4 Pantsing Methods for NaNoWriMo

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So, NaNoWriMo is about to start, and you haven’t got a plot. Don’t panic! Writing a novel without a comprehensive plan is an exciting endeavour, and it is definitely not impossible. The fun in pantsing is in the uncertainty; rather than painting-by-numbers, you get to create your story piece by piece, and discover the story along with the reader.

As you write, the emotions, twists and surprises can be authentic in a way that a planned novel may not be. This might mean that the first draft has some inconsistencies or things that need to be changed, but those can always be fixed during revisions. The most important thing when pantsing is to push through the fear of not knowing what to do next, because that’s when your most powerful ideas can shine through.

Here are 4 methods of writing a novel without a plan (and without panic).

1. The Dice Method

This method may provide you with the zaniest, craziest, strangest novel you can imagine—but it will be a hell of a lot of fun writing it! The first step is similar to the third exercise for finding the perfect novel idea.

Spend a few hours collecting ideas from as many sources as you can think of, and include any ideas you come up with. If you have an idea of the tone or genre of the novel you want to write, it’s fine to cater the prompts appropriately. Places to look for prompts include the genre boards on the NaNoWriMo forums, the dares thread, TV Tropes, the NaNoWriMo Adoption Society board, plot or character generators, and Any. Other. Writing. Prompt. Site.

As you find your prompts, organise them in a way you can easily navigate them. Separate them into different sections (‘new character’, ‘plot twist’, ‘secrets revealed’, etc.) and number each prompt. When it is time to start writing, use an online random number generator to randomly select the prompt you must include next. You can choose to randomly generate a prompt from one particular section, or from the whole list. If you don’t have an idea of where you want to start your novel, try randomly generating three prompts and figuring out how you’re going to mash them together.

2. The plan-as-you-go method

This is a more serious method than the random generator method, and it provides a structure for your writing while still giving you the freedom that pantsing provides. This method kills the staring-at-a-blank-page form of writer’s block, and allows you to write with a short-term plan so that you know where you’re going as you’re writing each day, but gives you the flexibility of not having a plan for the whole novel.

At the end of your writing session each day, plan out what will happen next. You can do this in as much or as little detail as you’d like, but give yourself at least an idea of where you’re going.  Sketch out a couple of scenes, or decide which character’s plotline will be followed next, or pick a question or plot hole that needs to be answered. The key is to give yourself enough detail that you won’t be stuck, but not so much that you won’t be inspired to write it.

Then, when you sit down to write the next day, you will already have an idea of how to start (and, if you’re no longer feeling it, it won’t matter if you abandon ship because you’re not following a long-term plan).

3. The random destination method

This method positions you as a kind of story detective. Your job is to unravel the clues to figure out what the story is, and how all of its elements mesh together. You might not quite understand what you are writing until halfway through the month—and that’s half the fun.

As you write each day, write random pieces from throughout your novel that don’t necessarily match up. Try to write in a non-linear fashion; try to use the same characters (sometimes), but don’t be bound by your setting or plot elements. Write scenes that interest you and excite you and show different sides of your writing and your characters and your ideas, even if they might clash.

Then, at the end of each writing session, start to build an outline. Put each scene on a timeline or outline after you’ve written it and as the month goes on, figure out how to link the scenes you’ve written together. If this happens in part A, what would have had to happen to make this happen it part C?

4. The Traditional Pantser

This is the traditional no-rules pantsing method. Just sit down and write until you reach your goal every day, and unravel the story as it goes. Enjoy the process, and on good days, don’t be afraid to soar over your goal wordcount—you’ll appreciate it on the harder days.

Freewriting is a great tool for this method (setting a timer and writing something until it goes off without stopping, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense).  If you want to make writing friends and add a competitive element, you can do this during writing sprints and write alongside other Wrimos.

If you get stuck, don’t panic! Either write through it, make note of it and jump to a point in your story where it makes sense, or go back to the last time you were confident in your story and rewrite from there. Don’t delete anything – keep a separate document to put any cut scenes or paragraphs in. You can let them count towards your wordcount at the end of the month if you want to, or you can just keep them in case you have an idea later of how that scene can fit in the story elsewhere, or you want it during the revision stages.

