Writers generally come in two flavors: those who write whatever falls out of their head and those who carefully structure what they intend to write. I am somewhere in the middle: a plotter, but I am also a “pantser.” A great article on this subject can be found at The Write Practice.
Quote: Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything or plan very little.
Planning what events your protagonist will face is called plotting, and I make an outline for that.
“Pantsing it,” or writing using stream-of consciousness can produce some amazing work. That works well when we’re inspired, as ideas seem to flow from us. But for me, that sort of creativity is short-lived, unless I have a brief outline to follow, a road map of some sort.
Participating in NaNoWriMo has really helped me grow in the ability to write on a stream-of-consciousness level, but in each manuscript, I get to points where I need reminding of where I intended the story to go when I first conceived the idea. My storyboard gets me back on track without making me feel like the creativity is already done.
One NaNoWriMo joke-solution often bandied about at write-ins is, "When you’re stuck, it's time for someone to die." I will just say that assassinating beloved characters whenever we run out of ideas is not a feasible option.
When cherished characters are killed off, we must introduce new characters to fill the void. The reader may decide not to waste his time getting invested in a new character, feeling that you will only break their heart again.
For that reason, the death of a character should be reserved to create a pivotal event that alters the lives of every member of the cast. Sudden death is best reserved for either the inciting incident at the first plot point or as the terrible event of the third quarter of the book.
So instead of random assassination, we should resort to creativity.
This is where having prep notes or an outline can provide some structure, and keep you moving forward. You will know what should happen in the first quarter, the middle, and the third quarter of the story and you can wing it when connecting those events to each other. Because we know how it should end, we can fill in the blanks between large events and the story will have cohesion.
Think about what launches a great story:
Now you need to decide what hinders the protagonist and prevents them from resolving the problem. The outline is just a skeleton you will flesh out in November. When you do the actual writing, you will “pants it” between events to infuse the narrative with three things:
We want the protagonist to be a sympathetic character whom the reader can identify with; one who the reader can immerse themselves in, living the story through his/her adventures. The combination of plotting and “pantsing it” offers you the freedom to lay down the prose as you wish, and you never lack for an idea of where to go with your story.
But for NaNoWriMo, speed is everything. I need to get my 1,667 words every day, and I can’t take the time to sit back and ponder what to write next.
I find that this is where preparing a loose outline in advance helps me write quickly. Readers want the hindrances and barriers the protagonist faces to feel real. By writing down ideas in a specific file as they occur to me, I have a list of roadblocks for my story all ready to go when November first arrives.
A loose guide helps me visualize setups for the central events. This enables me to quickly lay down the narrative that shows the payoffs (either negative or positive) to advance the story: action and reaction.
Some authors resort to “idle conversation writing” when they are temporarily out of ideas. If you can resist the temptation, please do so—it’s fatal to an otherwise good story. Save all your random think-writing off-stage in a background file, if giving your characters a few haphazard, pointless exchanges helps jar an idea loose. (However, for purposes of wordcount, if you wrote it, you can count it!)
One failing of NaNo Novels in their rough draft form is their unevenness. Try not to introduce random things into a scene unless they are important to the completion of the character’s quest. Remember, to show the reader something is to foreshadow it, and the reader will wonder why a casual person or thing was so important they had to be foreshadowed.
The simple solution is a word document saved to your desktop, one that you can just open, make a note of your idea, save it, and close it to go back to what you were working on.
Both over planning and under planning can lead to a book that is stalled and a writer who believes they have “writers’ block.” For me, a happy medium lies in a general outline, done as a brief storyboard.
The storyboard for my ideas works this way: First I open a blank workbook in Excel or Google Docs and give it a file name using a working title if I don’t actually have a real title for the book. This may look like:
Snowbirds_storyboard_2017.xls (I use Excel.)
At the top: Working Title
Column A: Character Names: list the important characters by name, and also list the important places where the story will be set.
Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.
Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?
Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?
Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?
As I said, this plays directly to how a linear thinker like me works. It takes advantage of the ideas I have that might make a good story, makes a note of all the pertinent ideas I have at the outset, and offers me a jumping off point. I set this aside and pull it out in November when NaNoWriMo begins, and I need a little refresher on what I plan to write.
What has prevented you from writing in the past? Did you get busy? Did you sleep in? Did you feel uncreative? These are mental roadblocks we all experience. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to develop the ability to work through these hindrances.
Remember, you are a superhero with a keyboard, slaying the monsters of idleness and lack of creativity.
Do a little planning, but write like the wind, and let the story take you where it will.
Credits and Attributions
The Pros and Cons of Plotters and Pantsers by The Magic Violinist, The Write Practice, http://thewritepractice.com/plotters-pantsers/ © 2017
Portions of Pantsing vs. Plotting was first published on November 1, 2017, by Connie J. Jasperson on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, as Pantsing vs. Plotting or Somewhere in the Middle © 2017 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission.
Connie J. Jasperson is a poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.