Getting started for National Novel Writing Month 2017

It’s National Novel Writing Month in November – a US contest, but it draw authors from all around the world. Which means a lot of writers are going to be sitting down right now, all around the world, and figuring out what to do. I’ve been supporting the event with advice and tips for years – and here, from the archives, is a quick tip on getting started.

Pantsing or planning – that is the NaNoWriMo question.

The big question with NaNoWriMo, for a lot of writers, is whether to ‘pants’ or ‘plan’.

Writing fuel!
Writing fuel!

You know – whether to sit down and ‘just write’, with the story going where it will as one navigates ‘by the seat of the pants’, or whether it’s better to have some sort of written structure.

The fact is that writing worded with the heat of inspiration often flows better than writing that is wrung out, one laborious word at a time.

A lot depends on the temperament of the author and what works for them, of course.

The problem with ‘pantsing’, though, is that there’s ‘pantsing’. And then there’s ‘pantsing’.

It’s like this. I know that beginning authors like to ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through a story – enjoying the free-form creativity that this brings. That’s usually the appeal of the activity – the joy of creativity. But that’s not writing: that’s entertainment.

In past years I’ve even seen NaNo writers tweet their progress along these lines – ‘I’ve just decided to kill off 32 of my main characters’. Wham!

The problem is that what emerges, more often than not, is structurally awry. The character arcs (if they are arcs at all) don’t mesh with the dramatic moments in the plot. The plot itself is mis-structured so the main climactic moment comes too early, or there’s an ‘information dump’ opening that drags.

That’s where planning comes in.

But – but – I can hear already. Experienced writers ‘pants’ their work. Why can’t beginners?

The difference is that experienced writers know what they are doing – they can do a lot of stuff on the fly because writing has become part of their souls.  And they usually do have a plan, however skeletal it might be. Isaac Asimov, for instance – a famous ‘pantser’ – once explained that he always knew the beginning and end before he started. That way he knew where he was going.

What he didn’t say was that he was also a very, very experienced writer.

Which brings me to NaNoWriMo. The conceit is that the 50,000 word ‘first draft’ pushed out in 30 days somehow won’t be any good. Usually this is for structural reasons, as much as anything else. Actually, I say it will be – if you follow the guidelines and approaches I’ll be publishing in the next few weeks.

The surface wording might need revising, sure – wording always does. But if it’s done right, the NaNo novel should be a solid foundation for development.

The other challenge in the month is getting 50,000 words out in 30 days. Most of the problem with doing so, I think, is that authors who haven’t planned spend a lot of their time either re-writing or trying to work out how to get their story out of the hole they’ve fallen into.

The key to completing NaNoWriMo on time – and to quality – is getting the structure right, which means meshing plot developments with key points in the character arcs. And that means a certain amount of planning – even if the gaps are left to be filled by ‘pantsing’.

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Click to buy

If you want some more writing tips and hints, and a method for pushing your book through, check out my short quick-start manual How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015 and 2017

4 thoughts on “Getting started for National Novel Writing Month 2017

  1. Very interesting! Personally, I’m very much a planner, with the occasional “controlled” pantsing. I just cannot stand the idea of the structure going awry and I often go into a story with a view to how it will end, which means that I always have a target I’ve got to end up hitting. I know that it can work, but I’ve found a lot of authors who are pantsers can be hit or miss for me, cos sometimes they can just end up in a bizarre place (I particularly remember reading an author called Tim Bowler in my teens, who had such strong openings that would get me hooked and then the plot would just go in a bizarre and usually unsatisfying direction)


  2. I don’t think I’d be able to start writing if I didn’t have an ending in mind. I’ll bet novels and stories that fizzle out unfinished are those where someone had a great idea for a beginning or central situation, but didn’t sit down and decide how it could be developed. I have a bunch of scribbled idea seeds in my notes that haven’t sprouted and may never do so. As for Nanowrimo, the idea of linking a nascent novel to a public event (even if it doesn’t matter if I meet the goal) gives me the willies, which is not conducive to productivity. But November (in the northern hemisphere) is a great writing month — gardening is pretty much done for the year, it gets dark early… What else are you going to do? BTW, Nano happens in spring in your part of the world; how does that work out?

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