Planning vs. Pantsing

It’s the infinite NaNoWriMo question. I’ve tried both, and would say I’ve had considerably more success pantsing, but that planning is easier. Make sense? About as much sense as the process of making things up and writing things down can, I suppose. Here’s my pro-con list, in which each method’s pro has its con in the opposing method’s pro. Eh.

PANTSING:

  • No prep work. Perfect for the lazy/disorganised.
  • No restrictions. Want to flip from technobabble to dinosaurs? No problem! Gritty inner-city modern-slice-of-life to Tudor period drama? Go for it! (Already I am constructing both of these stories in my mind.)
  • The imagination is completely free! It’s so much easier to be creative when you have no walls and boundaries.
  • Writers’ block? Write something, anything at all! You can always work out how it makes sense with your story later, and who knows where that’ll take it?

PLANNING:

  • Lots of prep work. Great for when you want to get going early, or if you have so many ideas you’re scared of forgetting something.
  • Enough restrictions for the brain to function properly. You’ve got a great, linear story idea? It probably needs, shock horror, a storyline. Yes, you might not know whodunnit yet, but you’ll want a vague idea of how you – and the reader – is going to find out.
  • The imagination gets to do the cream of its work – the colouring in, if you like, of creativity. It’s so much easier to be specific when you have a nice neat outline.
  • Writers’ block? No problem! You can just pick up the next neat bit of outline and get going on that, with no worries that it won’t work, because you already have a map for where you’re going and what you’re doing!

So, even with this tiny, four-point list you can see that it’s all much of a muchness, and that the main thing is, still, just putting one word after another. My best advice, if you’re not sure which you are, or if you’re one and are rapidly, at this end of Week 1 phase of NaNoWriMo wishing you were the other, why not try a tiny switch? If you’ve been pantsing up until now, take precisely two minutes to construct yourself an outline. Then confine yourself to that for exactly one day’s writing and see how it goes. If you’ve had a fine plan and you’ve run out out at 10,001 words, or you’re bored of everything about it and wish your characters would jump off a cliff/form a knitting circle/time travel already, hide your outlines and character assumptions from yourself for the day and write a sidebar, a prequel, a parallel universe, hey, why not stick them in space for a minute and see what happens?

It’s not original advice, but then, there really is no original advice when it comes to writing, and if you’re not one of the wonderfully inspiring/soul-crushing types who are powering into the 20ks and beyond already and tweeting gleefully about it, you might well be procrastinating exactly as much as I am and trawling the blogs of fellow NaNoers looking to be told once more things you already know in order to simply keep going. So, I’m just doing my bit for the community here, k?

Happy NaNo; here’s to Week 2!

(P.S. full disclosure: I’m well behind at only 7,676 words. But I’ve got plenty of time to catch up today, and no fear for it.)

A Catalogue of My Excuses

I am very much the kind of human that makes excuses, qualifications and clarifications before everything. I serve a meal and warn that it might not be okay because the peppers are a fortnight old or because I got all wrapped up in Wittertainment and forgot to stir for a while or because it’s Tuesday and salt has new kinds of chemical reaction to courgette on Tuesdays, or whatever, not because I want to be blameless, but rather the opposite – I want you to know that if my food happens to suck, I already know why and am sorry for that but have made the decision to serve it to you anyway.

This is very much the feeling I’m having about the self-publishing thing (aiming for Sunday, if you’re curious for a timeframe). I know there are rather epic flaws and fails within this book, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to read it. I hope there aren’t major, serious inconsistencies. I seriously, desperately hope there aren’t any typos or spelling mistakes. I am doing my very best to remove any words that don’t need to be there.

That’s the thing, really. I’m doing my very best. I need that to be good enough.

There has been a time at which I’ve really wanted to go through ‘traditional’ avenues, but, thinking about it in every possible way of late, I’ve realised I don’t think of self-published books as being any less of a book at all, and therefore why wait? This isn’t a book I think will sell millions. I hope, I really hope there’s someone somewhere out there with whom it resonates, somehow: that’d be more than enough, and a happy success. I want to see what I can do with what and who I already have, without paying anyone to give me their version of it, without having someone else chop it about or tell me I must.

