A Pantser in Need of a Plan

It’s day six of NaNoWriMo 2013. Things are not going real well for me so far.  There are several things that are causing this to be a struggle for me this year, some work-related, some life-related and some creativity-related. The work and life issues are “normal”, in a way at least.  But the creativity issues are new and different for me.

The issue is not a lack of ideas for what my 2013 masterpiece should be. Rather, I actually might have too many ideas. There are six brand new novels in my head at the moment, along with one or two “version 2.0” ideas for previous novels.  And they all want to come out all at once.  Which, as you might guess, means that none of them are coming out smoothly (or at all).  I have actually started three novels in the past few days. I got about 2200 words into the first, 1500 into the second and 1148 into the third (so far).  I haven’t yet figure out how to smoothly integrate these three vastly different stories into one so that I can count all of the words toward my 50,000 word goal, but perhaps a method of doing so will come to me soon. Is there a market for a sci-fi-mystery-steampunk-comedy-romance novel set in a fantastical world filled with magical creatures who like coffee and candy corn? Hmmm…

Anyway, the biggest issue for me with NaNoWriMo 2013 has actually been one I’ve never experienced before.  I’ve mentioned the fact that I am an unabashed “pantser” when it comes to writing.  I take a blank page and just start writing, never knowing exactly where I’m going (or even starting) until I get there. I have always written like this and have been successful with it. This strategy comes with a certain level of needing to trust that the “how’s” and the “why’s” of the plot will just kind of work themselves out. And again, they always seem to do that for me.  But for some reason, as I’ve sat down to write each day this month, I am finding my creative mind trying to proactively think about these “how’s”, “why’s” and “what’s”.  It goes something like this:

Me: Okay, so, there’s this awesomely powerful and evil wizard and he needs a sidekick/apprentice but doesn’t like any of the young wizards that are available to him. So he goes out to the real world and picks Sally to be his new minion and she will do his bidding just so that she can learn how to be a magician from him so that she can ultimately defeat her mentor.

The voice in my head: Okay, that’s great! But what is the evil bidding this wizard wants little Sally to do and how does Sally know he’s evil and why is he going outside of the magical realm and what will the end result be when Sally ultimately takes him on.  Oh, and isn’t this a bit too much like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” or something?


Me: So, the land is suddenly cast into complete and total darkness for 13 months, as has happened every 150 years for all of recorded history. The evil marauders from the northern Darklands invade, again, as they have done every 150 years… enslaving the good people of the southern lands, stealing their food supplies and drinking their treasured coffee.  The Chosen One among the good people of the south will rise up, as he or she has done each time this has happened, to push back the invaders and restore peace and harmony to the world.

The voice in my head:  Okay, but what causes this darkness and why does it repeat every few generations. If it repeats so often, wouldn’t the people of the south have, oh, you know, built up defenses against the invading forces? I mean, come on… they should be smart enough to anticipate that this is going to happen by now? And if they’re dumb enough not to anticipate it… well, maybe they don’t deserve the coffee they treasure so much. Oh, and, isn’t the premise of this just a little bit like “Nightfall”?  Just sayin’.


Me: Okay, so there’s this vampire and—

The voice in my head: Just stop there, dude… the world doesn’t need another vampire story right now.

I’m not saying that I think any of the ideas I have is necessarily destined for the best seller’s list any time soon, but this has never stopped me before. In fact, I’ve never really cared about that when I write.  So why is it that now – when the point is to get words on the page whatever they might be – why  am I now suddenly overthinking it and not just writing? I really don’t have an answer for this, but this feeling of doom is the reason why I do not plan my stories out in advance.  I’ve always felt that if I were to attempt to be a planner, I’d get to a point in my outline and get stuck, then abandon the project completely.  And that’s where I feel I am with these novels right now: stuck and ready to abandon them.  The trouble is that my mind is in this cycle now where it will not allow me to just start writing without thinking about the details of the inciting action or problem or the details of how or why it will be resolved.  Unfortunately, I don’t know how to actually think about these things in advance!

