Pantser? or Planner?
It’s now about halfway through November, which means that it’s halfway through National Novel Writing Month. My Sunday Musings blog post series started with a NaNo introduction and a post about my personal NaNo experiences. This week I’m talking about one of the most burning questions in the writing community as a whole and more specifically for NaNo writers – panster or planner?
These are both concepts that have become popular with writers over the years but I first heard about them from the NaNo Prep website in 2013. It never occurred to me to really think about my own process of writing in those terms until then. Writing anything, but especially a novel, is a daunting task. We’re talking about not just completing a work of quantity with a word count more than most of us struggle with today in our Twitter dominated world but also building a story with characters and locations that seem real and will keep a reader’s interest across the massive number of pages.
The term “pantser” refers to the writer who dives into a writing project without first making a plan. He or she writes “by the seat of his/her pants” (hence, the name). The idea is to let spontaneity take hold and the creative process flow, going wherever the story leads you. In contrast a planner (or, as it’s sometimes called, plotter, though I like planner better since these type of writers usually address more than just plot) is really just what the word implies – the writer who plans out his or her stories, building an outline or a map to the story, characters, location, and other aspects of the novel. Here, organization takes hold rather than blind faith.
There is much to be said for both writing styles. It’s definitely fun to just sit down in front of the computer or a notebook, start typing or writing, and see what happens. It also lets the writer fall into the story like a reader would, watching from the sidelines for surprises and delights to see where the story will go. Some writers also say that planning their novels takes all the suspense out of the writing process. However, pantsing it doesn’t always work, especially for a longer work like a novel. Novels are very complex in terms of story and characters and even novels that might seem formulaic (like romances or mysteries) still need to have twists and turns that keep readers engaged. I think especially for writers who are still learning their craft (and most of us are in that position, even if we’ve been writing for many years), it’s tempting to follow the myth that all a writer needs to be successful is a fertile imagination. The reality is that being a writer is a commitment that needs some structure and planning just like any other career.
On the other side of the coin, there is a satisfaction in planning out a story and knowing how it’s going to begin and end and how you’re going to get from one point to another. Planning a novel helps writers stay on the path of their story without going into a million little interesting but irrelevant tangents. It also helps writers avoid bringing in too many characters that might populate the story too much and confuse readers. Lest we forget, writing a novel is a big deal for anyone, whether you’ve never written one before or have written fifty, so it’s almost always an anxiety-ridden task. Planning a novel helps ease the anxiety, since you always know where you’re going. But many writers find novel plans or outlines too constricting. It’s no wonder, since we’ve been taught from grade school the outline structure, complete with Roman numerals (and word processing programs like Word don’t help with their automatic formats in outline mode) and most of us remember how being told to write one for a paper was like a jail sentence. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that since we made the outline, we can change it at any time so it can seem like we can’t stray from it.
There really isn’t one way to write a novel and I think that most writers falls somewhere along the continuum of these, perhaps pantsing a little more or planning a little more. For something like NaNo, where you have a ticking time bomb and a certain number of words that you’re trying to get through, I’ve seen that many writers do at least some planning even if it’s not a blow-by-blow outline of every scene in the novel.
Next week, Week 4 of Nano, I’ll talk about some of the criticisms of NaNo and some of its drawbacks.
http://nanowrimo.org/nano-prep (explanation of panster vs planner as part of the prep page on the NaNoWriMo website)
https://www.autocrit.com/editing/library/plotter-or-pantser-the-best-of-both-worlds/ (a nice article outlining the virtues of planning)
http://www.rowena-cory-daniells.com/about/writing-craft/plotters-vs-pantsers/ (general article on planners and pantsers)