NaNoWriMo has come and gone for another year. For those of you who do not know what that is, it’s a challenge for writers (or, if you fudge the rules a little, for any creative pursuit) to write at least 50k words on a new project in 30 days.
When it comes to the NaNoWriMo challenge — and writing in general — I am very much a “pantser,” someone who writes by the seat of their pants without any sort of outline. The opposite of a planner, I generally just put my fingers to the keyboard and let the words fly. I’ve been a pantser probably for the majority of the nine or so years I’ve been doing NaNo.
Due to that, there are a few lessons and takeaways I’ve figured out as a NaNo pantser.
1. It’s Freeing
Some writers swear by their outlines, which is great. They’re able to write without worrying about getting stuck in the middle of their story, for their trusty outlines always show them where to go.
To me, though, writing with an outline feels too restricting. It is true that sometimes I flounder with where the story should go or run out of steam on a longer piece, but I prefer to figure the story out as I go. My stories tend to be character-driven and the few outlines I’ve used in the past tend to eventually clash with the characters’ ideas.
2. Breaking Through Blocks
Outlines are supposed to prevent writer’s blocks, I know. Yet, what do you do when your characters become real enough to direct the story themselves and decide your outline isn’t right? Even with an outline, blocks can still happen to stories.
As a pantser, I’m adept at plowing through those blocks. Rather, I know it’s okay to ignore them until I can return to chip away at them, brick by brick. Parts of the story that I know will need to change I just stick in brackets and caps, the kind of font that will stick out when I reread it later, before I keep writing.
Know that, as a pantser, I’m going to encounter blocks probably more often than planners, I’ve had ample practice in not getting stuck on said blocks. Especially for first drafts, it has helped me keep my writing momentum.
3. Cutting Out Scenes
Sometimes, scenes and ideas appear in stories as I write along that are so ridiculous or downright bad that I know in my heart it’s going to be cut out of the next draft.
And that’s okay.
Getting overly attached to characters and scenes is something that, as a writer, I’ve learned to grow out of. I believe that being a pantser has helped me learn that lesson faster than if I had been a planner.
It’s difficult to lovingly craft a scene and characters only to cut them mercilessly out of existence when it becomes apparent that they do nothing for the final version of the story. Sure, they’re concepts may be saved in your scraps file or notebook, but it still hurts a bit to rip them out of the world in which they were born.
However, sometimes it’s necessary for the sake of the story. As a pantser, I tend to have quite a few scenes and characters that can be cut or combined by the time the first draft of a story is over. NaNoWriMo projects are no exception — in fact, with the speed at which they are written, there are bound to be words that will be cut. I’ve become more comfortable with trimming when necessary since I’ve realized I’m a pantser.
4. The Journey, Not the Destination
Writing is a journey. I love churning out a story, not quite sure where it’ll end up, and pantsing is the best way to go about it. Give me a couple of characters, maybe a sentence or two of setting, and let me go. I’ll figure out the plot and motivations as I write, and be excited to do so.
Part of writing is the discovery of where your words will lead you to, with how your characters develop, with why your world has certain quirks. Planners work hard and figure all of that out beforehand, but I love the magic of discovering those answers as I write a story.
Throughout these years, I’ve grown as a writer and it’s fascinating to me to see how my stories grow themselves as I write them on the fly. As E.L. Doctorow said:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”