Outlining for the Pantser, Pantsing for the Outliner: Planning just enough and winging it sufficiently so you don’t get stuck during NaNoWriMo

This is a copy of an article that posted to the Fictionista Workshop today. Take a look for more information on the NaNoWriMo project on their website.


Do you know what you’re having for dinner tonight?

Okay, how about tomorrow night?

If you have your meals planned out, even three days from now, chances are you take the same methodical approach with your writing. That is, before you even label the first page with a prominent CHAPTER ONE across the top, you have your story mapped, tracked, and tagged. You know exactly where it’s going, who falls in love, who dies, who gets abducted by aliens, etc. You, my dear writer, are an outliner. Nothing left to chance or folly, you hit your novel with all the strategy and wherewithal of a Roman general on the field of battle. You know what your character finds behind door number three, and you like it that way. Now, all you need to do is take that skeleton you have in the corner, and write some clothes, flesh and muscles on him.

Then, there are writers like me. We are a different lot who sips tea while waxing the words poetic and listening for the muse whenever and however she may call upon us. We’re not just working on one manuscript, we likely have four or five competing projects going at any point. Each one is at a critical point where we’ve run out of words, where the flow of our creative juices has run dry, or where we just plain grew tired of thinking about it. Oh, they’re not abandoned, but our heroine has just grabbed the car keys and left in a huff after having a fight with her mother, and we just haven’t figured out yet to where she’s driving to or why. We have an idea, but every time we sit down and start her dialogue as she enters the gay bar on 3rd & Vine, we remember that we didn’t want her to go there until after she met the guy with blue glasses, because then she would have noticed the mechanical bull already that we weren’t planning on her discovering until after she robbed the bank. Yes, we have ideas. Too many, in fact, to the point that where we don’t know where to take them without our story taking an emergency exit to Tangentville. It’s not lack of direction, it’s lack of destination that plagues us. We write by the seat of our pants and by the grace of the coffee in our cups. We are the pansters.

And one thing we pantsers have in common with the outliners is this: Come NaNoWriMo, we’re both screwed.

As with many things in life, those at the two extremes of the spectrum have more in common with each other than those in the middle. Plan too much, and you feel obligated to stay on the scheduled tour, even when you see an interesting spire rising from the sky in the distance. Don’t plan enough, and you’ll wander around the fictional streets between the Conflicts and Resolutions districts without finding an efficient route in between. In short, you’ll get lost and get stuck. In NaNoWriMo, time is of the essence. Writing fifty thousand words in the span of thirty days is a completely achievable task, but only if one does not get mired down in the process of writing. Having too much of a plan may lead you to feel overly confident. That is, you may be all hat and no cowboy, taking on your novel knowing what you’re going to write, but not how. Also, writing is an art form, and in art there must be wiggle room to allow the artist to mold inspiration. Likewise, having no clear plan but only vague ideas may lead one to get delayed in the art of writing by overindulging in the process behind the words.

May I be so humble as to suggest, at least in preparation for NaNoWriMo, a hybrid of the two approaches?

I think it’s good to have more than a vague idea of what you’re going to write. I’ll admit, even as a pantser, I’m gearing up by at least sitting down and making a bullet point list of the major plot points of my story. I know, however, if I get wrapped up in microploting my characters’ actions before hand, I’ll lose inspiration and drive to tell the story. Think of it this way. I feel like I’m standing in the land of good intentions and yet-to-start actions, and across the river of Novelia, the imaginary land where I live most the time, lies Fifty Kay Acres. I need to build a bridge to this place, so I’m now pouring the concrete that will make up the pillars. But to truly cross the bridge I’m going to need to lay down the road. I’ve got all my materials ready, but I’m pacing myself to show up over at Fifty Kay by December 1st.

Yeah, I use metaphors a lot. Sorry about that.

Some other tactics you might want to consider as you plan your own NaNoWriMo are listed below. The methods combine the best of the pantsing and planner approaches, allowing one to overcome the shortfalls with each.

The Post-it Method: Who are your characters? What are the major events in your book? What is the journey? Write a little something about each of these things on post-it notes that you can either put on the wall near where you write, or in a binder you can easily access. Then, arrange them. How? Well, chronologically perhaps. Or if you’re more a panster, perhaps by want. There’s nothing wrong with having conflicting post-its about where your story might go. As you head in one direction or another, or as you achieve the plot point, take it down and make a stack. Not only will this keep you on track, the stack of post-its will give you a visual confirmation that all your hard work is adding up.

The Flow Chart Method: That’s right, flow charts. Now, you don’t have to stick to all the rules, but just chart out your story. Make sure you leave room on the side to make notes. You can then branch out with different ideas if you have several about the twist your plot might take. As you eliminate options or advance in your plot, ex-out the unnecessary bits.

The Popsicle Stick Method: Go to your local craft store and purchase a bag of popsicle sticks. Write possible routes your story might take or details about your characters on as many as you feel comfortable with, then throw them in a bag. When you get stuck or need a pointer, randomly draw out a popsicle stick and remind yourself what you were thinking of when you wrote it and, more importantly, how you frame that in what you’re writing now.

Use a recycled plot. I’m not joking on this one. A wise friend constantly reminds me that there are no new stories. In fact, I don’t really believe that, but I will admit that there are very few. What changes are the details. If plotting isn’t your thing, but your excel at detail, at capturing the human condition, at examining the clockwork of soul, by all means recycle. But be wary: I’m not saying plagiarise. Plagiarism is bad, wrong, and lazy. But there are some generalized plots you see over and over, and don’t necessary get worn. The young lovers separated by the station of their families, for example, or the virtuous, strong hero overthrowing the tyrannical despot. It’s okay to tell a classic story, as long as the story you’re telling is yours.

Phone a friend. Do you have a person in your life who just… gets you? Why not use them as a bouncing board. Throw off some ideas about your book and get their general reaction. Perhaps even stage a fake pitch, as though your friend is an agent and you’re trying to sell your intended book to them.

Pantsers: cut off shorts are also comfy. If you’re a pantser like me, you’re convinced that “outlining” is an ancient Norwegian cuss word. How about blurbing? Can you contain the essence of your book in 200 words or less? If not, why not give it a try? The brevity will give you lots of room to work as inspiration hits, but having a basic summary will orientate you about where you’re going.

Whatever method you use to help you get ready for NaNoWriMo, the most important thing is this: write. Write every day, even if only 100 words. Even if you know you’re going to delete those words in the first draft, write. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the novel about it might be written in a month.

Killian McRae is an aspiring writer of romance, alternative history, and fantasy fiction, and also has a sizable portfolio of derivative fiction. Her first published novel, 12.21.12, will be released in December 2010. To learn more about her, please visit her website www.killianmcrae.com.

Interested in participating in NaNoWriMo?

Sign up at www.nanowrimo.org to get started and continue to visit the Fictionista Workshop homepage for tips and tools to aid you.

2 Comments  to  Outlining for the Pantser, Pantsing for the Outliner: Planning just enough and winging it sufficiently so you don’t get stuck during NaNoWriMo

  1. This was great information. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Excellent advice!

    I’m half plotter/half panster – I like to start with a brief outline, but then fill it in as the muse calls, tweaking and twisting it until I end up with a story. But having that little lead in before NaNo is critical!

    The hard part is ONLY writing the outline. Once the ideas start brewing, I get anxious to start writing! Waiting till November can be a torturous thing.

    Thanks for posting this.

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