Pants are optional. Plans are not.

I’ve tried lots and lots of different things in the pursuit of cultivating story ideas. As an avid NaNoWriMo participant, many of my manuscripts have been an exercise in pantsing, where the story develops while my fingers are typing it. However, I’ve found over the years that a pure pantsing technique doesn’t work that well for me. For one thing, my characters tend to lead me off in strange and unpredictable directions (a phenomenon many NaNo novelists experience in November), but those directions are often dead-ends, and boring ones at that. For another, when I approach a novel with absolutely no planning at all, the ending tends to be…not. No wrap-up, no conclusion, no sense of fulfillment. That’s less than ideal for both me and my prospective readers.

The alternative to pantsing is careful, meticulous planning. Outlining every scene, detailing every setpiece, crafting thorough background stories for characters and extensive histories for your world. I know many authors absolutely love this process of world-building, and I’ve certainly dabbled in it and enjoyed it as well. I’ve taken online classes that explore theme, and the hero’s adventure, and story arcs, and all kinds of other very important things.I’ve filled a white board with color-coded index cards, and used Scrivener to map out every scene, character, and setting in meticulous detail. I’ve even gone so far as to try rigid plotting techniques like the Snowflake approach.The problem I’ve had with these methods is that by the time I get to the actual novel-writing, I’m bored. All the excitement of creativity is leeched out of me during the outline process, leaving me uninspired and disinterested. Clearly not the right mindset for tackling a novel-length writing exercise.

So, my current approach is a contentious compromise. I still tend to enjoy an organic pantsing approach, and November often creeps up on me while my story ideas are still barely beyond the conception phase. But I’ve learned over time to spend at least a little bit of time during the writing process to jot down some high-level planning to keep me going the right direction. I usually have a pretty good idea of who my cast of main characters will be. I try to come up with unique names that resonate with me (and I try to use a different letter of the alphabet for each character. I read somewhere that a famous author does that, and it sounded clever for no good reason. So, yeah). I always write down details on some major set pieces for the beginning, middle, and end of my story, and I try to have at least a few “push the protagonist(s) down the stairs” moments envisioned in advance – scenes where I do terrible things to my characters that force them to act, to decide, to commit, and ultimately to become better people.

I also set a tight leash on my characters during the writing process: if, while writing, a character wants to take me completely off-track from my pre-conceived plan, I take a step back from my manuscript, remind myself that my characters are fictional and cannot actually make me do anything, and then make a conscious decision to either pursue the detour or ignore it. My NaNo mantra: No detours without deliberation.

As for evaluating good vs. bad ideas, I don’t even try any more. I think it’s very challenging for a writer to give themselves enough distance from their work to recognize all of the flaws and weaknesses that inevitably exist in a rough draft. Instead, I believe it’s critical to seek peer evaluation for your writing. Getting multiple critiques from others, particularly from people that are willing to be critical and honest with your writing, is invaluable for spotting plot holes, identifying inconsistent character actions, monitoring pace and flow, and even spotting simple spelling and grammatical issues.

4 Comments

  • Nancy Cayton Myers says:

    Great post! I always appreciate hearing how others approach the work and your process and discovery of what works for you def. resonates with me. The “sit down and hope it works out” approach doesn’t work for me, but the “planned to death” approach is too much like my day to day life to be any fun at all. Hmm. I’m seeing some parallels here! Like I said, great post!

  • Kevin Wohler says:

    For me, the pantster approach didn’t work at all. I can write all day, but without direction any semblance of a story is lost. Scrivener has helped me lay out a roadmap for my novel, and its color-coded cards work for me. But within this outline, I allow my characters to go anywhere they want. And they often surprise me by showing me a solution to a problem I hadn’t recognized.

    • Ted Boone says:

      I’ve found that most wannabe writers that have stuck with it for a while always come to some compromise between planning and pantsing. Too much planning sucks the creativity well dry, too little planning and one’s story goes nowhere (or everywhere). The interesting part is where on the spectrum (between no planning and complete planning) writers fall.

  • Jason Arnett says:

    I’m with you, Ted, on needing enough notes to make sure I hit beats where I want to but overplanning kills my enthusiasm for the story. There needs to be enough to discover as you go along to make it worthwhile to write it in the first place.

    I get lost when I don’t have any notes. I can’t pants-write. That said, when I have that ‘oh wow’ moment in a writing piece (and I had a couple of them this last November) it just fuels the fire that I’m going in the right direction for the story to be best served. Great explanation of process here.

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