Plotter, Pantser, or Just-In-Timer?

CaptureNov29Well, NaNoWriMo is over and I am officially a winner! I crept over the 50,000 word finishing line late on 29th November – so it was close, but I made it.

However, my main objective for this month wasn’t just to write 50,000 words: I was testing an approach to building that elusive first draft of a novel.

I’ve read dozens of articles about this, and the usual dichotomy is between “plotter” and “pantser”. The ideal plotter plans everything to the last detail, probably using dozens of forms to describe every scene, character, plotline and location, before writing a single word of manuscript.

The extreme pantser, on the other hand, eschews such aids and – with possibly just a nod to planning in the form of a few vague ideas about what this story might be about – just sits and writes. Inspiration comes, and the story goes where the characters take it.

Personally I doubt that either extreme is completely achievable: even the most dedicated of planners will allow changes to creep in while the story is emerging, and I guess that pantsers often have more of an idea of where they are going than they might be prepared to admit.

My question was: where on this scale is right for ME?

For my first attempt at writing a novel – “One Equal Temper”, which I hope to publish in February 2014 – I picked a path and had a go. It involved creating a lightly constructed plan or outline, with a paragraph for each scene. These laid down the basics of who, where, when, what and why: each scene was summarised in 50-70 words, which isn’t very much!

I played around with this outline, adding, changing and shuffling scenes, until I had something that looked like it might work. This took about three weeks. Then I sat down and wrote the first draft, from beginning to end, following the outline, which took three months. So, from the time I first put mouse to paper to “The End” was just under four months.

At the time I was proud of it for two reasons. First, I had completed a draft of a novel, and that was indeed something to be proud of – it took a lot of hard work, and is more than many would-be novelists manage. Second, it was complete: that is, there were no abbreviations, notes to myself to add more detail, bullet points, or unnaturally summarised dialogue. You could have read it from beginning to end, like a proper novel.

I was pleased with myself for having done this, but later came to feel that it was a mistake. It was, to be honest, dreadful. That’s not a surprise, or a problem: first drafts, and especially first drafts of first novels, are expected to be dreadful. I had no intention of showing it to anyone, and knew that the next thing I would have to do would be to revise it for structure, before moving on to editing it for prose quality.

So, if I was never going to show it to anyone, why did I waste time making it “complete”? All that meant was that it took longer to write, and resulted in a product that was hard to update.

For example, if you’ve written out a scene in a restaurant, with all the detail of description and fully spelled-out dialogue, and you then want to change it to a park bench, you have a lot of changes to make. If the scene is left at a high level, it’s a lot easier to change.

What came next, by the way, was nearly five months to do Draft 2, fixing and refixing a broken structure, and then another two months on Draft 3 before I had anything I felt able to share with a couple of trusted readers. Three more months elapsed before I got to Draft 4, which I was comfortable enough with to call “Beta” and send out to more readers for comments. That’s where I am now: fourteen months from first typing to Beta.

Which feels like it was much too long.

The other problem was that the expansion from, say, 50 words of summary to 1500 words of manuscript per scene, was just too much. I was having to make up plot on the hoof, because so much was missing from the outline. This, in my case at least, led to a lot of blind alleys and whole chapters which ended up being deleted because they didn’t contribute enough to the end product. I guess I’m not a natural pantser, then.

This brings me to November 2013, and the opportunity presented by NaNoWriMo. Could I write a rough first draft, at around 50,000 words, in a month?

More to the point, could I find a better way of managing the plotting/pantsing balance?

My aim was to spend the month of November coming up with a plot: creating a plan, an outline if you like. But to write each scene out, roughly, as I went.

It’s a long way from pure planning: I was writing scenes long, long before I had a plan for the whole story. But it wasn’t pantsing, either: I was constructing a plan. This involved adding characters, themes, scenes, and plotlines, and juggling them around on my electronic paper (I was using the Scrivener cork board for this), just as a pure planner would. At the end of my month, I have a plan that shows me clearly what happens to whom and why in each scene.

However, once I had a few scenes that looked as if they might be making sense, I picked one – the one that ‘felt’ most stable – and wrote it out. It was rough: very little description, often with abbreviated dialogue, sometimes bullet points, and quite a few [CHECK THIS] notes to myself. But I found the process of writing these scenes, however roughly, was massively helpful in uncovering ambiguities and assumptions, and also in turning up new plot ideas.

So, after writing one scene, I’d take the time to add electronic cards for a couple more. And so it continued: towards the end of the month, the number of scenes didn’t change much, and I was adding layers to existing scenes, so the word count per day fell significantly: it’s much harder to add to a scene than it is to create from scratch.

Where NaNoWriMo came in was that it created a demand to write words, right from Day 1. And I did, averaging just over 2,000 words per day for the first two weeks.

I think this might be called “Just In Time Planning”. I did create plans, but only just before I needed them. And, as with Just In Time Manufacturing, this is a whole lot more efficient. In the time it might have taken me to complete a well thought out plan, I’ve gone a whole step further and got a rough draft as well. Not only that, but I can have a lot more confidence in the plan because so many more details have been thought through than I could possibly have managed if I’d just been filling in forms instead of creating manuscript.

Has it really worked? Well, only time will tell. I’m now going to take a break from this new novel while I go back to Draft Five of the first one. Then I will come back to it, and see whether my lightweight but complete first draft can be manhandled into a well formed second draft, with all the structure and plot kinks ironed out, before creating the beautiful prose that’s going to make me famous. I’ll let you know how it goes.