you need to get a base of work out there to start making money, an idea corroborated by James Scott Bell in Fiction Attack! and by my sister-in-law who makes more money than most traditionally published authors by self-publishing erotic romance under a pseudonym she will not divulge. Quality is key, but quantity is cash.
Hawker’s outline model takes the form of a three-legged stool; each leg is an important feature of the novel without which it will fall over. These three legs are character arc, theme, and pacing. If you are imagining a story scene or element that does not add to one of these three elements of the story, then you are probably off track. Character arc is mostly self-explanatory: your character must change/evolve throughout the story (with a few exceptions, e.g. James Bond-type action series). Your character should start with a flaw that he or she must overcome to triumph over your story’s external conflicts, keeping the story focused and satisfying. Pacing, as Hawker sees it, is mainly achieved by squeezing your main character into an extremely intense situation, which she calls the “cymbal crash,” at the end of each scene/chapter, so the reader feels compelled to keep reading. She sees pacing as perhaps the most important element to keeping the reader turning the pages. Theme, as writers know, is the central question about life that the story ultimately explores. Very importantly, IMHO, she states that theme does not have to be preconceived. However, as it reveals itself, everything else in the story must adhere to or support it in some way. And perhaps equally as importantly, she acknowledges that plot is not one of these legs since the mere sequencing of story events will evolve from the three legs and the story core that sits upon the stool.
If you have read Nicholas Eames’s excellent novel, Bloody Rose, you can see the three legs in action. (Of course I am not saying Eames has read Pants!, just that the model exists in his book.) Every important character – there are about half a dozen – has an arc that is resolved by the end of the story. The characters’ arcs are beautifully rounded off in a sequence (not all at the same time) until the main characters’ arcs are completed at the story’s climax. All of the characters resolve their personal conflicts by achieving something related to their complex family situations, the main theme of the book. Each scene and chapter of the book achieves a higher intensity level than the one before it, right up to the climax, which keeps the reader turning the pages. Eames actually achieves this last accomplishment in part by using a red herring, sending the characters on an incredibly perilous quest that climaxes relatively early in the book, only to be eclipsed by the final amazing climax. If you read Pants! and Bloody Rose, you’ll see what I mean.
Although story core is not one of the three legs of the stool, Hawker treats it with equal importance to the story’s legs. Hawker’s story core is pretty much the conventionally accepted one: A character wants something; someone is trying to stop the character; he or she struggles against external forces; and either wins or loses. I hope every writer knows this. She does, however, explain the story core very clearly using examples from Charlotte’s Web, Lolita, Too Kill a Mockingbird, and other texts. If you don’t have a story core on your three-legged stool, then you have nothing . . . obviously. But the elements of your story that evolve from your story’s core – conflict, plot, setting, climax, etc. – must somehow stand upon the three legs or the resulting story will fail to cohere and you may find yourself spending countless hours rethinking and rewriting to get a satisfying, unified whole in which the character’s arc is compelling, the story itself is meaningful in an emotional way, and most importantly, readers want to keep turning the pages.
Hawker then unravels the story core into the conventional outline of the hero’s journey, a very successful model for story, which, yes, could be called a formula. (My own personal favorite might be the movie Sling Blade, but I’ll have to save that for another blog post.) Hawker lays out the outline format from the opening scene to the inciting incident, through multiple increasing complications that reveal the main character’s flaw, to the main character’s ultimately overcoming the flaw, which allows him or her to overcome the external conflict (or not), and finally to the ending where the plot is resolved. If every part of the outline sits firmly on the three legs of the stool, your story will satisfy readers. She recommends outlining each scene at its proper place in the overall story outline to ensure that every scene is focused firmly on the three legs and ends with a cymbal crash. And then you actually write the story, scene by scene, chapter by chapter until you’re done.
The story core in Bloody Rose asks, “Can the heroes hold off an invasion by the story’s antagonist who has gained control of the massive hoard that was temporarily defeated in Kings of the Wyld?” This question sits atop the three-legged stool described by Hawker. Eames’s excellent pacing makes the entire adventure incredibly intense. The heroes will need to make some kind of new realization about their families, the main theme, to win the battle, which will also complete their arc, changing them from the person they were at the start of the book to a new person at the end. It works brilliantly. I absolutely loved Bloody Rose, as you can tell, and though I don’t know what process Eames used to write it or outline it, the process Hawker suggests would have worked well.
Hawker claims that the outlining process takes her about four hours, now that she has it down pat, and saves her hours and hours of noodling and rewriting/redrafting. As such her output and thus cash intake are greatly increased. Whether or not this includes the brainstorming process is unclear. Nevertheless readers of Take Off Your Pants! will gain a solid understanding of an easy, practical outlining process, and it seems to me it is a more efficient process than, for example, the 60-100 page outline process suggested by David Farland in his generally excellent book Million-Dollar Outlines. If there’s any chance you feel this will help you, I strongly recommend it. If your writing process is already smooth and fast, and your stories are cohesive and satisfying, then it might not be for you.
Well, thanks for reading my blog post. In future installments, I hope to talk about some writing faux pas and successes I come across in my editing work as well as more books about writing that might help authors. Meanwhile, I am available to edit your writing projects and have been greatly enjoying a load of freelance work since my first blog post. You can contact me through this website <sffeditor.com>, by email <mike.myers.editor(at)gmail.com>, or at my Facebook page www.facebook.com/SFFEditor. I’d love to help you make your writing as excellent as it can be.
Write on, Mike Myers