When the clock strikes midnight on October 31st, welcoming November and NaNoWriMo along with it, participants will spend the rest of the month writing towards a 50,000-word goal. Each writer has their own writing methods. Our staff shares insights on the three basic styles of NaNo: Pantsing, Plotting, and Plantsing.
Panster: A writer who pantses their NaNovel (the novel, or project, they write during NaNoWriMo), i.e. flies by the seat of their pants, i.e. writes without a plan.
A pantser’s life in the days leading up to NaNoWriMo are easy, yet stressful. All we must do is wait for the clock to strike twelve, and much like Cinderella, lose our glitter and our sweet ride and transform back into a sleep-deprived starving artist. Nevertheless, we fret over what our story will end up being. Should we have at least some idea before taking the plunge? What will our characters be? Do we want names ahead of time or should we just put blanks or placeholders? What flipping genre are we even writing, anyway?
Stop. Take a breath. Look at the date. Now look back at me. Now back at the date. Now back at me. I’m riding a horse. No, wait, that’s the Old Spice commercial. Anyway. You have only a day left until November 1st. That is a good thing. Already have an idea? Great. Your job in the next few days is to keep yourself pumped about your project. I bet your fingers twitch every time you see a piece of paper or a keyboard. As long as you’re excited about your project, you can get your 1,667 words (or whatever personal daily goal you have) written that first day. Don’t have any clue what you’re doing? That’s okay, too. Take some time in the next few days to draw inspiration from multiple sources. Listen to some music. Ask a friend to suggest a song or band you’ve never heard before. Go take an hour-long walk, and look closely at the world around you. Read a book. Watch a movie. Sooner or later something will start to grow inside you. It might be a character, it might be a theme, or it might simply be an emotion. Grab onto that and don’t let go. That is going to be your driving force for your NaNovel.
So, what do you do once you start writing?
First, find out when you’re going to write. If you set a writing schedule for yourself, it’s easier to make yourself write every day. You’ll get used to sitting down and saying to yourself, “I have to rid myself of distractions now, this is Writing Time”. Inspiration may hit at any time, so keep your notebook/laptop/AlphaSmart/etc handy. Don’t worry if your muse decides to take a multiple-day break, though. This is common. You can make yourself write even when the ideas aren’t flowing out of your fingertips like melted butter. And if your inner editor tells you “this really sucks and I don’t know why you decided to write a crap novel in the first place”, grab them by the throat and chuck them out of your mind. Or, if you’re really not the violent type, find their volume dial and turn it all the way down.
When you pants a novel, it’s easy to get stuck or to feel like you don’t think your novel is going anywhere. You might experience a mid-week or a mid-month lull when your story seems to want to stop and graze for a while instead of plowing forward. Don’t be afraid to let it do its own thing for a short time. Your characters might lead you to a climax you could never have come up with on your own. Or they may try to derail your story. If the latter happens, lay down some track and gently nudge your characters towards them. If they won’t budge, skip ahead in the story. Start a new section from a different point of view. Add a new character. Kill someone off. Add a dragon. Don’t be afraid to take chances, and to write something that might not work in the long run. You can always cut things out later, but you can’t edit what you haven’t written.
My muse has a lousy worth ethic.
She hardly ever shows up for work. Even when she does, she simply sulks in a corner, grumbling and groaning and refusing to be of service. She enjoys leaving me at the mercy of my own lack of creativity, taunting me with her disinterest and negligence.
While my muse is on vacation in Tahiti, I’m about to embark on the most dangerous and daunting mission: preparing myself for literary battle.
As much as the allure, thrill, and adventure of spending November flying by the seat of my pants intrigues me, approaching NaNoWriMo without a concrete plan means definite defeat. Going in without plotting beforehand, for me, is like going into battle without any weapons or protective gear. Might as well wave a white flag.
My weapon of choice? The Snowflake Method.
The Snowflake Method is the brainchild of Randy Ingermanson of Advanced Fiction Writing. His method is a way to reverse engineer your novel by starting small and expanding little by little. You start off with one simple sentence and end up with summaries of various lengths, a list or spreadsheet of scenes, and profiles and descriptions of your characters.
The Snowflake Method makes it easy to plot a novel if your muse is virtually nonexistent. You don’t have to vomit a detailed outline onto paper on your first try. You build your novel from the bottom up, giving you a chance to coax the story out of the inner workings of your mind. (Ha! Take that, Muse!)
