One of my favorite NaNo terms is “pantser”—as in writing by the seat of your pants, without an outline.
The term brings up the age-old debate about how to best go about writing a novel: pantser vs. planner. I’m intrigued by people’s approaches to writing a novel because writers’ processes can seem as indelibly etched in their psyches as their genetic makeups. Some of us like clutter. Some of us need clean, organized spaces. Some of us live somewhere in between.
I like messy desks, stacks of books, coffee stains on papers, old jars full of pens, and random trinkets that others consider trash. So, yeah, you guessed it, I’m a pantser. I love digging into the messy, primeval goo of my story world’s materials and pulling out the raggedy knots of its skein (yes, a mixed metaphor, which I also like). I want to feel a grand and daring sense of exploration, and perhaps get lost in the meantime. Getting lost is actually part of the point.
But here’s the thing: being a pantser when writing a short story or a poem works fine, but a novel forces the question of process simply because so much time, toil, muscle, sweat, cups of coffee, melodramatic soundtracks, and broken pens go into it.
To dangerously double down on pantsing, plot is a weakness of mine. I write more toward mood and moments, as if a rising trajectory of action and character reversals aren’t a key part of good storytelling. If anyone could stand outlining a novel, especially one written in 30 days, it’s me.
These questions of process all arose during a random chat with Novel Planner Sarah Mackey. She sent me her blog posts on outlining—“The great debate: Are you a planner or a pantser?” and “Inside the mind of a planner”—and I confronted my approach. Per Sarah’s definition of being a planner, though, I realized I’m not the pure pantser I thought I was. I don’t wake up to a blank sheet of paper and dive in. It’s more like I’m a percolator. I let the drips of a story filter through my mind over a long period of time, letting it steam and swirl about without determining it.
It’s a process that sprung from the scarcity of time. Since I had children, I gave up the notion of a perfect, sustained time to write, so my writing process is squeezed awkwardly into the nooks and crannies of life. I always carry a Moleskine notebook in my hip pocket to write down the occasional stray thought, and truth be told, I often daydream my way through my children’s soccer games and write dialogue, character descriptions, and plot thoughts during the action (bad Dad!).
All of that qualifies as planning, as haphazard and unstructured as it might be, because I’ll type up all of my notes over the course of months—and even years in the case of my first NaNo novel—before trying to shape them into anything.
But outline? The word rings like a narrative death knell to me. When I’ve outlined stories, I feel like I’m writing in a jail cell, with no room to move. That wedge of sunlight coming in through the barred window just doesn’t open up the world enough for me. I like writing toward the expanses of mystery.
That said, I’ve pledged to adopt a more formal strategy this time around, to shake up my creative process if nothing else. That’s the reason I did NaNo in the first place: to whipsaw my creative approach just for the heck of it.
So here’s my plan: I’m going to do all of the exercises in Ready, Set, Novel! during October. I especially like its “Playground” section for the rambling, whimsical research avenues it provides (e.g. “Have your villain bust out her high school yearbook. Write some of the notes she finds in it.”). Then, to take a page from master planner Sarah Mackey’s book, I’m going to write 3-4 sentences of a chapter summary for each chapter.
As Sarah put it, “Each chapter gets three or so key scenes, and I’ll write a few sentences for each. This is the point in the outlining process where things sneak up on me. New characters appear fully formed on the page, plot twists seem to write themselves, and existing characters start making their own decisions. When this starts happening, I know the novel’s not just static on the page any more. Those moments are the best part of NaNo for me.”
But, like Sarah, I don’t want to know how the novel ends. Why write it in that case? I might very consciously leave the last third or so murky—so I can see where I’m going, but not necessarily how to get there.
The main thing is to keep experimenting. NaNoWriMo is a rollicking creative interruption in the dull routines of daily life—its very premise is a reminder to shake up the world.
Now, I want to hear about your approaches, and see if I can pick up another tip or two this time around. Rock my world.