Friday, October 08, 2010

Pantser Writing and NaNoWriMo

Recently on a published authors email loop, the subject of an upcoming NaNoWriMo and writing "seat-of-the-pants" came up. An author who's more used to outlining wondered if pure pantster writing could be accomplished when one isn't used to it. This author asked for others' opinions. What followed was an interesting discussion on techniques of writing.

You would surely recognize the names of these authors, but I have purposely left off all names and genres so I could retain permission to post the discussion here. I'm running the original email and answers in order that they were posted on the loop.

I turn in book 1 in a series on Oct. 15. I am thinking of writing book 2 as a NaNo, since NaNoWriMo is coming up in November. For those of you unfamiliar with it, that's an annual challenge to write a 50k word
novel in one month, November. You can go here for more info.

Now, I've never done a complete pantser novel. But I'd like to try. My theory is that structure is so wired into me now I'll be able to do pretty much what I need to do. And second, I've always said that a fast, panster first draft is usually a "super outline" for the book that is to come. IOW, there will be a lot of editing, etc., but you will have "discovered" the book you are to write this way.

Now, outline people (OPs) do this before they write, in a more structured way, which is fine. Whatever works. I'm sort of a 'tweener. I've never done a complete pantser draft, but the timing seems right
and I thought, what the hey?

So to you pure pantsers out there (and you know who you are.) How much do you know before you start to write? Have you done any character work? Do you have numerous scene images in mind? Or do you
just fly completely blind?

I'm more of a pantster with every book. I just hate to outline because it ruins the book for me. No fun of discovery. :( I often even change who the villain is. I start off with an inciting incident and that's about it now as long as that inciting incident is strong enough. I do a little character work but that often changes as the novel goes on. I THINK I know where I'm going to land but even that often changes.

Cut the ropes holding you down. Fly free! :)

I'm a complete pantster, and I have to admit there are times when I hate it. Usually two weeks after I've missed my deadline. But I don't miss my deadline because of the lack of outline. It is usually something physical small things like almost dying. I told my very understanding editor that I think deadlines make me sick.

So I usually know the beginning scene, the inciting incident, and the final scene. I identify my main characters with either actors in a particular role or with people I know. I don't have any scene images in my head barring the three I mentioned. If I get stuck, I lean back, close my eyes, and imagine I am watching my book as a movie. That almost always works.

I have oodles of teen friends and some adults who do the NaNoWriMo. Go for it. If it doesn't work, you've only lost a month.

I usually know the opening scene and my main characters. I often have already done my autobiographies of those two characters so that I know their history. I write first person stream of consciousness autobiographies from birth to the moment my story opens. This is when I let my imagination play. By knowing their history, I know their motivations and how they will react when surprises come along (and for a pantser, everything's a surprise ).

I start out with a Scripture verse and plan to write a story around that theme that is relevant to life in the twenty-first century. Then I blindly type a prologue. I honestly have no idea what's going to come out of me at this stage. This is actually the most fun part of writing a book for me. I might work on it for days until I'm pleased with it and have an idea where the story is going. Then I choose a setting, make up a cast of characters (this changes but it's a good start), and begin brainstorming until I have a pretty good storyline--at least one that would work. I work on a basic synopsis worthy of turning in to the publisher, but it ALWAYS changes. As I write the story (from start to finish, editing as I go), the characters develop and drive the story, and there are usually a number of twists and turns I had no idea about--and a deeper message than I started with. But when I'm finished, it's always a better story than what I presented to the publisher. I've done many novels this way and not had the publisher disappointed yet.

I will say that this is a much riskier (and sometimes stressful) approach than working from an outline I could actually follow. But I've tried sticking to an outline. I get to B and everything starts to change. It's truly a waste of time for me. I ENVY the OPs!

I'm pretty much a pantser. Just about the only thing I have before I start writing is the proposal that sold the idea. Usually a short blurb (synopsis that's more like a back cover idea) and the first three chapters (generally written off the cuff that need serious editing and all total are about 10 pages long.) Once the proposal sells, that's when I spend the time getting to know my characters a little more. I start with Randy Ingermanson's character sketch (thanks Randy), fill that out in detail, then go from there. I generally have an idea of the scene that I want to start the book with and that's about it. The scenes come as I write. It's kind of like transposing a movie that I'm watching in my head. And while it's fun to see where my characters take me, I wish I were more of a plotter. {Shrug} But I'm not and whatever I do seems to work for me. Being a pantser isn't the worst thing you can be.