So that’s where I am and here’s where I ask for help:  I know a lot of writers are planners to the same extent that I am completely not a planner.  So, how do you do it? How do you look at your worlds/plots/characters and determine – before you really know them – what they will do and how they will react and why they will do things? Do you have any advice for someone who has never figured out the “how’s” and “why’s” in advance? I’d really like to hear from you about this. Also, if you are doing NaNoWriMo this year, how have your first 5 or 6 days gone so far?


21 thoughts on “A Pantser in Need of a Plan

  1. When I do my outline, I feel like I do know my characters. I think about them for a long time before I outline them. Sometimes I’ll have my husband ask me questions about them and I have to tell him their favorite thing to do on a Saturday or why she dropped out of college. Because I know them this well, I can anticipate what my characters will do and can outline that plot.

    • You know, I’m embarrassed to say this… but I never actually thought of outlining as something which could help me to understand and know my characters. I’ve always thought of it as a plot development tool and nothing more. I’ll have to look at it from a different perspective now. Thanks!

  2. I’m a pantser, like you, and if I try to plan, I don’t get stuck–I get bored. The way I deal with the concerns you’re having, because I too get those critical moments of “why would I write that, it wouldn’t work/make sense/be smart!” is by telling myself “just write what you think of and the other stuff will resolve itself.”

    Granted, that type of thinking does require belief in a) your own writing and b) the awesomeness of your story.

    I’m also one of those people that has *too many ideas* all the time and it’s easy to get caught in the vicious trap of “Oh but there’s already too many stories like this” or “This plot is too similar to stuff I’ve already read, why can’t it be more original!”

    I’ve found that, for me, the answer to that last part (the originality) is to be like “Yeah, this story might be similar to other things I’ve read, but those stories weren’t written by ME so it doesn’t matter if it’s similar because I’m not the author of those other books and my story, in the end, won’t turn out the same way. Plus, my characters are totally different!”

    Yeah.. I *might* be in the habit of giving myself mini pep-talks to get through moments like the ones you’re talking about. 😛

  3. You are a pantser. That works for you, and you should stick with it. Somehow, your mind has begun to doubt this system and started asking you questions. I suggest you ignore it. If your brain comes up with a good plan, and it works in your story, hurray! You’ve learned a new skill.
    If, however, the planning continues to get in your way- just pants yourself right past it.
    Go back to basics, put yourself into the mind of your characters and let them figure out the answers to your brain’s questions. They’ve always managed to find their way through the story before.
    Just send that wizard out into the world- we don’t need to know why- and not until Sally is firmly in his clutches does he need to reveal that evil plan. Maybe there won’t even be one- maybe by the time he gets there, he will have fallen in love with the feisty innocent and decided to sprinkle the world with fairy dust.
    Who knows?
    Besides, even the most meticulous planners will tell you that even when they have a clear outline of exactly how, where, and what happens when Sally ‘takes him on”, the characters often defy the author and have their own fight
    So even if your brain throws thousands of questions at you, just tell it “I don’t know, I’m just the dumb writer, ask the wizard!” Sit down at your keyboard, start typing, and let the wizard figure it out. He IS the mastermind of this whole thing after all.

  4. Maybe you’re already thinking too much about the 50,000th word instead of the next 50. Each of these blocking voices are taking a seriously large-scale view – of the character’s motivations, of the overall world-building, of the book’s place in the entire genre.

    When that type of block hits me, I address it by noting that, yes, I AM going to have to flesh out the motivations better, and, yes, I AM going to have to make the world-building more consistent. All of that is for the editing, not the writing. I make a note in the margin (e.g. “This is hokey. Fix.”) and move on.

    After all, you wouldn’t try to sand and paint a piece of furniture while you’re still measuring and cutting the lumber, would you?

    • I think you are right. I don’t normally think about what is going to happen in chapter 13 while I’m writing chapter 1. So, yes, I’m thinking about the long term 50k more than the shorter term 50. And the lumber-furniture analogy is a very good one because, well… now that you mention it, these characters need some furniture, I bet I could have them build it themselves which would certainly take up some of that wordcount I’m now behind.

