Going From Pantser to Plotter – Camp NaNoWriMo Edition

I used to believe that my stories would come to me when I needed them to. In fairness, it was like that for a long time until I suddenly needed 50,000 words. I thought I could do it without a plan, but I didn’t even manage to make it halfway. Short stories were never a problem, but no amount of short story writing could’ve prepared me for this.

That’s why I’m using this Camp NaNoWriMo to research my next NaNo-novel. This is also the first time that I’m doing extensive research for a novel instead of just writing what I know. I’ll talk to you today about how I’m going from a pantser (as in, “flying by the seat of one’s pants”) to a plotter, from someone who just starts writing to someone who plans everything before writing.

Doing Research Before Writing

When the idea for my novel popped up in my brain, I knew I couldn’t do it without doing research. The Shadow Court is set in a country much like ancient China, but since I don’t want to be bogged down by historical accuracy, I’d just create my own version of the country. Or maybe rather – I want to create my own version. The political situation in my story is unthinkable in the real ancient China, and even if part of my idea was true we would never know it. Historians would be sure to leave that out of the history books.

One of the first things I did was to create the characters. All of my stories are character focused, some even only exist because of a certain character. I made a list of all the characters that I knew would make an appearance and gave them a story. Some only have a few lines, for now, others already have a page long description about where they came from, what their role is now, what they’re going to do and what kind of emotional journey they will experience throughout the story.

The emotional journey is especially important for my protagonist. As the main character, they have to be likeable and relatable enough for the reader, but avoid becoming bland. I want to make her experience good and bad emotions, give her conflicts to solve, let her grow.

Writing an Outline

The main reason I decided to make this my Camp NaNo project was the outline for the story, an outline I felt I needed. For my first NaNo project I had a few key events that needed to happen, but I had no idea how to get there, what happened in between, or what the motivations of the characters were. It resulted in an action packed story with characters as thin as paper, no depth, huge (plot) holes everywhere. This isn’t what I wanted for my next book, and the solution was to come up with an outline before I started. I’d have plenty of time to think everything over, see how things add up, if things conflict with the characters, to make sure they grow.

I started by writing down the key events I needed in the story. Initially, every major event was a chapter. I wrote down one line which covered the needed information, and then went back and expanded on those brief summaries as needed. For the outline, it didn’t matter much how the previous chapter ended, as it was more important to look at how each chapter started. I knew where I needed to go, and that’s where I was heading.

From there on, however, things weren’t as straight forward. Sometimes, for an event, I’d jot down a more detailed summary, other times I’d just start writing out the sequence itself. I often started each paragraph with a single sentence, just so I would know which path I had to take, and the details would come later. Something had to lead up to that major event, maybe a character needed more motivation, maybe a smaller event had to happen first. Each scene in that chapter would get its own paragraph, to keep it simple. This might remind you a little of the ‘snowflake’ method of writing, where you keep expanding on what you have.

One thing to note about this method is that it might lead to an extremely fractured first draft, especially if you don’t pay enough attention to the major plot lines. Make sure that you spend time on weaving everything together. I still have a few months before I turn this outline into a first draft and one of the things I’ll do is make sure to map out character journeys, conflicts, and political coherence (which is mostly backstory, but vital for this plot as a whole).

How do you know the outline is long enough? There are no set rules for this. Some publishers who buy books based on their outlines might have rules, but even they differ from one another. The outline you, the writer, work with, can be as long or as short as you wish. All it needs to do is to help remind you what needs to be written and no other person has to see it.

The outline for The Shadow Court is, at this moment almost 6,000 words. It might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. For the first draft I have to translate every hundred words to a thousand. That feels doable. That also means that my first draft will be more than those 50,000 for NaNoWriMo. I also expect that the final draft will be a slimmed down version of the first draft, maybe even closer to the planned 50,000 than 60,000.

Learning by Doing

This last month has taught me much on my writing process and writing in general. I read Stephen King’s On Writing (again) and used it to look at my own work. There are many infographics out there that summarise his writing advice, though I knew early on that I’m not the kind of person to do exactly as he does. For example, Stephen King doesn’t really care about detailed character descriptions or what their wearing. In The Shadow Court clothes signify the rank of each person. Clothes are how the main character shows how much she has advanced, and in a sense, grown. I’m a rebel, I will pave my own way. (Editor’s Note: As we all should. Take advice, learn from the best and let them inspire you, but remember that everyone has their own style, their method. Find what works for you.)

Another thing I’m oddly grateful for is that I haven’t enjoyed a formal education in writing. No English major or creative writing course, and I’ll think twice before doing so. By not knowing the rules, I am less likely to fall into a dogmatic approach to writing that I’m afraid I might be prone to. I can break them more easily, even if I’m not doing it consciously. I write the stories as they appear to me. For example, in this this story clothes are important, in others, not so much.

My advice for anyone is: take what knowledge you can and apply it to your situation. You don’t have to agree with everything. You also don’t have to actively fight what you disagree with. Spend your energy on getting closer to your goal.

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