Novel Planning for Pantsers

pant⋅ser [pant-ser]

1. One who writes a novel by the seat of their pants, without an outline, character sheets, or any semblance of pre-planning.
2. Crazy person.

See also:  intelligent, witty, and downright sexy.

I have a confession to make. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. A pantser. It’s a fact I wear proudly on my sleeve. Well, not really. To tell you the truth, I don’t wear anything on my sleeves. Not even my heart, because that could get messy. And bloody.

Anyhow, I’m proud of my pantserness (pantserhood?). I’ve succeeded in winning NaNoWriMo two years in a row, writing that way. 50,000 words in a month, with a full-time job and a 1 year old in the house isn’t too shabby. I have to be honest with you, though. Neither one of those 50,000 word stories are finished. I really think they lack a bit of direction and dare I say planning. *gasp*

Now, I know I’m never going to write a detailed outline before writing a novel. Not gonna happen. That would take the fun out of writing, and it just isn’t in my nature. Heck, some people do outlines before they write code. I don’t do that either.

That doesn’t mean I can’t do some planning. You can too. Here are some planning resources I have found that I think even a pantser can do without feeling too constrained.

First up is from a writer friend of mine who is also a teacher.She has a whole section on her site dedicated to creative writing. My favorite resource she has there is called the Chapter Concept Statement Grid. It’s a simple two column chart with one heading titled “chapter name” and the next titled “concept statement”. This one gets you to write a simple sentence about each of your chapters, which should help to provide a bit of information about where the story begins, where it goes, and how it ends. Also, no pesky Roman Numerals.

The next resource is from the NaNoWriMo website. They have a collection of freely downloadable workbooks titled Young Novelist Workbooks. They are meant for use in school and such, but that doesn’t mean us old folks can’t use them too. I particularly like the one called  The High School Student Noveling Workbook. There is some really cool planning worksheets in there. If I wasn’t so cheap and felt like replacing my printer cartridges, I would totally print the entire 80 pages of The High School Student Noveling Workbook.

Next up is something called the Phase Outline. As the name implies, the Phase Outline works like this:  “Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the next set of lines — the next action — into focus”. It’s a pretty good idea, but not really for me. At least not at this time.

A list of questions. There are a bunch of things I’m not sure about the novel I’m planning. These are things I’d like to know before I start too far into the story. Well, I figure it doesn’t hurt to write these questions down and work on them away from the computer. Yes, pantsers, this counts as planning.

Finally there is the idea of writing a synopsis. You know, those things are good to write before you write a novel too. Actually, this is the method I’m using to plan for this year’s NaNoWriMo is kind of a modified synopsis. Basically, I’m writing my store out, a paragraph per chapter, in regular speak,  describing your story like a kid would describe a dream or television show. For example:

“The main character went to the store, and then he talked to the bad guy. And then the ghost of Ronald Reagan showed up and they all ate biggie-sized meals at Arby’s.”

That’s really not my story, or maybe it is. Anyhow, here’s where you break the writing rules. You tell. You write in passive voice. You make terrible grammar mistakes. Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you are thinking about your story and trying to find its’ shape. Remember, the more planning you do now, the less you have to do “in the moment” in November, and the more time you have to write.

So pantsers, what do you think? Any of these ideas sound do-able? Or, do I lose my special pantser merit badge sleeve patch?

Heidi has a pretty cool method for planning a novel in stages.


38 thoughts on “Novel Planning for Pantsers

  1. I like the see also part of your definition. We are all that and more, aren’t we? You didn’t lose your merit badge, and you make some great suggestions. Some of these may actually be doable for me. Thanks for the tips, and the links.

  2. I’m a pantser, too!

    Well, truth be told I’m a part-time pantser. Half the time I work on the fly and half the time my OCD really kicks in and I try to plan for every possibility.

    Even the possibility of chatting over curly fries with Ronald Reagan.