  5. Isn’t that an oxymoron–a pantser in need of a plan? Hmm…

  6. I’m usually a pantser, but never winning NaNo changed me so that this year I actually wrote an outline. A very basic one, of course, but an outline nonetheless.

    Basically, I just got a couple of ideas, mashed them together, and started writing a little summary. The summary ended up being something like “In a half-medieval era, these people have a problem with themselves, and don’t know how to fix it, but there’s also a war, someone was exiled, they’re building an AI war machine, crap happens, someone dies, they beat the bad guy, more people die, someone comes back from the dead, and then they finally kiss.” Of course, mine was two or three pages of a notebook, much longer than that.

    After I wrote the summary, I wrote an outline going over the largest events with only important details that I didn’t want to forget. And that’s it. I was amazed that it was so easy, actually.

  7. I also wonder if you should take one day away from word-focused writing and just do a stream-of-consciousness outline. Maybe that will get it out of your head and create the space you need to do the actual scenes.
    I’m not exactly a pantser, but my creative writing is very organic. Sometimes have an idea of what the story will be about and when I’m done it looks nothing like what the story was supposed to be. Sometimes it’s exactly what I thought it would be. Sometimes I haven’t got a clue what the story is, just the tone. Any which way around, though, when I get stuck it’s because I started in the wrong place and have to find a new beginning. (My version of this when I didn’t have time to write a beginning four times, in my personal challenge in July, was to wrap up the scene which ever way necessary and switch to a different character.)
    Good luck!

    • That’s how I do NaNoWriMo usually — start with whatever comes to mind and write what feels like it’s ready to be written. That means some years I’ve ended up with a book that starts at chapter 2, because I didn’t get a good beginning chapter written. Sometimes I end up with TWO chapter 1s because I inadvertently wrote a later chapter that would have been much better as the first. And when I get stuck, I usually know the characters well enough that they can just start writing diary entries and that gets me un-stuck because basically, they tell me what they want me to write about next.

  8. I outline first, and I don’t think this restricts me from being creative — rather it focuses me. Its just the way I am with everything. If I were building a house, I need some light planning to know where to build, how many rooms, etc, but I can start building before I know the paint colors.

    If I were drawing a picture — landscape scene — I have to know whether I want a barn, a fence, trees and a stream before the pencil hits the paper.

    • Every single thing in my life is scripted, from work calls to when I have to do specific things in the garden to schedules for the kids events to the time of day I usually wake up or eat. The only thing I’ve never “allowed” to be scripted is writing. Note the quotes on that… I don’t think I ever consciously decided not to be a planner when I write, it just kind of happened.

  9. I recently read something that said, “All roads lead to Rome. That’s why nobody gets there.” I agree with Matt that mapping out a strategy in writing in some form can be conducive to bringing a story to life. I pray you are blessed in the process, wherever it leads you.

  10. I am a Pantser, but I’ve learned to incorporate a small measure of planning without getting bored or ruining the creative process. The key to my finishing my first-ever novel was simply this; I knew how it was going to end. Everything else grew from that. Once I had a direction for the characters, everything gravitated towards that conclusion. Somewhere along the line, the ending changed, but the story was already in motion, as were the characters. So perhaps if you know how you need everything to turn out, you can set your sights on that particular horizon-point and get rolling. And don’t worry about ‘what if it’s a bit like that other book?’ Yours will be unique.

    • I don’t think I have *ever* known the ending. Sometimes I’ve known the beginning. Occasionally I have a phrase pop into my head and it’s a “wow, that’s an awesome title for a story” kind of moment, and so I sit down and start typing. But either way, I agree: Once the story is in motion, it just goes where it needs to go. And that’s the part that isn’t working *right now*. It will start to work, I’m sure, it just isn’t doing so right this moment.

      • Anyone who has managed to complete a story will find their own way of putting it together, whether by planning or by accident. For me, the magic key was knowing the ending. I have two other ‘big’ stories that had no conclusive ending when I was writing them (I’ve created the endings since) and for now they languish, awaiting my return.
        Perhaps, rather than an ending, you need to establish a direction, a reason or a purpose in order to roll forward once more?

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