- File Size: 810 KB
- Print Length: 163 pages
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- Publisher: Running Rabbit Press; 2 edition (March 10, 2015)
- Publication Date: March 10, 2015
- Sold by: Amazon.com Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00UKC0GHA
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- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,222 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing: Revised Edition 2nd Edition, Kindle Edition
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- Length: 163 pages
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I first heard of the book on the Self-Publishing Podcast, where Libbie charmed me with her confidence and good-natured attitude. Then it showed up in the Also-Boughts of a book I wrote. I'm already a plotter, but currently working on bulking up my own outlining process and reading TONS of outlining/scriptwriting books, so I had to pick it up. I was not disappointed!
Here are some of the insights I gained from this book:
- How to put character arc first -
My go-to bible for outlining is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, but he admittedly focuses a lot on plot points. I was trying to figure out how to overlay character arc onto his 4-box story architecture and coming up short. Characterization has always been a struggle for me, so this isn't a huge surprise.
Libbie's section on character arc helped connect a lot of the dots for me, and was well worth 10x the price of the book alone. Oddly enough, I have the book she mentions multiple times—The Anatomy of Story by John Truby—and was skim-reading it just before I read this book! BUT I did not pick out the character arc information I needed from that (maybe an argument against skim-reading?). Libbie's focus on character arc was exactly what I needed to make things "click." She explained her version of it simply and concisely. I now want to go back to John Truby's explanation and see if I understand it.
- Antagonists and Allies -
I had really never heard of an Ally before and this is a key insight that Libbie's book talks about in detail. They way she explains allies is *really* easy to understand. I immediately figured out several of my protagonist's allies in this outline I'm working on. Once you know your allies, a lot of scenes just before the resolution fall into place. Cool stuff!
- The Character Flaw -
Libbie's character arc revolves around one simple idea—that the character has a deep flaw that determines both the internal and external conflict for the entire book. She provides examples from Lolita and Charlotte's Web to drive this point home—and again, a lot of pieces clicked into place for me.
In other books, the character flaw is talked about in vague or wishy-washy terms. It's "inner demons" or "internal conflict," which has historically shed very little insight on characterization for me. No more! I'm confident that my characterization will improve leaps and bounds just by understanding the character flaw and how it plays out in the character arc.
- Theme as a filter -
Most storytelling books relegate theme to the bottom of the heap, focusing primarily on plot or characterization. Libbie gives theme a prominent place and suggests using it as a filter for what makes it into your book. I again found this extremely helpful in the same way I found the character arc section helpful—I'm trying to map concepts of theme, character, and so on onto the 4-box story architecture. Libbie didn't go into a ton of detail about theme, but no bother—there are other books that explain it in detail. This one idea was easily worth the price of admission alone and again, connected several dots for me.
- Plotting multi-protagonist books -
Libbie's ideas about plotting for multiple protagonists reaffirmed a lot of what I already sensed but hadn't quite been able to put into practice. She provides easy-to-understand examples from her own work and confirmed that every character needs its own arc plotted. She also confirmed that sometimes your protagonists will be each other's antagonists—and that this is a good thing, helpful in unifying the book rather than telling stories in parallel. All in all, a fantastic discussion on multiple protagonists that most story craft books either completely skip over or only briefly mention.
Overall, Libbie has a ton of great insight and lots of NEW ideas about outlining that make this book insanely valuable. That's why I gave it 5 stars.
BUT, I would caution that the book belongs on the shelf and isn't a one-stop shop on craft. I say that because, while I think Libbie agrees that writers should read other books on the subject, she makes it really easy to understand and think, "yeah, I got a handle on all of this." She's like one of those fantastic professors in college who makes you feel so smart and makes the material so fun that you decide not to study too hard for the final. Then, you get a 77% and you're like, "What? I thought I understood this!"
While Libbie's method is easy-to-understand, I still recommend attempting to map it onto the traditional three-act structure as homework. I did this last night (I used the 4-box structure provided in Story Engineering) and it was not nearly as easy or straightforward as I thought it would be. However, the exercise is a big reason for the connected dots I keep mentioning. There were so many freaking a-ha moments—I was basically in heaven when it all fell into place.
In doing that, I also realized I had new questions that I need to explore on my own. For example:
- Can an ally be a thing or idea, rather than a person? An antagonist can often be an antagonistic force instead of a person—the person is usually a symbol of the force. I believe the answer to the question is probable "yes."
- Should the antagonist be introduced as late as Libbie suggests? Other architectures seem to introduce or at least mention the antagonist earlier. Libbie does point out that the antagonist can be a character who essentially becomes antagonistic at that specific point in the outline… however, I'm still a bit unsure of what would work for me, and need to keep digging for that connective tissue to my personal style.