Ironically, I am both plotter and procrastinator. Only a few days before NaNoWriMo, I stand at the foot of NaNovel Mountain and look up, trying to distinguish the mountain’s summit through the clouds. “I wish I would have started planning sooner,” I grumble.
Depending on how badly I’ve procrastinated, I might not be able to make it through every step of the Snowflake Method before NaNoWriMo—or I might not get to it at all. As a plotter, it’s crucial for me to plan—regardless of how much time I have until November. If NaNoWriMo has already begun and I still don’t have a plan, I’ll dedicate the first few days to planning and push myself a bit harder, later on, to catch up. (I refuse to go in without a plan! You can’t make me!)
While I sometimes wish I could just sit at my computer and bleed, creating a plot and characters haphazardly and watching them fall into place serendipitously, there’s something special about being a plotter: the dedication you pour into your novel even before you start writing it makes you, in a sense, loyal and more dedicated to writing and completing it. Besides, on November 30th, with 50,000 words under your belt, you’ll feel like an architect standing in front of a newly finished building. Their building and your novel will be the awe-inspiring translation of a carefully designed blueprint.
Now, to some people, the ideas above are out of their element. A planner will panic at the idea of a pantser just flying by the seat of their pants. A pantser will shiver unpleasantly at the rigidity of order the planner finds the most comfortable.
But there exists a happy medium, one that is ice and fire, one that combines the recklessness of one and the steadfastness of the other.
Welcome to the Hybrid.
Where planners thrive on planning and pantsers thrive on improvising, the Hybrid method of winning NaNo is the Red Mage of sorts, and is a force in his or her own right as well as a great support for the Planners and the Pantsers in your little tight-knit group.
A Hybrid person (or Plantser) will make outlines, but rather than outline every single eventuality that could go on in their novel project, they will be vague. That vagueness allows them to move around, improvise, add entire paragraphs, even make cosmetic adjustments to the outline as they go along.
A Plantser will set their limits. They will establish some railways that allow the water of inspiration to go through from one place to the next without splashing all over the place.
I’ll share with you guys my own journey to Plantsing.
I was hardcore Planner in my first few attempts at NaNo. I had outlined not just the novel I was planning on finishing, but also the two sequels and the prequel. I had created an entire world, religion, financial systems. I had fleshed out my characters and then designed them in the Heromachine program I had. I had created a plots and subplots and sub-sub plots. Everything was set so that when I tried NaNo, I was going to tear through the month like I tear chunks of tortilla de harina with barbacoa Saturday mornings.
November 1 rolls around, I write a couple of paragraphs, fail to meet the targeted 1,667.
No worries, I’ll try again the next day.
I get close to 1,000 words.
Next day, I don’t write a single word and instead find myself staring at the big mess of an outline and character sketches and plot ideas that I have created and I found myself giving up too easily. I didn’t sweat it, there’s always next year.
Next year, I realized I had built this really elaborate house and forgotten to put in doors between the rooms and so my NaNo experiment was over before it started.
So last year, I decided to do something different. I picked a new project, and rather than outline everything to the molecular level, I gave myself a very skin-and-bones outline to work with.
What I discovered was that, while I was writing, I was fleshing new ideas out. I was able to say, “Okay, that’s not going to work.” during the writing process, and fixing it on the spot rather than pulling three figurative Jenga pieces from the bottom of my project and having it all tumble down. Not only that, but also I was discovering things about my characters instead of shoehorning them into a role they weren’t born to play, and all of this added to a word count.
And I won! I broke the 50,000-word mark on November 30.
You could argue that maybe I should have just pantsed the whole thing but here’s why I don’t think pantsing wouldn’t have worked: I needed some level of structure.
Let me give you an example. I’m just going to write stream of consciousness in the next sentence:
There was once a giraffe and she saw several black and red and orange skulls and there was a voice while she sang with the muses and the angels in the jungle riverbed mechanism world religions unhooked phone is what was ringing again.
That’s why structure is important to me and why I prefer to be a hybrid.
For the rest of you, there’s no right way to do this. The only wrong way is using a method you’re not comfortable with. The important thing is getting to that goal.
In Mexico, there’s a famous folk song that has the lines: “No hay que llegar primero, hay que saber llegar,” which translates to: “It’s not about getting there first, it’s knowing how to get there.”
We hope that throughout this guide has helped give you an idea as to what path you’d like to follow. Keep us posted! Let us know if you’re TeamHybrid, TeamPlanner or TeamPantser. We’d love to know!