Fiction, NaNoWriMo, Writing Tip

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?

Are you an author whose story needs something that you can’t quite put your finger on? I help stuck authors get unstuck through story coaching and editorial assessments. If you’re wondering if you have a plot hole needing filled, a character who may not be fully developed, or simply want to know if your book is as good as your mom says it is, then click here to learn more about my editing services.

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