NaNoWriMo & Planning Instead of Pantsing

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a 30-day event where writers commit to writing a manuscript of 50,000 words or greater. This year makes the 7th time that I’ve met the goal in the past 9 years, which gives me a pretty solid track record.

It’s no small feat. People have careers, families, other obligation to which to attend. It seems like a simple proposition: dedicate a couple of hours per day to writing and crank out 1,667 words per day or more. The reality is that life’s stressors make it difficult, and that’s before we factor in a finicky inner muse or the feared writer’s block.

Within the NaNo community, there are two organic kinds of writers: the planner, who is meticulous in their writing prep, know exactly where they are going with their book, have a solid outline, and follow it studiously; and the pantser, the person who has little to no idea where the novel is going to take them and enjoys the thrill of learning the story as they write. A hybrid of the two, a plantser, does some planning, but also leaves some things open to spontaneity.

With my first novel series, the Ben Williams series, I was somewhere between a plantser and a pantser. The only outline I had were the major plot points I’d managed to remember. I would improvise the rest, providing for an organized yet organic-feeling work.

The downside to this approach is two-fold: first, running out of writing energy happens frequently; second, the novel can sprawl on and on, which means longer completion time, longer editing time, and more time between novels. With a traditional publishing house at your back, it’s not as big of an issue; as an indie author, it’s a bit of a kiss of death.

This year, I decided I wanted to increase my writing output. The goal was to write at least three novels per year. I started my first one in August and finished it in October, with a final word count of roughly 109,000 words. I had a month of unproductivity while I was on vacation, so it’s feasible I could have written that in a little over a month.

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At a write-in with members of the Tucson NaNo region.

For NaNo, I decided to stick with a structured outline. I’d done it once, something that had not come to me in the past, so I figured to see if it was a fluke or if I could keep up the pace.

I didn’t just keep the pace up. I went into overdrive.

In 26 days, I wrote a roughly 79,000 word novel, from start to finish. I still wanted to go for 90,000 for the month, so I immediately launched into writing a short story. I ended the month with 84,205 words. 5,000 and change short of the goal, but still something I’d never done before.

So, what’s the advantage of planning over pantsing or plantsing?

Simply put, there’s less down time. You know exactly where you’re going and what needs to happen. If you’re a linear writer, like me, you can charge from point to point with almost effortless ease. If you’re a non-linear writer, an outline may help you arrange your thoughts and scenes.

The disadvantage is that it’s less organic. If the writer is not careful, the writing can come off as stale.

Here is the advice I would impart to somebody considering giving planning a try:

  • Outline only the most basic plot points. Don’t go into heavy detail about actions, dialogue, etc. If you’re like me, you’ll still need a little spontaneity to encourage you to move from one plot point to the next. But, with all of the basic points in place, you’ll find yourself swinging from one to the other with ease.
  • Keep in mind that this is a rough draft. Finish the draft first. If you find a gap between plot points where you find a little character development or a better bridge between plot points can be found, you can slip it in during edits.
  • Consult the plot outline every time you sit down to write. I forgot to check the plot one time, cranked out 1,500 words, then realized those words were no good because they didn’t jive with what I’d initially had plotted. Consulting the outline can help avoid that.
  • At the same time, the plot isn’t 100% concrete. If you see an improvement on the plot point you’d originally outlined, feel free to change it. Just make sure that the change jives with the rest of your plot points.

Give it a shot and see if it works for you. And as always, happy writing!

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