It’s an odd book. The pacing is not perfect. Or even good, perhaps. I love things that unravel. I love things that come together at the end. I love endings. I love to know what happened. Why it happened. How. I want to answer questions, and leave space for imaginings. I want to bundle a spider’s web together and make it into a really smooth, neat ball of complexity.

I’m embarrassed to say how hard I’ve been trying, how much I want this to be a legitimate, worthwhile read. But it doesn’t have to be that for everyone. It isn’t everyone’s kind of thing. This is why I don’t know how to sell it, or explain it. I don’t want to tell you the story on the cover: that’s what reading’s for. But blurbs are important for a lot of people, so it seems, and, well, you only need to look at the kind of rating system the internet enjoys on its recreational reading to see that people don’t like to be surprised by certain kinds of content.

So, those excuses.

– I wrote a book I wanted to read. Specifically, just what I wanted. There’s no reason it should correlate with what anyone else wants to read, but, then again, a lot of people love things I love just like I love them, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t either.

– It starts with a dream. Apparently this is the worst possible most cliche narrow-minded atrocious thing one can do with a YA novel. I shan’t start another novel like that. But that is, regardless, where this novel begins, and I’m not going to change that.

– Speaking of cliche, I don’t think anyone looks at themselves in the mirror for a long while, but there’s a good chance they do. I don’t think that’s the worst thing either. I look at myself in the mirror every day. And think about what I see.

– I don’t really mind being a cliche. I don’t mind if you can’t finish it. I kind of need to say that. It’s okay if you don’t like my things. That’s interesting too.

– I don’t think this is a big thing for anyone that isn’t me. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 48 hours contemplating things like being British and worrying/wondering what people think of who you are and what you do because, damnit, the opinions of people you love and respect are important. I’ve wavered multiple times over the sentence “I’m a writer” or “I’m trying to become a writer” because there seem to be so many implications beyond “I am a purveyor of word collections” there. Regardless of whether there legitimately are or aren’t, I feel them.

– I intend to write a lot of books. Books vary in quality. I want to write a lot of different things, a lot of different styles. I want to improve. I don’t want – at this point – to sculpt and shape what I’m doing into a format. I want to start by being honest about where I am and what I can do alone.

– The beginning of my book is stilted and wonky. But at the beginning, my characters are stilted and wonky. I’m trying to look at this as us all learning together, and I think there’s something nice in that. But I wonder if readers will be so forgiving? Should they have to be? No, absolutely not. Hmm.

– I suppose what I’m saying is, I want you to know that I’m both terrified of people thinking I’m getting above myself by putting what I’m doing into the world the way I’ve made it, and wishing that I could say, I’m a writer and have 100% of the people I say that to find that a tangible and applicable description.

How to Start Writing

Having got excited about this, I thought I’d ask and see if there was anything any of my friends wanted me to write about, and Bearnerdette suggested About writing. Your methods, your inspiration, and so on and I thought, that’s a good idea.

And then I thought, oh crikey, where to start? Because I have a LOT of thoughts about writing. I have a lot of thoughts about most things, true, but especially about writing. I could write forever about writing, but that might not be too helpful, so, in this post, what I will try doing is to start by writing about starting writing. Which took me a lot longer than anything else in my writing ‘career’ thus far.

I’m not writing this because I think I have anything new, or special to say, but because, before I could write, what I did was read what other writers said about how they did writing. Anything and everything I could find. Repeatedly. On the matter, the most famous and prolific and prevalent are probably Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, both of whom could be described as exceptionally enabling. But not just them, no. I looked for the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, and I searched for self-publishers who were writing, and I read author friends’ blogs about writing and anything about writing I could find.

I do think I thought there’d be a magic incantation I could recite, which would magically make writing easy, or plot possible. I figured, if I could just check with enough writers, one of them would’ve been foolish enough to let it slip.

I spent almost all of my twenties avoiding writing. Firstly, because I liked it, and I found it very difficult to ‘allow’ myself to write things. Secondly, because I didn’t have anything to write about. I couldn’t imagine any characters, I couldn’t see any stories, I had a lot to say, but it wasn’t really important, or consequential, and I couldn’t understand how I’d sit down and come up with anything even slightly original. So I didn’t. I waited. I figured, one day a story would walk up to me and say, Hi Abbi! I’m your bestseller. Would you mind sitting down here and taking dictation?

