Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NaNoWriMo Essentials for Noob Pantsers I

In approximately 4.5 weeks I'm going to do NaNoWriMo again, even though we're going to VEGAS to get MARRIED after the first week. Even better, I think I've got Mr. B primed to give NaNo a go as well.

It's crazy talk, and I know it.

Problem is, crisis of confidence aside, NaNo is just plain fun. NaNo doesn't care how you do it; all NaNo wants you to do is sit down, shut up, and write 1667 words per day for 30 days. For no good reason, other than at the end you get to say you've written a novel.

How can that not be fun?

Last year, pre-NaNo, I went looking for guidance. Hell, I had never written anything even remotely like a novel before and I had no idea how to approach it. I found blogs and sites where writers had very generously offered up spreadsheets and forms and guidelines about what needed to be done in preparation. Perfect! All I would have to do is fill out the forms and follow the instructions, and I would have my story laid out for me.

Not surprisingly, it didn't quite work out that way. Really, there's no way it could have worked for me. As much as I am drawn to forms and guidelines and the order they promise to bring to my chaotic existence, I am almost always disappointed by them because there is usually no option for 'it depends', my default answer to almost any question. So I cobbled together what I could and winged it.

During my post-NaNo immersion in all things writerly, I learned about Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters are people who use spreadsheets and word counts per scene and index cards and maps and have the entire story figured out before they write the opening sentence. They have a method and a plan, and they stick to it. There is a LOT of information out there for Plotters because, predictably, Plotters like that kind of stuff.

Pantsers (aka seat-of-the-pants writers) tend to go with the flow. I had found my people! Unlike some brave souls, I couldn't quite bring myself to show up on 1 November completely empty-handed -- I do have an inconvenient aversion to failure -- but, being a non-writer, I couldn't find a lot of advice that I could relate to. It's a lot easier to 'pants it' if you already know something about writing fiction.

So with another NaNo staring me in the face and Mr. B wondering how to prepare, I got to thinking: What's the very least a hesitant, inexperienced, failure-adverse Pantser needs to do to have a chance at reaching the NaNo goal?

As a veteran of one whole successful* NaNoWriMo, I am eminently qualified to give absolutely no advice, but that's not going to stop me. Shut the door, pull up a chair, and I'll share with you my secrets, which have a proven track record of one for one.

NaNoWriMo Essentials for Noob Pantsers, Part I
The who, what, and where of it all
What are your favorite types books to read? You'll probably be happiest writing in that genre. I'm a hard-core contemporary fantasy girl -- I love stories set in the real world but with an element of magic mixed in, so that's what I'm sticking with.

Start with a main character and a main problem: What would happen to this type of person if this unexpected thing happened? Like, what would happen if a young actress discovered she could get any part she auditioned for by (fill in the blank) but eventually it starts backfiring? Would hilarity ensue, or tragedy? Your call.

Consider your character's history, physical appearance, goals, motivations, family, etc. Basing your character on people you know saves a lot of time. Pick a physical feature here, an annoying personality trait there, and you'll have it figured out in no time. There may be a sidekick and/or a nemesis involved and you'll want to know their story, too. Other characters can be created on the fly as long as you know who is going to be center stage.

Figuring out who your main character is and what makes him/her tick will make it easier to predict how s/he's going to react when the shit hits the fan. And the shit will hit the fan because, after all, that's really the point of a novel, isn't it?

Where/when does the story take place? Again, if the setting is real world, modeling it after an area you're familiar with eliminates a whole layer of work. Sounds silly, but it does help to have a rough mental map of where the character's apartment is in relation to the office, etc. Some people draw detailed maps, etc., but as a true Pantser, I don't want to have to work that hard if I'm not going to get graded on it.

If you're creating fantasy/science fiction worlds or beings, you'll probably want to spend a good portion of time thinking about the 'rules' of the planet/culture/beings you're creating. The further removed from our world/time, the more you'll need to think about. Again, it helps you to know what will happen next if you're already familiar with who/what/where/when they are and what they're about.

If you are lucky enough to have a sense of where the story is going to go once the main problem is laid out, even better. It's a bonus to have a rough idea of where you want to end up, even if the target changes as the story unfolds.

OK, you've got a character or two, a problem, a setting, and, if you're lucky, and idea of how it all might come out. Write it down, either by hand or on the computer.
And that's about it. For real. We're just doing this for fun, remember? It really doesn't have to get any more complicated than that.

Last year, once I gave up on the spreadsheets and forms, I ended up with three documents. One contained a brief summary of my main characters, one described the culture, history, and goals (and, curiously enough, the detailed reproductive habits) of the practically-immortal beings that were going to fuck up her life (literally and figuratively, as it turned out), and the third contained a very rough idea of how I thought the storyline might go down. I didn't know for sure how it was going to end, and that kind of freaked me out, but it turned out not to be a big deal. Once I got the story going it really only made sense for it to end one way.

Sure, lots (most) of the things I had figured out ended up changing, but that's OK. When 11/1/08 rolled around, at least I had a feel for who I was writing about and what was going to happen to her that day.

Do you have a story in you? Want to see if the NaNoWriMo thing works for you? Then your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to do a little pre-thinking, a little pre-writing, wait until November 1st, then let go and let your mind tell you a story. All you have to do is write it down.

Oh yeah, be sure to visit the NaNoWriMo site and sign up. They haven't quite fired it up for the 2009 season, but it gets busy towards the end of October so beating the rush is advised. Need encouragement from a master? Pick up No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. It's an excellent guide.

Be sure to let me know, too, and check back next week for Part II. Hopefully by then I'll have figured out what Part II is going to be about.

Sorry, I'm a Pantser.

* Success is defined as writing 50K words and completing the story before midnight November 30th. Quality is not a factor. ;)


  1. Congratulations! You've written 1,667 words!

    As appealing as it sounds, uh, no.

    I plan on *drinking* at your wedding.

    You write. Both of you.

  2. ET's Much Older SisterSeptember 30, 2009 at 3:52 PM

    Uh, yeah, me too. I'd like to try it, but I'll be recovering from surgery the first half of October. I don't think I'll be able to find my way to the bathroom, much less write anything coherent, including -- according to my doctor -- checks.

    I look forward to hearing from ET how the writing goes on the day of the wedding.


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