I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month for 14 years now. I find it to be a worthwhile exercise–while 50,000 words isn’t anywhere near a true novel in length, and I don’t wind up with a workable “zero1 draft” every year, it still allows me to infodump a lot of words without second-guessing or fear. And there is not, in my opinion, such a thing as a wasted word when it comes to writing. You’ll never be perfect, but practice sure does help.
This time of year, the blog posts and Tweets start to fly: “How are you getting ready?”
There’s two schools of thoughts on this: advance preparation or staying loose. (Do you plot, or do you pants?) I’ve tried them both, in a few variations and combinations. We’ll discuss the latter in this post. (While I do have some ideas on how to Plot, I need to do an outline2 before I write that blog post.)
Let us begin, then, by asking: why Pants? Well, the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants method is perfect if:
- You’re the sort of writer whose ideas spring fully-formed from their fingertips, like some sort of crude Zeus scribbling Athena onto the page.
- You have a situation that you want to explore, but don’t want to diagram character personalities.
- You have a killer beginning, but no ending.
- You’re writing a sequel to a previously existing novel (yours or someone else’s).
- You’re writing fantasy, literary fiction, poetry, a short story anthology, nonfiction.
- You forgot about NaNoWriMo and now it’s October 31st and oh s— what are you going to do?
And in its way, the Pants method is perhaps truest to the spirit of NaNoWriMo, in that you’re giving yourself permission to write utter garbage. The result, curiously, is that by throwing away quality, you find within yourself unfettered creativity. This leads to some fantastic surprises and some quality material you can use later on.3
So you’ve decided to wing it, then? Excellent. Here’s what you need to do.
Tools required: none, besides your normal writing implements of choice.
Preparation required: ostensibly, none. (That’s the point!) But if you’re a Type A personality, committing to doing nothing for the month of October may actually be more stressful than just plotting out a novel. It takes a lot of effort to Zen your way into letting the universe flow through you.
And that’s it. It’s fine to have ideas going into November, but you’re aware that no battle plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. Your enemy is the blank page. Trust to your faith in your own creativity, and you shall succeed.
What then, of the results?
Generally speaking, the more successful ‘Pantsers’ I’ve met did have a vague idea going into November. Sitting down at the infinite cold of a blank white page is overwhelming even when you do have an idea. Going without even the slightest clue is like wandering off naked to Antarctica–a fun adventure that’s apt to be a little uncomfortable. It’s not to say that it can’t be done, though, and I won’t try to dissuade you.4
What I can do is share my results, which (from a Pants perspective) have varied wildly:
- A short story anthology was quite easily pantsed.
- A mystery / suspense novel nearly failed one year. Halfway through November, I had to sit down for five hours to diagram out the plot, twists, turns, and betrayals so that it would make sense on completion. It’s not to say that mysteries can’t be done in the Pants fashion, but the narrative has to be so tightly controlled that it’s hard to have it make sense without some degree of planning.
- A mystery / suspense novel did fail another year when I compounded it with fantastical elements.
- Literary fiction / semi-YA was pretty easy (for me) to punt out. That said, I had clearly defined characters in advance from writing previous short stories, so I had something of a starting point.
- A horror novel hit 50,000 words, but while I was able to build character and sustain mood, it never really gelled into a full manuscript. I think this is more because of the starting idea than the fact that the zero draft was Pantsed, but I’ve never gone back to try to salvage it.
- And I’ve never Pantsed science fiction–I go into those manuscripts heavily armed.
Since I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript at the moment, my plan for this year is to Pants it. I do have an idea, and I jot down keywords for scenes as they pop into my mind. But I won’t overthink it this year.
What about you?
1 I’m a computer programmer by trade, so I start counting at zero. Additionally, if the first draft of anything is, according to Hemingway, “s—,” you can imagine what a zero draft must be like. But that’s the point.
2 Ba-dum tccchhh.
3 After you edit the hell out of it. Pantsed novels especially require a lot of editing after the zero draft is done.
4 Hey, more coffee for me. Have fun storming the castle.