How NaNoWriMo Made Me a Plotter
I used to believe in the mantra “no plot, no problem.” I successfully completed National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2005 with that mentality. And, while I ended the month with 50,000 words, I wouldn’t call the story developed enough to even consider it a complete manuscript. Nonetheless, I printed it out and put it in my desk drawer where it has not seen the light of day since.
The idea of pantsing my way through a novel intrigued me, in part because I always hated outlining. I never minded writing papers in high school, but I preferred to start with word one, sentence one, paragraph one, and then let the prose flow from there. I despised any assignment that required a detailed outline.
My disdain for outlines continued for years, even when I became a professional writer. I liked to let my mind wander as my fingers typed out the story in real time. But after that first NaNoWriMo experience, I realized that pantsing 50,000 words would only lead to a project in need of serious editing.
And I mean serious editing.
When I participated in NaNoWriMo nine years later, I had shifted my approach to include a very basic amount of plotting. I had characters and direction in mind, but still kept the story loose for on-the-fly inspiration.
Again, I completed the novel in a month. And again, it needed a lot of reworking.
The Pantsing/Plotting Hybrid
I now have a two-book deal with a publisher. Neither of those books were created thanks to pantsing. By the time I sat down to write them, I had learned from my past mistakes. So, what approach did I use for those two novels? A blend of pantsing and plotting.
In other words, I didn’t lock myself into a detailed outline before I started writing, but I did put some work in up front to create a guide that kept me focused as I created my 80,000-word novels.
Here’s my pantsing/plotting hybrid process:
Sketch characters & trajectories.
With this method, I spend time developing characters and their backstories, watching them walk around in my mind until I believe they are ready to be put down on paper. I complete character sketches and already have an idea of where they are headed, and how they will interact with and affect one another.
Ask & answer questions.
With characters loosely developed in my mind, I think through the trajectory of the book and I consider the following:
- What question is this book trying to answer?
- What is the book’s purpose?
- What does the main character desire? What is her motivation?
- What would the ramifications be if character A did X?
- What are the stakes? Can they be higher?
Consider the story’s anatomy.
My novels tend to be character driven, so I turn to tools like The Anatomy of Story by John Truby to help me not forget about plot. This helps me consider the beats of a good story and map out potential trajectories for where the book is headed.
Write with scaffolding.
With what feels like 3D characters in mind and potential paths they will travel, I start writing.
Unlike my high school assignments, I don’t see this sort of outlining as confining. Instead, it offers me a scaffolding, supporting me as I do the necessary work of developing a story. When I get stuck, I hold on to that pre-writing work to help keep me going. When a character surprises me, I make adjustments and go with the flow.
Having written four novels, I’ve come to realize that for me, no plot is a problem. But that’s because I want to create works of fiction that engage readers. And, I don’t want to invest hours into stringing along 50,000+ words only to have to invest even more time in reworking and revising to get it into decent shape. Don’t get me wrong; every manuscript will need multiple rounds of edits. (Read that again: MULTIPLE ROUNDS!!) But those rounds and the intensity of the edits can be greatly reduced with forethought and a bit of planning before the writing begins.
In other words, the planning work happens at some point. The question is: do you want it to happen before you begin writing or after you have tens-of-thousands-of words all tangled together?
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