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Monday, September 16, 2013

NaNoWriMo: Should You Plot it or Pants it?

Every year since my first NaNoWriMo (November’s National Novel Writing Month), I go through a decision-making process. What should my book be about? Who are the characters? Do I need to plan the story first, or should I just jump in and write the darn thing? In this post I’ll be talking about the latter issue.

Whether to plot or pants a NaNo novel is a question I see posed about as often as I hear “Paper or plastic?” at the grocery store. My reply has varied over the years, and I can now answer with absolute, unwavering conviction: It depends.

There are two main factors that determine whether you’re better off pantsing or plotting a story:

         1. Where you currently are as a writer
         2.   The book itself

Either of these can help determine the best approach, and as both vary from year to year, so may the decision on whether to plot out your project.


The Case for Pantsing a NaNo Novel

What's so great about pantsing? For one, there's a surprise factor in it that makes the book as much of a revelation to the writer as it is for the reader. It's refreshing, illuminating, and a pure rush! It also saves days or weeks (months?!) of work and nail-biting while plotting. Some of my favorite lines/scenes came about because of pantsing. 

One of the factors I mentioned as to whether to pants or plot is where you currently are as a writer. You might assume I’m talking about how experienced you are with penning novels. In fact, I’m actually referring to your overall life, flow, and mental energy in the weeks just prior to NaNo. This can vary greatly from year to year, and it can definitely affect whether or not you can write off the cuff.

About my second or third NaNo year, I found myself bursting with creative energy. I wanted a challenge greater than the 50k/30 days goal, so I decided to try writing a book with no plot. It was so much fun that I did the same thing for the next few years. (Not forever, which I’ll get to in a moment.)

Now, onto the book itself. What type of book is best suited for pantsing? Some tales practically write themselves, an amazingly giddy feeling I highly recommend to all writers. While these tales can go hand in hand with times your mental energy is flowing best, it’s not always a given. You’ll recognize these types of stories by the way they keep jumping into your head unbidden. Characters relentlessly whisper to you. Plot points harass you in line at the market. Scenes play out in your dreams. Snippets of overheard conversation wind up fitting the plot perfectly. Etc. etc. When you find this sort of inspiration happening pre-NaNo, you may well have found yourself a concept that’s perfect for pantsing.

Incidentally, some think that writers who are obsessive about scheduling their day or who color-code their socks aren’t good candidates for pantsing. I say poppycock. My husband laughs at me because I have my calendar scheduled down to where I plan spontaneous fun, but I can derive great satisfaction from pantsing a book. Depending on the project, it can work great!

The Case for Plotting a NaNo Novel

No matter how fabulous a concept or how many years you’ve earned the pantsing badge of honor, there are definitely times when plotting your novel is the way to go.

Case in point, let’s go back to my several-year run of NaNo pantsing. That was all well and good until the summer my writing came screeching to a halt. My mental energy had been heavily invested in family needs, and by the time NaNo approached, I hadn’t been able to write a thing for months. I panicked about Nano, fearing I either wouldn’t be able to begin or that if I did, I surely wouldn’t finish. I was simply too out of the mode. So I made myself a deal. Rather than waiting to see if lightning struck on November 1, I spent October outlining one main character per week for three weeks and the fourth week detailing an overall plot arc. Dove in and crossed the 50k mark yet again.

Since then, I’ve learned to start contemplating where I’m at mentally sometime during September. If I’m feeling Green-Light-Go, I’ll pick a concept/title from my random ideas file and run with it come November 1. If, however, I’ve been having issues with flow or have a lot of “life” things going on in general, I’ll give myself a hand by coming into NaNo with a plan.

As for what kind of book is best planned in advance, well, the rub is you often won’t know for sure until you’ve tried to write it. I CAN say the best time to expect a tough challenge is soon after the above-mentioned fun of having a story write itself. This experience has the unfortunate side effect of making the writer feel invincible, that they’ve found their ideal rhythm so that every book from there on will unfold like a rose blooming via time-lapse photography. To correct this misconception, the next book will often drag like a skirt through mud. So if you’ve been riding high on the wings of success lately, you may be able to soar right on through NaNo—or you could be preparing to crash. Plotting is a good way to ensure the latter doesn’t happen.

Some red flags to watch for that indicate a NaNo book may be better plotted include: coming up blank when you try to picture most things about the story, being quickly and consistently distracted when plot or character points try to spring up, and/or rejecting numerous inspirations that try to assert themselves. One CAN overcome all of these and successfully pants a tale, but chances will be better if you give your book a plotting boost.

There’s one other argument for plotting a novel, and that’s the possibility that you might plot out a novel that is sort of meh and wind up pantsing something completely different. I’ve seen this kind of inspiration strike just before NaNo as well as midway through the challenge. If it happens, go with it! The original plot will still be waiting when you’re done.


Which way do you think you’re headed this coming NaNo: plotting or pantsing?

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I'm J. Rose Allister, wife, working mom, and the author of over twenty-five books. Somewhere in between one and the next, I love hanging out here on my blog and over on Twitter. Give me a comment or follow-I love chatting with people! And if you enjoyed this post, consider sharing with friends and subscribing for updates.

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