How to Research for Your Novel

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This is the fourth in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo. To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

Once you’ve got a few ideas for your novel, the next step is to learn as much about the topic and setting as possible. This is to be done in conjunction with plotting your novel because to explore the best form and sequence of events for your novel, you need to understand at least some of the background knowledge. But finding relevant and accurate information is a challenge—not to mention keeping track of it!

Step 1: What do you need to know?

Take some time to identify the specific information that you need to know. Create a list of general topic areas to research and any specific questions you have. Try to have some level of focus so you don’t spend hours endlessly researching instead of writing, but also make sure to include areas that interest you. You never know where your next idea might spring from.

Consider the setting of your novel. Have you lived there before, and if not, how different is it from the places you have lived? What is the time period, the culture, the customs, the food, and the language? What about slang—do the people speak with specific idioms or dialect?

Even if your setting is completely your own creation, consider researching other cultures of the world so that you understand how they work, and to help you create it authentically. Many successful fantasy novels are based on the myths and legends of different cultures.

Examine your characters. Are they from the area, or have they travelled? What were there families like, and are you familiar with those cultures? What are their jobs and hobbies—have you had experience with them before?

Think about your plot points again. Do they make sense, or are they realistic? Are you sure that someone could die in that specific way in chapter 14, or do you need to understand the intricacies of Greek cuisine?

Step 2: How can you keep track of the stuff you’re learning?

Once you’ve identified the areas that you need to research, you need a system to capture the information that you need. Your system should be flexible (so that you can add new areas as they come up), searchable (so you can find your information when you need it) and fun to use. Other things to think about when choosing a system is how long this project will take, where you will need to access your files, whether you would like to share your research with others, and if you’d like to adapt the same system later for other projects.

A popular tool for this kind of research is Evernote. Evernote is a handy grab-it-all reference tool, and you can use ‘stacks’ (similar to folders), reminders, tags and search to easily organise PDFs, photos, documents, lists and almost any other kind of file you can think of. The real magic of Evernote, however, is in the web page clipper. Using the browser extension, you can easily grab a whole webpage exactly as it appears and store it like you would any other file.

A slightly unusual option for this is Tumblr. The search functions here are a little less intuitive than Evernote (though you can still use tags to organise your posts), but there is the advantage of being able to share your research with others (and being able to read other people’s research as well). There is a huge writing community on Tumblr, and this is a great way to make writing friends as well as store your research for your novel—plus you can start building your online author platform well before the book itself is formed.

If your project will involve a lot of scholarly research (especially if it is nonfiction and you may have to cite it later), consider using a reference tool like Endnote. Endnote is a godsend for those of us battling endless uni assignments; you can easily save PDFs and research notes with the citation, and the program will keep it all in one place so you can easily organise your reference list, or know where to go back to if you need further clarification on a point. Endnote  does cost money (though many universities offer it to their students for free), but other options are Mendeley and Zotero.

Another option, especially if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, is Scrivener (free NaNoWriMo trial edition here). This is the writing tool of choice for many, many, many writers (including myself). It has a huge amount of features, but never feels bloated. The advantage of using Scrivener for your research is that it’s in the same file as your novel will be, and you can easily reference to it without connecting to the internet. The downside is that it’s not easily portable (though you can save your file on a USB or in dropbox), and there’s not a native mobile app. Take a look before you dismiss it, though; it’s the kind of product that works for everyone differently.

Once you’ve picked a tool, play around with it for a little bit and figure out how you will use it to organise your information. What folders or tags do you need? Create a masterlist of these so you don’t create new ones every time you forget, and add to it as you get underway. Do enough preparation work so that once you start researching, you’ll be able to add your information quickly and easily, and you won’t get bogged down in your system.

Step 3: How can you actually learn the stuff?

Take another look at the research areas you’ve chosen, and identify the best sources of information that you can access without someone’s direct assistance. Of course, searching the topic via Google, Wikipedia and Reddit are a good first step, but look a little deeper.

Do not forget about your local library! If you’re struggling to find information, ask your librarian; a significant part of their job is to help their patrons find the information they are looking for, meaning that they are professional researchers, and even if they can’t find the exact answers you’re looking for, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

The other bonus to utilising your local library, is that often they pay for their patrons to access online databases and journals. If your topic is history or science-based, these can be an essential source of information. Can you get a free library membership, and access them this way (or borrow a friend’s membership)? If not, take a look at Google Scholar and see if you can find similar resources that way.

