NaNoWriMo Week 4: Planning or Pantsing

I have now written one complete novel and nine-tenths of another. For my first novel, I went through a robust planning process. I did the incomplete novel during NaNoWriMo, where my only plan was a vague idea of an opening scene.

I wrote my first novel over the course of about a year as part of my MFA program. With everything planned and diagrammed out, I still had to fill some gaps as I went along.

Now that I’m most of the way done with two novels, I think I can speak with some certainty on planning a novel versus going from the seat of your pants.

To Plan or Not To Plan

The quality of a writers’s plan can make or break a novel.

A poor plan sets a writer up for failure. A good plan stays out of the way and provides guidance when things go off the rail.

The question of planning then has two parts:

  1. What is the cost of a plan?
  2. What does a plan do for me as a writer?

We’ll discuss the cost of the plan at length, but first a quick aside on why writers plan.

If you cannot plan, then it’s somewhat useless putting efforts into doing so. However, planning gets its value from setting you up to write a novel that’s worth writing.

Without a plan, you run into two major potential points of failure. First, you might have a great idea, but cannot bring it to fruition. Planning can help with this, though it’s obviously not the only skill a writer needs.

The other point of failure comes from starting out with an awful idea and winding up with a lot of time invested in writing something that doesn’t work outside your head.

In my opinion, this is the most important part of planning: you want to weed out things that don’t work to keep your effort in a place where it can bear fruit.

It’s also worth noting that the quality of a story is in its engineering and its art, not its plan itself. Plans just help make sure that the quality’s high and keep you from running out of road half-way through the journey.

Planning Has A Cost…

Planning is nice, but it is expensive.

A good plan for a novel doesn’t have to be large. For instance, I use a four-step process to weed out weak story ideas.

The whole overall process of planning for my first novel took three months. Some of this was contemporary with writing some introductory scenes, and I was writing other short fiction pieces, so it wasn’t a full-time effort.

MFA classes set the timeframe for that. The full process is faster for dedicated writers who know what they’re doing.

But does any writer know what they’re doing?

For a complex narrative of novel length you’re probably going to sketch out at least a dozen or couple dozen scene descriptions, a half-dozen character backgrounds, and some setting elements if you’re writing in an exotic setting.

This is just my gut estimate from what I’ve seen. I did a “basic” outline. People like Lisa Cron (whose book Story Genius lays out an in-depth planning process) do more.

The problem with planning is that it’s not writing. As far as problems go, it shares this quality with everything else in your life.

But since it’s taking up time for writing, make sure it counts.

… And You Can Live Without It…

That didn’t happen for my NaNoWriMo novel. I took an old game setting I worked on, threw out 90% of it, and kept a couple names and the general conceit of a post-World War III cyberpunk universe.

Before I knew it, I wrote more on my NaNoWriMo novel than I have on any other spontaneous text. I am averaging over two thousand words a day so far, and this week’s focus has been my upcoming non-fiction book Herding Your Cats rather than that novel.

My intent with NaNoWriMo is clearing my head to revise my first novel. I’ll have had basically a month between sketching out my first novel’s final scene and starting the revision process in my MFA capstone.

That just doesn’t feel like it’s long enough to be approaching it with fresh eyes to me, so writing another novel in the meantime lets me reset my mindset (and hopefully learn some new lessons).

Naturally, since I have very specific time limitations on my NaNoWriMo process, I need to keep it to the designated timeframe.

The consequence of this has been launching into writing without a plan. The central idea interested me, but of the four protagonists only one existed at the start of the process.

And, I’ll say this, the time to quality ratio has been good.

… But You Get What You Pay For

However, this is a second effort, not a first effort. I’ve also been writing semi-professionally for several years now, and while most wasn’t creative writing I am doing an MFA to pick up the trade.

I’m also cerebral. I’ve written blog series on story structures, taught English to middle-schoolers, studied Jung and Campbell, and really spent quite too much time in books.

That engineering side of the story is something that’s a conscious part of my writing process. I think in terms of placement, with very strong hierarchal consciousness of the elements of my story. “Okay, that increased the tension,” I’ll tell myself after finishing a writing sprint. “The next part has to show the consequences of the character’s actions.”

I couldn’t do that before my first novel, and I couldn’t do that without all the time I’ve sunk into reading about writing and writing about writing. I’ve broken down dozens of stories for analysis, including on the fly at students’ prompting.

It’s also worth noting that I have hit a few walls. My key beginning, middle, and end scenes came first, without a central framework. That leaves a lot of gaps to fill.

I can also guarantee that the process of going back and turning characters into their finished selves will be a pain and half. My first novel, with planned characters, didn’t have that problem. There are voice issues, but it is more of a “I changed perspective half-way through the manuscript and like the second one better” than a “oops, I didn’t know who she was when I started writing” problem.

A key take-away: whatever time you save in the planning process gets paid for in revision.

Whatever time you save in the planning process gets paid for in revision. Share on X

With that said, I learned a lot from writing a novel with essentially no plan.

Wrapping Up

Planning often elicits a dogmatic response. The fundamental reason for this is that it is actually a useful part of the writing process, and everyone who’s done it well has seen it.

But planning can’t fix a troubled story. It might help you avoid sinking effort into an idea that won’t go anywhere. However, it only works as far as the planning capabilities of the writer let it.

There is also a cost to excessive planning: too much planning wastes writing time and is little better than procrastination. Writers pay a price for writing without a clear idea of the story they’re writing, so some plan is better than no plan.

The question is finding the golden compromise. You want to plan enough to write, then get to writing. I lean toward starting early and getting into the process, but that’s a personal judgment based on my own preferences as a writer.

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