    I totally fly free on my blog, but I’ve gotten right into the nitty gritty with my NaNo idea. I am truly chompin’ at the bit to start but I will hold myself back until Nov.1

    I think, because I’m too nervous about making a sloppy first-draft even though I know that’s what this is, I’m trying to overcompensate and give myself a firm outline in which to work.

    And that’s actually making me feel more confident.

    I have to say it’s also making me feel better reading your posts about NaNo. If it’s not too much to ask, keep throwing some of this stuff out there for the newbies like me.

  3. Oh, to pants or not to pants. (Had to do it.) In real life, I’m a listmaker and a planner and a wannabe organizer. But not as much with my writing. At least not my fiction. Articles and columns get fully fleshed out outlines, otherwise it takes me too much times to edit my ramblings, and with those, time=money. Last year I completely pantsed my NaNo project. And it’s a big, hot mess that I don’t know if I can fix. So I’d like to find a bit of balance this time. Something in between? Can’t do a synopsis. Something about writing in paragraphs ruins it for me. But I love, love, love my colored index cards. I jot down the few scenes I know I want to include, and I can use different colored cards for different POV characters or for different sections in the novel (or different acts, or turning points or whatever). But I think my big thing this year will be to make sure my characters have clear goals and a clear antagonist before I start.

  4. I have been thinking about this big time. I’m going to actually be playing jenga with a wip for NaNo, revising, and i really need a plan of the structure. a lot will have to be completely rewritten, and i need an overall vision to turn two kind of messy ms’s into a trilogy. yikes.
    good post– will check out the tips!

  5. I am usually such a pantser! 🙂 I tried out the synopsis idea for my last story, though, and while it’s still not finished yet (thank you very much, writer’s block), it’s really helped keep me on track with the direction I wanted to go. Some of the specifics changed a bit, but overall, I’ve found it a very helpful way to plan out a story without sucking all the fun out of it.

  6. These are all great tips. I think there are lots of ways to work, and maybe different novels have different needs as far as writing. I used to just write, and then I realized when I got to the end that the story kept changing and edits would require a serious overhaul – and I chose to just start a new book instead. That one I planned out better.

    I don’t outline, but I do block out my book ahead of time now. I like to do it by general pages or percentages, so I know about what should happen when. It gives me something to be writing towards so I know what each scene needs to take it to the next one. It’s very flexible, but provides just enough structure to help me not flounder.

    I wrote about it here:

    I can’t wait to watch your progress on NaNo. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to join. I’m not doing so good on writing right now, and I’d love to put everything else on hold to write. I’m just not sure that’s an option.

    I guess it’s about making it an option, huh?

  7. I’m a pantser all the way! This is the first time I’ve gotten even a rough synopsis together from the get-go.

    I like both the concept outline and the list of questions. I’m not sure if either of them will work for me, but I may give them a try. I’m going to try using note cards with scenes outlined on them — I can shuffle them at will to put the story together and write a scene or two at a time.

    We’ll see if it actually works. Good luck next month!

  8. I totally wear my pants on my sleeve. It’s quite the fashion statement. But this year, I too am planning for NaNo.

    Plotting is definitely my weakness, and it shows when I first-draft as a pantser. I’m thinking a little planning might result in a less disastrous first draft. Right now I have pages of random ideas/notes, which I hope to pull together into a rough synopsis before November 1 (which is getting damn close).

    Thanks for the planning links/suggestions! 🙂

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  14. I’m a bit of both really, I start off pantsing and then try to develop characters with pictures and character sketches and then try to list a few story ideas/synopsis. I understand the need for conflict and the first plot point and structure in stories. I have no problem thinking up initial story ideas and write stuff that others enjoy reading, but weaving my stories into a complete novel is my biggest stumbling block. I even created my own version of the chapter concept statement you mention in excel spreadsheet. Then my brain coughs and splutters and runs out of steam and then I move onto the next project. I’m still working on it.

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