Does the topic have a museum or gallery? Even if it is not located near you, it may have a website with accurate information, or people may have left drips of information in the comments on review sites. Take a look at your local universities—do they run a course that is relevant? Their students need to be able to do their homework, so it is likely there will be texts on the subject in its library, or in other libraries near you.

Is there a society or organisation centred around your topic? Often there are arts organisations, historical societies, science clubs and other places for experts or hobbyists to talk about the things that excite them. These organisations often have fact sheets on their websites, and you can always contact them directly with your questions.

If you’re a bit overwhelmed with questions, or you’re unsure where the best information for your purposes is, why not contact your local university and ask a professor or PhD student if you can ask them some questions over a coffee? The worst that can happen is that they will say no, and you could end up finding the answers to your questions. Other people you can contact might be any relevant clubs or societies at universities, local writing organisations, and other local organisations that are relevant to the topic area.

How to Create Characters that Speak to You

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This is the third in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo. To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

The characters in your novel are just as important as the stuff that happens to them. You (and your readers) are going to be spending a lot of time with them, so it’s important to make them worth reading about. Note that they do not have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting, and there should be a reason that they are in your novel.

This post will take you through a method of creating characters that will be relevant to your novel, interesting to you and that have their own voice. It is likely that this voice will change and develop as you keep writing your novel, but this post is designed to give you a jumping-off point. As you go through the process, make note of anything you need to research later so you don’t get distracted.

Think like an actor: what do you already know?

An actor’s primary job is to bring their character to life. They take into account the information they have about the character that they play, and then approach each scene in terms of what their character is thinking, wanting and doing. As a writer, you need to be able to think like an actor for each of your major (and even some of your minor) characters so that their personalities are consistent with their actions, and they develop authentic relationships with the other characters and events in the novel.

To start with, take a look at what you know about the character, or what you need the character to be. By starting with the information you already have, you’ll be able to create a character that fits in with the rest of your novel.  How much of your plot have you sketched out? What does the character do, and what kind of person would do that? What are their motivations; what do they want, and what is stopping them from getting there?

Do you know where your story is set? What culture is your character from? Have you developed any of their family members, or do you know anything about their history? How do these factors mix? How do people from this setting or culture generally look? Do you think your character would follow the norms, or do you think they’d find a way to stand out?

Speed-dating: an introduction to freewriting

Take some time to ‘speed-date’ your characters. Even if you don’t know the major events of your novel yet, this can be a great way to get to know your characters and develop your plot a bit further. If you do this several times with different characters, you will end up with a web of events, and you can work those into your outline. Some of them may conflict—remember that your characters are people, and they may have different opinions of the same situation.

Freewriting is when you set a timer for a short period of time (often 10-15 minutes), and write without stopping until the timer goes off. Even if you’re not sure what to write, keep writing. By the end of the session, it is likely you’ll find that you’ve written some gems, or at least some things worth thinking about.

Write in the first person from the perspective of a character in your novel, and let them tell their story. If you’re not sure where to start, imagine you’re at a restaurant with them and you’re asking first-date style questions. Where do they come from? Who are they? What do they want? What were they doing on the weekend?

The character sheet

Once you’ve spent some time in your character’s head and know a bit about them, it’s time to start filling out a character sheet. Character sheets are a really useful tool for keeping all the little bits of your characters together, and helping you keep consistent. You can find hundreds of templates online, but there are examples here, herehere and here.

Character sheets are also a good way to help you see the gaps in the development of your character. Don’t stress about filling in every single field right away, but keep adding to the sheet as the character forms in your novel. Feel free to edit the sheet to suit your purposes, and experiment with adding contradictory elements to characters; humans are multi-faceted and they aren’t always the same in every situation.

The character map

Once you’ve created a couple of characters, odds are that you will start building relationships between them. Much of each character’s personality will be conveyed to the reader through their interactions with the rest of the book’s characters, so it’s important to create authentic relationships between each character.

Think about how each character will respond to each other, and to the events in your novel. What relationships will they have with the other elements in the manuscript, and how does that reflect their personality? It might be useful to keep track of the relationships in a mindmap or spreadsheet.

