Plotting vs. Pantsing

nanowrimo.jpgIt’s April, and that can only mean one thing: Camp NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month is technically November, when crazy ambitious writers all around the world strive to “win” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in that one month. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo is similar, but each writer sets an individual goal. Some may stick with 50,000 words; some may be trying for writing ten minutes a day. The camaraderie is beyond inspirational!

One of the quintessential questions of NaNoWriMo is this: Are you a plotter or a pantser–or the combination of plantser? When I did NaNoWriMo the first time, I was a *pantser: a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. 

In my defense, I had already started that novel prior to NaNoWriMo. I knew where it began, I thought I knew where it was going, and I had a rough idea of how it would get there, so writing out a plot line seemed overkill. I mean, it was all in my brain. And writing is a creative endeavor, not one to plot out, right?

Sort of. Depends. Kinda.

The problem: I hadn’t thought through how some of my plot points would connect (or not). I had a couple of endings in mind, but they seemed impossible to get to, even once I was 50,000+ words in. I didn’t give up right away. I went back and re-worked scenes, moved scenes around (shout out to Novelize), edited, edited, edited. I just couldn’t get it right. So I shelved it. (You can read more about that here.) I do think it’s salvageable, but I think it will need to sit for awhile–and likely, I’ll start pretty much all over. Except this time I’ll plot before I start. This was a lesson I took with me into my current WIP.

I was about 4,000 words in The Devil Inside Me before I did any major plot sketching. I had my idea–then the idea for making it a trilogy–but thanks to my previous experience, I wanted to know where I was going with it before I was 50,000 words in. 

I did some research and came across the “snowflake” method for planning. I loved the idea of taking a one sentence summary of my story and expanding from there. I came up with my suspects and how they’d fit. I decided upon the locations of the murders–and the order in which they’d occur. I gave my poor protagonist a fatal flaw from hell. And I determined which Chicagoans were going to bite the proverbial bullet.

Magically, plot holes appeared. Shouldn’t I have this murder occur at that location? Shouldn’t I have this person die instead of that one? This non-linear method worked so well for me that before long, I was ready for the linear. I created a spreadsheet of scenes. More plot holes. I could see where the story became protagonist-heavy and antagonist-heavy, where I’d need to do some more research. Other obvious issues made themselves known, including my favorite: person A could not have been 18 during a crime committed ten years ago if they are only 21 today. (Did I mention I teach English and not math?)

Knowing these gaps in the beginning made writing that much easier. I still don’t want to try to control every detail because not doing so will allow some spontaneity and creativity to live in the process.  Has it been perfect? Not on your life. But has it given me direction and the freedom to sit down and pound out some good word counts? You bet, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to cram in 2000 words a day. If you’ve tried plotting and failed miserably, give the snowflake method a try. There is no one-size-fits-all writing handbook, after all.

Writers, who has NaNoWriMo’d? Did you love it? Hate it? Win? Fail miserably? Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser? Share your strategies!

Readers, what are some stories you’ve read that have an impeccable plot that seems perfectly planned? Writers would love to read your well-loved examples!

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*Confession: Not having a plan is completely and utterly counterintuitive to who I am as a person, but for some reason, writing does not fit into that order for me. As a teacher, my lesson plan units for every class are all tabbed, labeled, divided, and in the same size, color, and brand of binders.  My clothes hang in rainbow (and sleeve-length) order in my closet. I once had a co-worker move everything on my desk to see if I could work without changing everything back first. I couldn’t. I’m that person.

Yes! You Can Be a Writer!

Who can be a writer? YOU can be a writer!

The first thing I learned from that half-done, now-shelved novel I mentioned earlier this week? 

WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE–and don’t be afraid to do it. Stop asking yourself “am I good enough to be a writer?” You’ll never know until you try, and, chances are, you’re already exhibiting signs. Not sure? Scott Kuttner discusses 12 of them. 

Everyone has probably heard the write-what-you-know mantra, but I’m talking about what books you love. Not just the relatable characters or the author’s unique voice, but the genre. From my ancient, well-loved Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J.A. Cuddon, genre is “a kind, a literary type, or class. The major classical genres were epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy and satire, to which would now be added novel and short story.”

Today, we can further break “novel” down: horror, upmarket women’s fiction, dystopian, steampunk, psychological thriller, historical fiction, urban fantasy, mystery, cozy mystery…I could go on and on and on…  

I was terrified to start writing in the genre that has always fascinated me: mystery. Why? I didn’t think I’d be good enough. I mean, when your favorite authors are P.D. James, Dennis Lehane, and Agatha Christie–those are some serious, red-herring-throwing heavy hitters. I’m lucky if I can beat my husband at a game of Clue. I love Sherlock Holmes, but could I even begin to think like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

And then it happened. The stars aligned and the concept for my current project nestled in my brain. I couldn’t dislodge it. I wished that Dennis Lehane would cross my path, so I could pitch him the idea and beg him to run with it.

Alas, Mr. Lehane never showed up in my rural Midwestern town. So I gave myself permission. Permission to try. Permission to acknowledge that while I may never be Agatha Christie, what harm could there by in trying to write a mystery?

What happened next was mind-blowing. I was much more invested in this idea than I ever was with my last project. I started plotting and researching and pantsing (more on this later) on some days. I was excited to write or research in some fashion every single day, despite having a demanding full-time job. It inspired me to finish my author website, to begin this blog, to reach out to others who are not yet published so that we can share our successes and our challenges, to reach out to future readers who would (gulp!) give me feedback.

Essentially, I gave myself permission to believe in myself.

Incredibly successful blogger and writer Jeff Goins pointed out that our hesitations may actually be because “we’re insecure, we don’t believe we have anything to offer, we think we’ll fail.” He also added that “no one’s going to give you permission to be yourself.”

And that’s the point: Give yourself permission. Permission to try. Permission to fail. Permission to succeed. (Need an extra kick in the pants? Read Elissa Altman’s guest post at Krista Tippett’s site, On Being.) 

Readers AND writers, have you ever had to go through this permission-giving process with yourselves, whether about writing or general life-events? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

Sign up HERE to get my blog posts delivered to your mailbox. You can always read them here, but email subscribers will receive extras along the way! Sign up today and receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me.