Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Plotter or Pantser? Discovering your NaNoWriMo style

It all boils down to one question - are you a plotter, or a pantser?

With just five more days until National Novel Writing Month begins, there is a lot of buzz going on about how people are preparing to face the challenge of writing a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days.

Some people have detailed outlines and character sketches.

Some people have decided that they have Character A and Character B, and they are going to get thrown into Situations C and D, but they are going to let what happens write itself.

Still other people are tossing ideas around, but haven't really settled on the story they are going to write yet.

And finally, there are those NaNoWriMo purists who, having no idea what they are going to write, will sit down in front of their computer on November first and fly through the month, and their novel, by the seat of their pants.

I saw it mentioned somewhere recently that outlining fiction is a pointless effort, because the outline ends up becoming so detailed that you might as well just write the damned story already.

Do I agree with this?  Yes and no. 

My last attempt at NaNoWriMo failed in part because I tried to outline my story.  I went into the month knowing the basics of the story that I wanted to tell.  I had the characters formed in my head.  I knew the setting.  I had a general plot. 

I wrote my first 1667 words like a good little writer on November first, but I decided that I needed more discipline, and I took things further.  I cluster mapped.  I brainstormed.  I filled in character sketches and I filled in known plot holes.  I created a timeline.  I knew what my story was about and I knew what it was going to say when the month was over.  I had created my very first outline!

I was so proud of myself for being so... so.... professional about my writing for once.

And so I wrote.  I kept track of my daily word count on a spreadsheet and if I fell behind, I pushed to catch up. If I got ahead, I did everything in my power to stay there. I was doing this, by golly.  I was WINNING NaNo. 

Except that as I approached thirty thousand words, a strange thing happened.  My main character started to deviate from the storyline that I had set out for her.  She did things that were out of character, and she totally ignored my meticulously laid plans for her future.  The man that I had planned as her love interest wouldn't take the bait, and another man appeared instead.  I have no idea where he came from.  I didn't plan him.  He called her up on the phone one day when she was supposed to be doing something else.

Something that I had outlined for her to be doing at the precise moment this mystery character appeared and blew my outline to smithereens.

I was overjoyed and horrified all at the same time.  On one hand, I was thinking, "How awesome is this? My characters hijacked my story. I wonder what is going to happen next?" 

On the other hand, the Control Freak in me was totally freaking out.

My beautifully plotted and planned story was ruined.  Try as I might, I couldn't rein the characters in, and there was no way I was going to be able to finish the story in fifty thousand words.  In fact, I couldn't see it ending at a hundred thousand words at that point.  At least, not if I was going to regain control of the story and tell it like I had planned to tell it.


I was stalled at 37K words, and that was that.  I threw in the towel and congratulated myself for a valiant effort and then skipped NaNoWriMo entirely the next time it came along.

Here's the thing - once I created an outline, I was doomed.  I've never been a plotter.  Nothing against plotters.  I actually envy plotters.  My Control Freak envies plotters. They're so... put together.

But for me, the joy in writing has always been sitting down with some vague ideas and no apparent direction, and then letting the story tell itself. My characters shine brighter when they give birth to themselves.  My settings are more tangible.  My plots are more captivating.

They say it's not important whether you win or lose.  It's how you play the game.  I give myself credit for trying to be a plotter, but it didn't suit me, or my writing, so this year, I'm taking the NaNoWriMo challenge as a full throttle pantser. 

This year, I'm playing to win.

What is your NaNoWriMo style?


  1. "I was stalled at 37K words, and that was that. I threw in the towel and congratulated myself for a valiant effort and then skipped NaNoWriMo entirely the next time it came along."

    It's an excellent first start. I don't know many people who jump into NaNo and win first year. Take the challenge and run. Besides, pantsters have more fun! Good luck.

  2. Weren't you curious to see how it ended? Although I have been known to take massive "Hey! Where does this go!?" adventure/detours. Curiosity plays a huge role in my life.

    I do a lot of backstory work. I really try to know and understand my characters. I like to know their families and how they take their coffee and what they like to do on a Sunday afternoon in the early autumn. I'll get a strong outline for the first few chapters, have a pretty good idea for where the middle of the story goes, then I just throw up my hands and say "Characters?! Where are you going?! Ok, I will just follow you around and write down your exploits."

    I figure once I've gotten to that point, I understand them and their motivations, my subconscious will take it and run with it. I know how I'd like it to end, but if it doesn't, well, I still enjoy the surprise and the ride.

    I hope this year's Nano-ing goes well for you. :)

  3. I haven't done NaNo, but I begin with a sketchy outline and have learned to write a quick and dirty first draft, which becomes a more detailed rough outline. I'll usually toss a chapter or two at my crit partners, get some input, then start writing the polished draft.

    The first draft is usually shorter than novel length now, but it gives me the freedom you described above.

    All success on NaNo this year!

  4. Havent tried yet but totally plan on it every year. I would be a flying by the seat of my pants chick tho. I think I'd waste a lot of time and energy on a very detailed outline instead of writing otherwise.

    Still considering...will see.

  5. I don't do NaNo, but my last MS I did an outline. It worked better for me. Sure, there were lots of things that happened that weren't in the outline, and a few things changed. That's OK. It didn't stress me out. Go with the flow (did control-freak me say that??).

    What outlining did was help me to make sure there were no major plot holes or motivational problems before I got started because I've had a lot of trouble plugging these afterwards. I didn't brainstorm or map or have character profiles, just the outline. It worked for me. I probably need to go back and do character profiles now though.

  6. I started an outline this year. But my storyline is so (purposefully) hectic that I think my point may better come across if I just don't outline. I can outline LATER and then apply it to the edit, yeah?

  7. I'm a pantser. Totally flying by the seat of my pants this year with 2 characters and a setting. That's it. Oh, and maybe a little hot sex thrown in there somewhere. Wish me luck. I, in turn, wish you luck, fellow Pantser! See you at the end of the month!

  8. I think my style is somewhere in between. I make character sketches and a small outline, but I allow the characters to take me where they want to go. That way if I deviate from the plan, it's okay and doesn't stop me in my tracks. See you at the finish line!

  9. GO PANTSERS! [does a dance] - I wish I could plot but I too just can't manage to do that...

  10. I admire people who even attempt to do something like NaNo. I don't think I will do it this year, but maybe next?... as far as plotting vs. pantser, I'm more pantser.

  11. Pantser. Definitely a very vague outline pantser. That way my characters can't yipe too much about how constrained they are. ;)

    School and NaNo? (Bows to your greatness)

  12. I fall somewhere in the middle. I give myself a vague idea of what I'm writing about and a concrete idea of who the characters are and then I just go with it and see what happens.