NaNoWriMo and the Age-Old Debate: Planning Versus Pantsing

It’s that time of year again: November has arrived and millions of people all over the world have entered the trenches. No, there’s not a new war you missed hearing about on the news. I’m talking about the writing trenches. I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month (or, as those of us who’ve braved its dangers call it, NaNoWriMo).

In case you don’t already know, NaNoWriMo presents writers with a challenge: Write a novel of at least 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30.

Whenever I mention it to people, I get one of two reactions:

Nonwriters say, “Sounds pretty easy.”

And writers (those of us who know all too well that it can take a whole day—maybe even a whole week or more—to produce a single sentence that you’re really, really proud of) look at me with horror and say it can’t be done.

The reality is, NaNoWriMo is easier than you might think (not as easy as all those nonwriters would assume, but it’s certainly more than doable).

It’s not a miracle and it doesn’t require superpowers to accomplish. It just takes dedication, discipline, and (most of all) the willingness to kick your Inner Editor to the curb and JUST WRITE.

But it CAN be done.

I’ve done it myself (successfully) nine times now. Sure, most of the “books” I’ve written for NaNoWriMo will never see the light of day, but at least I’m keeping my hand in the game, walking the walk so my writers can’t accuse me of not understanding what they’re going through when they’re dealing with a difficult writing project.

In fact, I encourage all my writers to do NaNoWriMo every year. Even if all you end up writing is 50,000 unusable words, at least you’ve gotten some practice showing up to the page and doing the work (something all of us need more of).

And, with any luck, you end up with a solid chunk of a new book, something you can finish and revise and edit and (eventually) publish. And THAT is a big win.

Writing so many words under such a specific and very tight time crunch really makes you take a hard look at your writing process. And every year, even for a seasoned veteran like me, NaNoWriMo makes me ask myself the question that has plagued every writer since biblical times:

To outline or not to outline?

That is the question.

It’s an age-old debate, one that is vehemently argued on both sides, whether it’s better to be a planner or a pantser—that is, someone who plans the book in detail before beginning to write or one who comes up with a basic idea and then just dives in (flying by the seat of their pants—hence, the term pantser). There are pros and cons on each side.

For planning, the pros include:

  • You know what direction your story will take before you even get started.
  • It’s likely you’ll need fewer rewrites if you go in knowing what you’re going to write ahead of time.
  • You’ll always know where you are in the arc of the story—which is helpful if you get stuck or if you have to take a break from writing for a while (for example, because of work pressure or illness).
  • You know lots of different scenes the story will include, so you can always skip around and write out of order if you get stuck working on a particularly tough section.

The cons might include:

  • It takes time to plan out the story, so you can’t start writing as quickly, so you might lose some of your initial enthusiasm about your idea.
  • It can be boring, hard work to do detailed planning.
  • You don’t have as much freedom or spontaneity to just write the story (or change it) as new ideas come to you.

For pantsing, the pros include:

  • You feel creative and you get to discover a lot about your story (and yourself) as you write.
  • Your characters seem to take on a life of their own and do the planning for you.
  • You have all the freedom you could want to make changes as you go—perhaps turning your story about a divorcing couple into a sci-fi odyssey.

The cons include:

  • It’s inevitable that you’ll have a LOT more difficulty getting started with each new chapter or scene, because every time you start writing, you have to figure out what you want to write about.
  • You’ll have to do more revising once the draft is done, because without a plan in place, it’s hard to remember and be consistent with details (like characters’ names and so forth).
  • You can end up stuck in a rut, not knowing how to get out of a hole you’ve written yourself into, if you don’t have a plan in place.

I will admit that I am usually a diehard planner. No, I don’t literally plan out every single scene on index cards or some kind of obsessive, serial-killer-style spreadsheet, but I DO like to know a good amount about where my story is going and what elements it’s going to include before I even think about getting started.

But this year, things are a little different. Instead of doing my usual pre-NaNoWriMo planning, creating detailed character studies and a timeline and outline for my novel, I decided to try going the pantser route.

Okay, decided may be too strong a word here. Truth be told, I was still feeling depressed from the long, hot summer and simply didn’t have the energy or motivation to do much (if any) planning, so I jumped into this year’s NaNoWriMo novel knowing little more than the two main characters’ names and the overall premise of the story.

I’m regretting it now.

Every other year of my NaNoWriMo career, by this far into November, I’ve been approaching (if not well past) the halfway point. This year? I’m scraping along, barely doing more than the minimum daily quota (that’s 1,667 words a day, in case you’re curious) you need to write if you want to hit the 50,000 mark by the end of the month.

Pantsing? Is HARD.

See, those who prefer the footloose style of pantsing will tell you that it allows you to do anything, to be completely free. But when your novel is tightly focused (and told entirely within the confines of one small beauty salon like the one I’m currently writing), you don’t have a lot of room for improvisation.

What, am I going to have space aliens land outside the strip mall and invade the salon? That MIGHT disrupt the subtle development of the deep and intellectual relationship growing between the two major characters.

The truth is, how free you are depends on your circumstances (in fiction as in life, I suppose), and I just can’t play with my book the way most pantsers would suggest.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that, though the debate may continue to rage on between all those planners and pantsers out there, for me, the argument is over.

I’m a planner, all the way. And next NaNoWriMo? You can be damn sure I won’t start November without knowing exactly how to dig myself out of any holes I create.

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