Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 21, 2020

Moving From Pantser to Plantser

by Ellen Buikema

National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, is an organization that promotes creative writing worldwide via annual writing challenges where participants attempt to write fifty thousand words in a month. I pondered whether or not to attempt their challenge for several years and finally opted to give it a try in 2020, the unhappy year many wish wasn’t. With a plethora of time available due to the curtailing of social activities during the pandemic, I took the NaNo plunge.

NaNoWriMo changed the way I write. Below is my story of moving from Pantser to Plantser.

Timing is everything.

We live in a beautiful area by the Sea of Cortez that attracts tourists from all over the world. This means lots and lots of noise. Fresh air therapy is good for minimizing exposure to COVID-19, so we throw open the windows to keep the breeze passing through our living space as often as possible. Unfortunately, the joyous sound of happy travelers . . . travels.

When we lived in a quieter area I could write any time. If writer’s block ever reared its ugliness, I’d step away from the laptop and find someplace out of the way to get horizontal and let my mind go blank. Sometimes Bailey, our lovable black lab, would lie down next to me to lend his special brand of calm and help me think. A few minutes of mind-clearing (sweeping out the panicked thought of not being able to think) and I’d be ready to continue the story.

Now that we live in the land of loud, it’s become vitally important to discover the quietest times of day. That ended up being from 3 AM to around 1 PM. Out of necessity I became a morning writer, and my writing schedule is between 8 AM and 1 PM.

There is no magical time for writing, except what works best for you.

The goal of 50,000 words in one short month scared the bejesus out of me. Prior to NaNoWriMo I rarely wrote more than 1000 words in a day, and I've never written every day of the week. The idea of no writing breaks caused some anxiety too.

I decided to wrap my stubborn streak around me and figure this out for a positive potential outcome. When moving to a new location, I completely unpack and organize one room. When I need a break from staring at disorder, I have a blissfully organized place to gaze at before I attack more of the unpacking. I applied this to the writing word count.

Instead of panicking, which causes brain freeze (not the fun ice cream-induced kind), I set a 1600-2000 word target, with breaks along the way. Those breaks made all the difference for me.

I wrote before and after breakfast, took a break to play solitaire with an old deck of cards, and did my lie down and let-the-mind-go-blank thing until an idea popped in. This worked well even without Bailey who has passed over the Rainbow Bridge.

To outline or not to outline, that is the question.

Being a happy Pantser, I typically don’t do detailed planning. I start with the beginning and end points, and have a basic idea rolling through my mind of how to get from point A to point Z. I suspected that 50,000 words in a month would require more planning than usual.

Here is what helped:

  1. To help the Pantser in me become more "plotterly" -- a Plantser of sorts -- I took the month of October to ponder genre, age group, and point of view to use for this experimental novel. 
  2. I decided to write a YA fantasy with elements of time travel titled “Crystal Memories.”
  3. I wrote a basic outline and chose a location, time, grammatical tense, and basic character traits.
  4. These ideas are not included in the word count, which is part of the challenge. Notes are "legal," just not in the count.

My internal editor was not a happy creature. For the first few days, I suffered through an internal war. Eyes drawn like a magnet to flaws, I had to force myself not to re-read and change things. Instead, I made use of the strikeout feature in Microsoft Word. (Here are the shortcuts for this feature if you need them [link], or Ctrl+D will get you right to strikeout.)

I reminded myself repeatedly that NaNoWriMo is not an exercise in perfection. My 50,000+ word novel could end up being a hot mess and still have good bones.

We are all in this together.

I never expected to complete the NaNo goal my first time around. I didn't even know I had it in me. I certainly couldn't have done it alone.

  • Several times, joining the groups focused on encouragement and discussion kept me afloat.
  • Every day I checked my stats on the NaNoWriMo site.
  • During the last week I received a note on the site stating that I might finish my 50,000 words a few days early. To my surprise, I did.

What kept me going:

I wrote the last chapter the day after I hit the 50,000 word count goal. My internal editor awaits the next step.

Do you have a best place and time to write? What are your writing rituals? What methods do you use to help with writer’s block?

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

13 comments on “Moving From Pantser to Plantser”

  1. It was interesting to see your post in my inbox today, Ellen, because I was just contemplating my own approach to this very question 😉 It's on my mind because I realized that the deeply analytical work (for me) takes places while I'm doing my second draft, not the first. The first is more organic, a kind of journey of discovery. Then, when I'm done, I step back to see what I have, look at it more critically to see what it needs. Some of that is structure (plot), although it's often character depth too. So you could say that pantsing and plotting are two stages (for me). Hmmm.... I think this will be my next column or Writers in the Storm!!

  2. Barbara, it seems as though the first draft you normally write is similar to what I tried with NaNoWriMo this year. I'm doing more of the analytical work now in the second draft. The process seems easier to me but then again, this is not historical fiction. Fantasy is a different animal.

    My biggest problem when writing historical fiction is keeping out of rabbit holes. They are so fascinating and tempting to travel, and then poof--a few hours pass me by.

  3. I love to hear everyone's experiences with NaNo. I tried the 2019 Nano and although I'm definitely a detailed plotter, with worksheets and character studies, story beats all laid out beforehand, I only managed to get 36,000 words done on my fantasy romance. I tried my best to still that internal editor, but...
    Anyway, to me, getting that big jump on my novel (plus COVID lockdown) has led to a decent first draft by May of this year. I've been editing 88,000 words ever since. So, be a plotter or pantser or plantser, whatever gets your story on the page.

    1. That internal editor is a real beast.

      Congrats on that big jump on your novel!

      I have a fear, perhaps irrational, that if I were a true plotter I'd organize myself out of writing the manuscript. I do a lot of "and then what happens?" which seems to work for me, at least for now.

  4. Hi Ellen, I enjoyed reading your suggestions for combating the internal editor and moving forward regardless of the hurdles. It is impressive that you pulled this off your first year of Nano! Bravo~

    I can say my biggest hurdle right now is a drop-and-go response to just about anything and since my immediate world of work, family, and TV distractions is all in my living room... my nano writing did not matriculate this year.

    No worries, though, I have convinced Santa that noise cancelling headphones was a must and I'm pretty sure there will be a pair under the Christmas Tree. 🙂

    1. Ooh, Kris, that is an awesome idea. Noise cancelling headphones would really help, although at this point I think almost anywhere else I go will seem quiet. LOL

      2021 will be scads better.

  5. Great Post. My internal editor was a merciless taskmaster until I came to the conclusion that those who wait for perfection do nothing but wait. I find that if I have a basic outline and can refer to those 'what happens next' notes, it helps me go forward instead of backward to edit what I just wrote. It helps me keep the momentum in those brain lag moments when I'm tempted to go back and seek the perfect word or phrase in an unfinished draft. Therefore I've moved from pantser to plantser. It may not be for everyone, but for me it works.

    1. Congratulations on taming the beast! That is still a work in progress for me. The what happens next notes are super helpful.

  6. When I first started writing, morning was my best writing time. Since then, later at night has become my writing time.

    With having everyone around, even that has been impossible. I'm hoping after the college kid goes back in January, I can reclaim some writing time and space.

    I use a journal with my thoughts, characters, ideas, etc... to help guide my pantser self.


    1. I so hear you about quiet time, Denise. That is the true fallout from the pandemic here at my house too. There is always someone in my space now that everyone is doing their thing from home. The only thing that has given me any productivity time (since November) is noise-canceling headphones. Best. Present. Ever.

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