The second thing I recommend as homework is to dig into scene structure a bit more. Libbie has a section on pacing, and while easy to understand, I sense that many writers will benefit from the more formal study of scenes and sequels to see where these simpler explanations come from. I think Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake Method) has several articles on this topic if you want to get your feet wet.
So, I guess this is all my long-winded way of saying that I believe this book is fantastic for both beginners who find most story craft books a bit daunting and confusing (as I did when I first started and still do at times), AND writers with several books under their belts who are focusing on something specific to improve (like theme, or character arc, or pacing).
BUT don't skip the fundamentals completely. Do the optional reading Libbie suggests to understand the theory behind many of her insightful conclusions. Some of the books I'm enjoying right now are Story Engineering, The Anatomy of a Story (Libbie's suggested book), and Story by Robert McKee. This text greatly enriches my understanding of these other meatier and more complex story craft books—but I wouldn't consider it a replacement. And based on Libbie's candor within the book, I don't think she intended it to be.
Typically my outlines, though complete (in that they cover all the way from the beginning to the end), are a good five manuscript drafts away from being a solid-enough story to send to my editor, because my outlines have, up till now, been about what happens in the story ("this, then that, but then, so they"). When I've planned out a story, I've typically put a character in a situation, then worked it all out from there.
Take Off Your Pants approaches it from an entirely different direction, and that approach just...literally unlocked "story" for me. I now have three storyline outlines for a current project that are SOLID, and if I do happen to get stuck during the writing of it, I now know how to solve the problem and get the story going again. ~In the first draft.~
I don't know that my first drafts will go any faster than they usually do (something Libbie promises in the book), but I can definitely see a time-and-effort savings in subsequent drafts, which I now expect I'll be editing mainly for prose rather than structure and character.
This book may have been the best investment I've made for my writing career—at $2.99 it was a complete steal.
22 people found this review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
An Excellent Intro to Creative Writing and to Truby's "The Anatomy of Story"
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing
By Libbie Hawker
Reviewed by C J Singh (Berkeley, California)
At first glance the main title of this book and the cover illustration of panties is likely to be seen as an invitation to pornography. It’s not that at all. Its subtitle exhorts the readers to PLAN their creative-writing projects instead of writing off the seat of their pants. Don’t be a Pantser, become an outliner, a PLANNER. (The day I received this book, I started reading it while sitting in a bus going to UCBerkeley campus. Several students sitting near me noticed the book's provocative title and shot skeptical glances at me expressing, "what's this older guy reading in the bus?" Next day, I bought thick black paper to hide the blatant illustrations of panties on the cover and drafted this review, tentatively titled "Excellent 'Quickie' Intro to Truby's book.)
Libbie Hawker introduces her book: "In this short book, I'll show you how to plan out a good story before you even begin to writing it, so that you can maximize your efficiency, increase your confidence in your own work, and be assured of delivering a quality product to your readers without wasting any time or embroiling yourself in anxiety over the particulars of your plot" (page 11).
In the 156-page book, published in 2015, Libbie Hawker urges -- on pages 39, 61, 94, 124 -- to study John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story,” the book that mentored her. As a creative-writing teacher, I recommend discussing Hawker’s short book, and doing its lucid, brief exercises as a complete guide. This can shorten the long journey to “Becoming a Master Storyteller” as claimed in the subtitle of Truby’s formidable 445-page book.
On page 5 of his book, published in 2007, Truby writes, “In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for storytellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story. I will show that a great story is organic – not a machine but a living body that develops….” On page 14, “If most writers use an approach that is external, mechanical, piecemeal, and generic, the writing process we will work through might be described as internal, organic, interconnected, and original. I must warn you right up front: this process is not easy. But I believe that this approach, or some variant of it, is the only one that really works. And it can be learned.” The concluding paragraph of the book,“If you are a good reader -- and I have no doubt that you are – you are not the same person you were when you began this book. Now that you have read it once, let me suggest … well, you know what to do.”
What to do? (Libbie Hawker’s book was not yet published.) I re-read Truby’s book, before taking on his nine story-structuring exercises for my work-in-progress. Mainly, I needed to better understand Truby’s complex analyses of novels like James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” and of sophisticated films like “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “The Verdict,” “Vertigo.” Doing the Truby exercises improved my self-editing skills and my short stories got published in literary magazines such as ZYZZYVA.
