Are you a Pantser? Should you be a Planner?

As we hurtle with terrifying speed towards the November 1st start date of Nanowrimo the debate that sparks every October has begun again. Should you plan out your novel, or should you fly by the seat of your pants? Or as it is more commonly asked: Are you a Planner, or a Pantser?

For those of you who might not be familiar, Nanowrimo is “”. I’ve won twice now, once with my upcoming novel #Tyrant, and once with an earlier project that is sadly sitting, covered in dust (I really should do something about that). For that first project, so long ago, I wrote by the seat of my pants. I had a beginning, I had an ending, I had characters and a world. I’d be fine, right?

Well, I made it, but it was with many tears and some swears I didn’t even know I knew. Every time I turned around I was slamming into walls of ‘wait, but why would they do that?’ or ‘how would they even get there?’ I fought through writer’s block after writer’s block. I fell behind, I caught up, I wrote and wrote and wrote and I hated every minute of it.

In my last blog post “Why are writers so afraid to have fun?” I talked about how writers are so focused on ‘getting published’ that they end up writing things they hate just because they think it will sell better. They end up hating what their writing, and worse, hating writing.

This is another facet of that. Why make yourself absolutely miserable, trying to force out 1666 words a day when you don’t know where you’re going? Why not take the time before hand and plot out your map? That way when you sit down you don’t have to be worrying about the ‘what now?’ problem. All you have to do is write.

I think there are two main things stopping people from planning;

The first thing that holds a lot of us back (I know it was definitely the fear in my case) is the idea that planning is hard. The idea of writing out character sheets, settings, maps, and plot boards sounds like, well, like homework! S.J, didn’t you say we should have FUN writing?

My response: You’re going to have to do all of that anyways! The problem with doing it LATER is that I can guarantee you are going to have to do a LOT of rewriting. You are going to forget if you character has blue eyes or green, if he was a blacksmith or a chef. You are going to make more mistakes this way, and hunting them all down later is awful.

The second reason people seem to avoid planning? They just want to ‘go where inspiration takes them’. They want to let their muse guide them. They want to allow the story to grow organically, naturally and without fences.

My response: My friend, meet writer’s block. I talk to tons of writers, all the time, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that people who refuse to plan because they want their story to grow organically are ALWAYS more prone to writer’s block. They follow rabbit trails that lead nowhere and have to delete pages and pages of work. They end up giving up on the story all together because they have gotten themselves so tied up in side characters and plots that they don’t even know what direction is up anymore.

Planning gives you a skeleton to work on. Just like a sculpture builds a metal frame beneath the clay, just like a painter sketches the ideas onto the canvas, we need to have the basic idea sorted out BEFORE we start work on our masterpieces. This doesn’t mean you can’t let things grow and change organically – of course they do! The protagonist of Tyrant is a completely different woman than I though she was going to be when I started out.

But don’t build your house on sand, folks. Give yourself a solid footing, especially in a marathon run like Nanowrimo.

Now, you might be saying “Okay. You’ve convinced me. But HOW?”

I can help you there! There are a couple of resources and people that have given me SO MUCH HELP in the last few years, and I know they will be great for you too (I don’t get commission on this, I promise. There are just plain old, useful links).

“The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler – This is an oldie but a GOODIE. It’s aimed at screenwriters, but if you call yourself a writer in any sense, grab this book. You will not regret it. It lays out stories and why they work, basing itself off of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ by Joseph Cambell (which is also an amazing book, but a little harder to chew through. Vogler has done a nice job of modernizing Cambell and breaking it down for us non-academia types).

The Plotting Workshop by Shaunta Grimes – Shaunta Grimes runs Ninja Writers, an awesome online writing group that supports and works together to get things DONE. Her plotting workshop breaks down planning a novel into wonderfully easy, bite sized bits. She often offers the workshop for free, so make sure to keep an eye out for that!

Nanowrimo.org – There are SO many resources in their archives and forums I don’t even know where to start. Go, sign up, explore. Thousands of people congregate there every day to help you figure out how to get yourself fighting fit for November. Right from story ideas to world building, they are there to get your story written.

So what do you think? Are you a plotting convert, or a staunch planner? Either way, if you want #guiltfreeswag to show your loyalty, you can find it here!

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S.J. Penner

Author of the upcoming series #Tyrant, artist, and inveterate dabbler. Creator of #guiltfreeswag for writers and gamers at Coffee Ink where 100% of proceeds go to Red Cross Emergency Services.

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