There are two ways to write a novel. Plotting (you make an outline, a plan, a roadmap if you will, and then you sit down and write it) and pantsing (you write "by the seat of your pants, throwing caution to the wind). So when I get asked if I'm a plotter or a pantser, I'm all like er, uh, hold on, let me? Pantser? I think? But I kind of, um, do planny things?
And it gets kind of awkward because in these inarticulate moments I have managed to confuse everyone including myself. And probably spilled a drink.
In recent discussions, however, I've had a bit of a revelation, silly as it is. I've realized that I -- like many writers -- am a plotter/pantser hybrid. And perhaps what I'm doing is something we could call Pantsing Responsibly. And, maybe, just maybe, I could share some of my responsible pantsing tips with other writers. Starting with paper notebooks.
Anyone can find a notebook. If there isn't already one in your house (for shame!), you can get a notebook for like ninety-nine (American) cents at your grocery store. Or you can splurge and get a fancy Moleskine or something (I do, sometimes). Notebooks are as cheap as you need them to be, easy to come by, and presumably easy to use. But I guess with a lot of people doing the bulk of their writing on computers, using a paper notebook doesn't come as naturally. So here are some plotter-esque things that any pantser can do with a notebook in hand.
Some of my novelling notebooks: 1.AUGUST TIDES, aka NaNoWriMo 2010; 2. April of this year's Camp NaNo, ANDI & VINE,
cowritten with Priya Chand; 3. 1999; 4. GRUNGE, which I may never finish; 5. ME AND THE JERSEY DEVIL; 6. My first novel,
MYSELF BEHIND MYSELF, back then just called "Jody Book;" 7. FOOL's GOLD, which is no longer a novella (NaNoWriMo 2011);
8. COME ON EILEEN, aka Camp NaNo August 2012, cowritten with Priya Chand; 9. my current project, CHARLOTTE, AFTER.
1. Set aside a notebook for your project. Right now.
This might seem silly and self-indulgent, but the point is to organize all your thoughts and ideas for the project in one space. Now that I say it, it seems kind of obvious, right? I have a different notebook for every novel I've finished (and even some that I haven't). And when I get feedback on drafts, and do revisions, I can go and keep all of that information in the notebook, too.
2. Write a mini-synopsis.
Maybe you can't write the whole thing. But if you can at least come up with a tag line (like what would be on the cover of a book or in a movie trailer), or a bit of a blurb (like the back of a book) it will be super helpful to you as you write!
The synopsis page from COME ON EILEEN. Lots of these things changed as we wrote, but it was a good place to start.
3. Make a page for each of your main characters.
These are not character sheets. Okay, maybe a bit about how they look, bust mostly about how they think, their points of view, how they might act and talk. If there are important things you're likely to forget (I forget stuff about cars all the time), write those down. I always note what kind of car my character drives (if they drive) and usually some hobbies.
This is the character page for Kasey aka Ethan (name changes happen a lot) in my ME AND THE JERSEY DEVIL notebook.
Everyone's style is different, but when I'm starting a book I like to have a few ideas on things like theme and voice and character development. But I also like to think about roadblocks a lot. I always say that the three things you need to know are who your character is, what she wants, and what's in her way. One of the things I brainstorm either right after I start or even before is a list of possible roadblocks. The things that get in your character's way are what add tension and excitement to the story. So having a list there is super helpful!
The "Possible Crises" brainstorm page from my current project, CHARLOTTE, AFTER, which is a road trip book. (I like bears.)
Every day can't be a sit down and know exactly what to do with your story from the second you open the file day. When I'm stuck, one thing I do is journal about my writing, about the book, where it's going and what loose ends I have to tie up. If you let yourself kind of freewrite about the story, you might realize where it needs to go, what happens next, or even get an idea for something new to try. Even when you're not writing the novel, you're thinking about it, and that thinking is much more effective when it's written down and stored somewhere tangible.
A page of journalling from AUGUST TIDES (working title VISITED THE SEA). There are many more pages of journaling like this,
especially after I got revision notes from my agent. (This is the book that landed me said agent.)
Everyone's notebooks will be different. From the kind of notebook you buy -- I like smaller skinnier notebooks with pretty covers, you might like a legal pad -- to what you do with it. But I don't think any writer should be without one. I hope these tips are helpful for you pantsers out there looking for a way to organize. You don't have to write a 50-page outline to prep for a new novel (though I know writers who work this way!), but life sure is easier as a novelist when you have some ideas to fall back on when you get stuck, and a bit of direction along the way.
Happy notebooking, y'all!