When Planning Goes Wrong

There are many different “kinds” of writers, but they mostly boil down to three types–at least for National Novel Writing Month.

There’s the Planner, the outliner, the one who knows exactly what he or she is going to write each day.

There’s the Pantser, the person who, on day one, sits down and “flies by the seat of their pants.”

There’s the hybrid of the two, the Plannser, the writer who plans a bit and then wings it.

Which Am I?

I’m mostly a Plannser. I always have an idea about what the project will be each year, and I do some research and take some notes. But the first time I did NaNoWriMo in 2008, I sat down one day in November (I’d been on travel for work.) and simply started writing the first thing that came into my head. A year later when I was retired and had the whole month with no interruptions, I “outlined”–each chapter consisting of a quote from The Art of War as a title, 30 of them. However, each day I’d look at the quote and start writing whatever that quote inspired.

When I started using Scrivener to compose, I used its organizational capabilities to the fullest, but I still wouldn’t call myself a Planner. I know there are some writers who can write no other way except with a meticulous and detailed outline. If it works for them, fine. It’s hardly ever worked for me.

Back in the Pleistocene when I went to high school, my English teachers required us to submit an outline of our term papers. The outline was part of the grade. I understood the purpose–teaching us how to organize and research–and I’m grateful to those teachers because I hit college already knowing how to do this.

The problem was after I’d made a proper outline and conducted my research, my term papers would quite often diverge from the outline. One teacher handed my term paper back with a big, old fat zero on it because I’d diverted from the outline. She did, however, give me an opportunity to rectify that, but she also reminded me I couldn’t do that in college, that I needed to “stick to the outline.”

Most of my papers in college were for history and political science, and for the professors who required outlines, I could submit a revised outline when I handed in the paper. I’d submit an outline as requested, write the paper, then write a new outline afterward. Sometimes it bore absolutely no resemblance to the original.

So, I’ve always found detailed outlines restrictive to my creativity and vague outlines helpful.

NaNoWriMo 2020

Like almost everything else in 2020, NaNoWriMo this year is very different. No in-person write-ins. Not much interest in online write-ins via ZOOM or Discord. But for some reason I decided to approach this year’s project almost as cockeyed as the year itself.

I chose to write a “memoir” for a fictional character. First, I’m not a memoirist. I won’t be writing mine because boring. My life, that is. But I’ve read enough of them to get an idea of how it works.

In October I created a Scrivener project with a chapter file for each day in November, then for each chapter I indicated what the character would “write” about that day. I had logical chapters like, “My Mother,” “My Father,” etc.

That worked really well until, well, Friday the 13th. Naturally.

One thousand six hundred sixty-seven words a day over 30 days gives you a bit more than the 50,000-word goal for NaNoWriMo. I’d been averaging 2,500 words a day, so I had a good pad of words; I was ahead of the game.

But on 11/13, I sat for most of the day staring at the blank screen for that chapter, and no words would come.

However, a scene for a chapter 10 or 12 days away kept nagging at me, almost begging me to write it. But, no, I said, I must follow the outline. After almost a full day of stops and starts, I finally said, “Forget the outline! I’m writing what I want to write.” (Actually my language was a bit stronger.)

After giving myself permission to ignore the “outline,” I wrote the scene that had been swirling in my head, and all was right in my writing world.

Whether you’re a Planner, Pantser, or Plannser, remember it’s okay to break out of your mold, to do whatever it takes to get the words on the screen.