Thursday, November 8, 2012

Planning Vs. Pantsing

In NaNoland, they like to talk about different kinds of wrimos.  Originally settling on two living on polar opposite ends of the spectrum, they’ve now differentiated five.  The new varieties are those overflowing with good ideas (or horrible ones, there’s not really any difference in Nano) who cannot stick to one plot, those who completely forget about the event until November first hits and then panic, and those who have all good intentions and no action and find their Novembers slipping away from them in the form of youtube videos, online games and the countless other ways that one can kill time on the internet.  But those first two- the planners and the pantsers (i.e. those who write by the seat of their pants) are the ones that have been on my mind.

I’ve never been a planner.  Not in life and most certainly not in my writing. My ideas are always amorphous blogs of stuff- some inspiration, some memories, some images and ideas from movies and books I’ve read, some daydreams, some nightmares and some of that weird mental goo that seeps out from you while you’re sitting in the car stuck in traffic.  And just like the original blob, those idea blobs can suck up whatever comes into their path and I’ll find myself including a variation of the conversation I just had or the household chore I just did in my novel.  The point is that they’re blobs- not story arcs.

When it comes to hitting 50k words this is not a problem.  In fact, it can be very helpful. You’ll write pages upon pages about all variety of stuff- some of which may ultimately end up being useful to plot or character development or theme but very little of which will actually move your story forward.  And the problem, of course, is that if you ever hope to actually get to the end of your story this method could be highly problematic.

A great demonstration of this is the fact that my first two Nanowrimo novels are both somewhere between 80k and 90k and both very far from the end despite their impressive lengths.

Last year was the first time I actually got to the end of my novel.  And I did it without bulking up the word count (final length was somewhere around 59k).  Now, I rushed to get to the end and the last few chapters probably wouldn’t make much sense upon re-read.  I undoubtedly skipped some stuff that may have been fun to write and possibly even useful for making the characters more than one dimensional.  I have no doubt that there is absolutely zero sense of flow to the story and some sections probably drone on with more detail than necessary while others flash by quicker than you can blink.  But in the end, it was still the end.  And the sense of satisfaction I got from that was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in writing.

Now this year, it seems like all the advice I’m getting from pep talks, youtube videos, blog posts and even newspaper articles is about how to reach the end.  The completion of the story.  The cessation of action, resolution of conflict, closing of the story arc.  The end.  So, I’m trying to reach the end of my story.

Like I did in past Nanowrimos, I have the basic arc in my head.  I have a beginning, a build up of conflict, and an idea of where I want it to end.  But all of the words and scenes and dialogues that connect those idea blobs together are unknown to me- and that’s where the pantsing comes in.  And that’s where I’m likely to fall into the trap of writing for word count rather than to move the story forward.  And that’s where I’ve been finding myself pausing and wondering “where is this going?”  At which point I will look at another youtube video or play a stupid online game I have no business playing.

There has to be some kind-of happy medium- because that’s the key to everything.  I have to be able to keep a general idea of where I’m going- a coffee-stained road map to lead me to the next plot point- while still letting the words flow.  Because what I’m doing right now isn’t working too well.  I’m not woefully behind (yet)- I’ve managed to keep myself only about a day’s worth of word count away from where I need to be.  But it has not been easy going.  And every time I’ve wondered “Where is this going?” it hasn’t helped me get to the point- it’s made me feel frustrated to the point that I procrastinate writing.  And that is not gonna get me to 50k by the end of the month.

So I’m going to try planning a bit more- see if I can’t come up with the key scenes of what need to happen to get me from where I am to where I need to be.  Something beyond the basic plot that involves more specific ideas about how my characters will interact, what will happen to them, and how they will transition to the next event.  And I will try my damndest to stay away from zuma.

If you have other suggestions of what’s helped you plot out your road map, please share them with me.  I am nothing if not open to suggestion.

Other than that, wish me luck!
(10,323 words and counting)


  1. My process has always felt simple to me, but seems messy from the outside. I come up with simple plot skeletons.

    -Party in the Shire
    -Bilbo goes away
    -Someone (Gandalf?) visits Frodo to talk about ring
    -Bad guys show up, hobbits run for it

    And so-on. I always know where I'm going because, with the whole skeleton in place, I know what major events have to be built up or set up. Keeping the details slim allows me wiggle room, as I'm an emergent writer and half the good stuff in my fiction comes from the moment of actually writing it. Having a thin skeleton also allows me to go back and change things more easily when, halfway through, I realize it needs more of something, or something needs to be cut. At the same time, the skeleton lets me pace things better, knowing that a fight scene will be juxtaposed with a comedy scene, or so-on.

  2. I'm impressed by your word count and your commitment. I know you write every day and that is very impressive. Yes, I know that's the point of this month, but I still think it is impressive. I don't have any advice other than do what feels natural to you, and then find a way to plan around that. A little bit of planning goes a long way.


Thank you for your comment! I will love it and hug it and pet it and call it George. Or, you know, just read and reply to it. But still- you rock!