To add further depth to your thinking, think about the people in your life and analyse them as though they were your characters. What are they like, and how do they react to each other? What are their their strengths and flaws and weaknesses and intricacies? What would change about them or their relationships if just one of those were altered? Which of these qualities do your characters share, and where do they differ?

The writing bit

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story”

— Terry Pratchett

It’s okay if your characters aren’t completely configured before you start writing. Often the writing process will reveal intricate parts of their personalities and you will find what does and what doesn’t work as you go along. Keep adding to your notes, and research anything that makes you unsure.

Your first draft is yours alone, so experiment—write a chapter in second person, or switch between perspectives in the middle of a scene, or put the characters in a ridiculous setting to see what works and how they react. Tying everything together is what the second draft is for.

5 Plotting Methods for Your Novel

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This is the second in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo. To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

Once you’ve you’ve got an idea for your novel, you need to figure out what is going to happen, and who is going to make it happen (or who it will happen to). These two steps are fluid; they work together to create the overall picture of your novel, and they can happen simultaneously or one by one or in a strange order. It is different for every writer and every project.

This post is for the planner-at-heart. There are 5 different methods here which you can mix, match and customise to work for your project. Don’t worry if you feel out of your depth—the next post in this series will help you create characters that speak to you, which will help you to navigate your outline.

1. Building on your premise

This is a popular, if intensive, method for plotting novels. It entails describing your idea in a succinct way, and then expanding on it over and over to create a multi-page outline. This method applies a structure to building on your previous ideas.

The most well-known version of this is known as The Snowflake Method. This is a useful tool for creating many summaries of your novel of different lengths (which are useful for referencing when pitching your novel), and developing your idea into a novel-worthy outline. However, this method also requires a lot of detail which may take some research to develop, and it isn’t very pantser-friendly. Some writers may prefer using this method to refine their novel in the early editing stages.

2. The post-it note/flash card method

This is both a planner-friendly and a pantser-friendly plotting method. Essentially you write each major event on a post it note or flash card and you keep them on a board. As you add new plot points and your ideas develop, it is easy to reorder or shuffle the old ones, and add new ideas. It’s also possible to colour code by subplot using different post-it notes. If you’re a digital person, this method is also perfect for Scrivener. In Scrivener, you can view every scene as a notecard in the corkboard mode.

It’s easy to do this as either a planner or a pantser. If you’re a planner, you can create your entire outline before you start writing, Michael Crichton-style. But if you’d prefer not to have an outline before you start, you can create one as you go. Once you’ve finished each scene, create a card for it and put it where it fits, rearranging the rest of them as you go.

3.  The timeline method

This method involves writing a chronological timeline for every event in your novel, and may include different columns for different characters or subplots. Of course, it’s not necessary to tell the story in the same exact order as what is on the timeline, but this method is good for keeping track of everything that’s going on. It’s an efficient way to handle simultaneous subplots while making sure that nothing is neglected and everything makes sense.

The great thing about this method is that it is scalable. J.K. Rowling used this method to plot Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but it would work just as well for a simpler novel, or even a full series. It’s also easy to construct; you can go J.K. Rowling-style and use pen and paper, you can use an Excel spreadsheet, or you can find an online web tool or program.

4. The scene-by-scene outline method

This is an intensive and traditional way of planning a novel. Essentially, you create a single document and write down what happens in every scene, what characters are in each scene, where each scene is set, and the major conflict and/or resolution of each scene. The amount of detail you include for each scene is up to you.

Your outline then becomes your bible when writing your novel. It is easy to see where each scene is going, so your writing can be more focussed and efficient. This is a great way to ensure that you’re fully prepared to write before you start, but it also lacks flexibility for less plan-oriented writers.

5. The Three Act Structure/The Hero’s Journey/The Fichtean Curve

This method can work in conjuction with any of the above methods. Through studying the stories humans have been telling for thousands of years, academics have been able to find similarities in popular stories that resonate with their audience. There are lots of theories, many of which are based around the amount of tension or conflict at each point in the novel. Popular models include the Three Act StructureThe Hero’s JourneyThe Storyfix Story Structure Method and The Fichtean Curve (#1 at the link).

The advantage of using one of these pre-set structures is that the outline has essentially already been created for you, and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. You can also easily study the stories you’ve enjoyed and how they fit in regards to the structure to help you determine what parts of your plot will work and what parts won’t. Be flexible, and make sure not to lose your own storytelling voice to the model.