Libbie Hawker writes: "I'll use the outline for one of my three main characters from TIDEWATER, [her literary novel about ‘Pocahontas of Powhatan tribe living in 1607’] to show you how to fill in the various parts of an outline, and how to bounce aspects of the outline off each other to develop the specifics of your story” (page 50). Here’s a sample of the reader-friendly tone of her book: “Please take my use of my own book in these outlining examples for what it is: honest communication of the way a specific outline came together, and not some sort of proclamation that my book is like totally the greatest book ever written, you guys!” (page 51). Smart choice to illustrate from one of her novels. Who knows the author’s intention better than the author? Her “Sketched-in Outline” (pp. 116-120) is a model of clarity. The 511-page "Tidewater" is an engrossing read besides complementing the nine exercises her book.
Hawker presents many other readily accessible examples such as from: E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird, Vladamir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Taking on the question of theme, Hawker says: “In my opinion (please don’t come after me with pitchforks and torches if you disagree), ‘A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin is a superb work of literature. … I can sum up the theme of ASOIAF in one simple line: ‘Even good people will do terrible things in pursuit of power’”(page 75).
The readers of Hawker’s book might find my detailed review of Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” on amazon.com relevant, where it has received the highest positive votes, 386 to date: https://www.amazon.com/review/R29NU7U6LAHGBV
Top international reviews
I didn't get the pants-ing thing either, really not sure what the obsession with underwear has to do with writing.
Of course, others may not find the same problems, perhaps it's just me and I'd still thoroughly recommend the book purely for the outline section.
My novel was written as a ‘pants’ book. Hannah Robbins 2 is currently being written with a plot already in place as I thought I would try it the other way around this time and see which way I preferred working. I can tell you, I’m preferring being a plotter. It is much easier to know where you’re going and no, it isn’t stunting my ‘artistic flair’. That I can use in each and every chapter I write.
Anyway, back to the book we are talking about, or at least how it fits into writing Hannah 2 . I’m close to completing the novel and thought I’d read Take Off Your Pants to see if it could help tighten up my plan for the ending so I could write it faster. After a stressful year, I’m a little behind my own schedule so I’m feeling the pressure. Take Off Your Pants is a comprehensive book that not only shows you how to outline your novel but explains how to make it a deep, rich and cohesive experience for the reader.
Libbie Hawker uses simple language and explains what she is telling you by showing you how it has been done in previously published books like (two very different books) Charlotte’s Web and Lolita. She takes you through character arcs, theme, and story core as well as plot and at the end she shows you one of the plans for her own novels. It looks so simple. She makes it all sound like childs play!
When I finished reading the book I instantly started adding to the bare outline I had, fleshing out the part I had left to write in the way Hawker had explained and I’m now typing away finishing the novel.
If you’re interested in outlining, if you’ve never done it or you’d like to look at how someone else does it and compare it to how you work and see if you can combine the two, to enhance your working life, then I’d say this is a great book to try.
It was a fairly quick first-read, but very densely packed with excellent advice. It's the same sort of advice you get for structuring screenplays, and I think most authors would benefit greatly from using something like this. I use a version I've developed myself over the years, and was very interested to read this one. I particularly liked the thorough worked example that the author used from her own stable of work. She also used some great literature, and it was interesting to read her take on [book:Lolita|7604] and have a good think about it myself.
I'm sure there are those who would criticise this kind of book. In fact, I did an MA in Creative Writing with some of them. Many started their novels without so much as a plan, or even an ending. Then they spent months wondering why they found it so difficult. I had no sympathy for them. If you started an essay without first knowing your conclusion, you know you'd not score well because you'd lose the thread. So why do the same with novels? This is a great book, with a useful practical advice on structure.
I also believe this technique could be used to generate new ideas from scratch, which I don't think is necessarily true of other plotting methods.
My own outlining process, built in steps from when I started as a pantser, wasn't one hundred percent working for me. So I gave Libbie Hawker's book a read and I'm glad I did. I've always preferred characters who have an inner conflict to work against as well as an external conflict. This book provides a framework for constructing that. I've applied it to a couple of pre-existing ideas in various states of planning and found it's really helped me narrow down questions like "What's this story about?" and "What's this character going through in this story?"
I'm finding this method to be a useful tool in my toolbox. It may not be the only tool I use for outlining every story, but it's proven it's value to me very quickly.
Libbie Hawker’s relatively short book outlines (see what I did there?) how to master these ideas and craft them into an excellent story.
There’s a dab of theory, but the most useful aspect of this guide is the step by step journey provided. I came away with a different outlook on my own outline, where I, believe it or not, cared less about plot and more about character.
I’ve already gone back through my unwritten plans and given them a tweak. Following the advice set out in this book, my outlines feel more focused and I can tell that my usual flood of writers’ block has ebbed away.
A very useful read!
Focussed and direct, a testament possibly to the efficacy of her method, this book is easy to get your head around and doesn't waste too much valuable writing time in the reading.