Actually, that’s not so far from what happened. It’s just, the difference is, I walked up to the story and said, would you mind telling yourself to me so I could write it down? And the stretched truth of the metaphor is, I sat down and started typing.

I’m not saying anything about the quality of what I write, or hoping to make out that I am particularly good at it; recall, I am British, and thus self-effacing and self-deprecating and still new to this idea that one must use the internet to sell oneself and one’s capabilities at all possible moments. But what I am saying is, I know how to sit down and get writing.

That’s all I did, and that’s all, it transpires, you have to do. But sitting down and starting was still ridiculously difficult! If you’re not someone who’s ever struggled to get started, then, it’s likely difficult to imagine. But, if you are, or, worse, you can sit down, but you don’t get further than a few words here or a few words there, then you know exactly what I mean. I found three ways through this.

How To Sit Down And Start Writing

1. NaNoWriMo or, National Novel Writing Month. If you haven’t heard of it, and you’ve always wanted to write a book, hie thee to their website or this book, and have at it. It’s wondrously motivating, a great community of people, and some fabulous books have come out of it. All you do is write 1,667 words a day for a month, and swim in a sea of tips and encouragement whilst you’re at it, and then, lo and behold, you have a workable first draft of something. More or less. But it’ll get you started, and over the hump.

2. But sometimes a goal alone is not enough! Sometimes you don’t want to write a novel. Sometimes you need to write a short story quickly. Sometimes you’ve got an article you have to get out, or a blog post to write, and everything you write is nonsense, or you really need to clean the kitchen floor, or you’re a useless, hopeless writer who mustn’t ever be allowed near anything that can form letters, not even rice or dust, and you need to Just. Start. Then you, my friend, need WriteOrDie which, whilst not literal, at least feels that way. I set mine to 1,000 words in 15 minutes (I am a typing demon, so this is no stretch for me – you want to have it at the very limit of your constant typing powers, with a few seconds spare for flexing away the pain) and just GO. It doesn’t matter what you write. Write about writing. Write about a blister. Write about a fox. Write about cheese. It’s amazing how many peculiar stories start to thread their way into existence if you just…type. Before you know it, you’re finding an urchin with a cheese obsession who rides a fox through a forest until it gets a blister on its paw and, you get it. And the thing about doing it in that window is that it feels like some daft game, not at all like Serious Writing, and then when you look at it later it’s quite difficult to work out where it came from at all. But it doesn’t matter where it came from: all that matters is, suddenly it’s there!

3. Perhaps this is too weird or intense. Perhaps that much typing is not fun. Perhaps you like writing with an Actual Pen. Well, here’s that thing that sometimes people talk about and often people talking about writing mention, and I’m going to mention it too because it sorta kinda works sometimes. In The Artist’s Way (not really a book I’d recommend, it’s pretty weird and quite dramatic, but this bit’s good) Julia Cameron suggests (actually, she insists) that you write ‘morning pages’ – three sides of A4, every morning, without fail. About anything or nothing. Just fill three sides of A4 with words. This is basically a low-pressure version of WriteOrDie. It does a similar thing, though, in getting the words out, and demystifying the procedure of stringing together words.

These things are also, stuck or not, things I like to do before trying to actually write any specific story, because they let me a) have something to start with, for nothing makes me find other things to do like a blank page b) see what the obvious thing to write might be, or c) discover I actually want to write about something else rather a lot.

Where do you start?

I am now trying to start my stories in the middle. It turns out that the beginning isn’t usually that important, and, if you must, you can always write a bit of it just before the end.

But where do you get the first idea from?

Open a book, start with the first word your eyes land upon. Then write another word after that, and, lo, that’s writing.

One more thing: I used to set everything up nicely. I used to think I needed a desk, a space, an hour, a rainy day, a whisky, a soundtrack, a cat, you get it. All I needed was something to write with, and somewhere to write. Everything else can be there, or not. I try, I really do, to make a point of not getting myself into a place where I need x to start, or y to continue, because that way a really clean kitchen floor and no words lies.

So, this is the start of my writing about writing. Do you write? How do you start writing? Do you have a ritual or a place for it? Even if I have figured out how I like to do things, I still never tire of hearing how other writers do these things.