"If Mr. Keats and myself are strolling in a meadow, lounging on a sofa or staring into a wall, do not presume we're not working. Doing nothing is the musing of the poet."

That quote from Bright Star applies perfectly to how I write as a pantser. I think I don't have ANYTHING done on my book, but once I finally sit down to actually write, I realize I've actually been getting to know my characters and even some of my plot while I do laundry, go for walks, and play Lineup on my iPhone. ; )

With my last few books, I have been trying to outline a few chapters ahead, and I can see the value in it, even though my story RARELY follows that outline. The value come in tricking me into thinking I have a compass pointing a certain direction (so I'm not facing a blank page). Once I start putting words on the page, walking the path my outline has told me to, I can veer off on any stinkin' trail I choose, but at least I don't feel like I'm lost in the middle of a forest with no way out when I first sit down to my computer each day.

As a pantser, I end up chucking hundreds if not thousands of words because a particular direction I took didn't work, but I don't think those words are any different than the words you outliners write in planning your story. I just accept backtracking and re-dos as part of the writing journey.

How about you? Ever purposely tried to change the way you write? I've given up trying. What ultimately works for me, works for me. Even if it gives me fits along the way.


Timothy Fish said...

When I first began to write, I tried the pantser method. I found myself having trouble remembering what I had written and where I was headed. I decided that was rediculous. I outlined what I had already written, added to it what I planned to write and I never looked back.

Pamela Meyers said...

I'm definitely a plotter, but within the framework of the outline I give my characters freedom to surprise me and they usually do. It's so fun when that happens! So I do get the thrill of discovery that way, but the plot is the thing that is the glue and keeps me on target.
I think maybe this goes along with our temperaments. I am definitely not Sanguine. Phlegmatic and melancholy. Like schedules, clocks, always on time, even a bit early. Not spontaneous. And I am a plotter LOL.

Linda B said...

I always thought I was a plotter. I teach kids to plot. I’m a big believer in it. I just don’t do it. I know my characters and I know roughly what direction I want the story to take, but once I start writing the characters commandeer the plot and I just try to keep up with them. So far I always end up with a better, deeper plot than I had originally envisioned. But I always keep a file open while I’m writing where I can record everything from characters’ names and relationships to timelines to street or place names to foods mentioned.

Heather said...

I used to detest outlining because I associated it with schoolwork essays. After I wrote two novels (which I sincerely hope never see the light of day in their present condition), I realized that some sort of outlining would help. So now I do a synopsis and a very loose outline of the major events in the book as well as character sketches. But I still leave enough room for characters to run with the story, because they will rebel no matter how I try to corral them. ;0)

Sara Harricharan said...

I'm a pantser writer. I do tend to work out some of the finer points in my head and scribble a few notes on plot or characters before I start. Sometimes I'll just hold onto the idea about a week before I write it, turning it different ways in my head, but for NaNo I usually don't put too much into prepwork. This is my fifth NaNo and while the novels from the previous years are in various stages of editing, I'm pretty happy with it. Because, if I didn't have it written, I wouldn't have anything to work with. I mainly use NaNoWriMo as a tool to get the story out and then I work with it from there. ^_^

Gin said...

One thing to note is that you are not required to start blank slate for NaNoWriMo - you can plot all you want until 12:01 am Nov 1. The it's BIC HOK (Butt In Chair, Hands On keyboard) and turn off the internal editor. As a plotter, it's a real rush for me to do this every November.

Anonymous said...

I wish I new if I was a plotter or a pantser. Maybe I'm a bit of both. I have only one novel written, and when I drafted it, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. So more than anything, I guess I'm a reviser. Presently, I'm pretty stuck. I've tried outlining another book. And I've tried just sitting down and hacking out the draft. Neither is working very well. Seems like if I only knew what my writing style was . . . then I could write. I'm considering NaNoWriMo as a tool to push myself off the diving board.

benning said...

I always start as a 'pantser'. Scenes pop into my head, or even the inkling of a character, and off I go. However, for any long piece, I usually wind up with an outline. Nothing in-depth, just 'Harry heads inland'-type of things. I do this because I lose the train of where the heck I'm heading! :)

benning said...

vv, why not look at one of your characters, then give that character something? An egg, a small paring knife. Add something to your vision, then see where it takes you. ;)

Mark Entner said...

I'm in the middle of writing my first novel. I'm still trying to figure out what type of writer I am. I seem to still be going back and forth. I'll do an outline but then what I write doesn't necessarily match the outline. Hopefully I'll figure out what works for me before I start my next book. :-)