NaNoWriMo – Pantser or Plotter?

Current word count: 30,433 …

and I’ve just come up with a major subplot for the lads


Thought I’d discuss the two basic types of writers this post. Well, actually there are three, because I believe you can be a combination.


A plotter is a careful planner, a writer who outlines the entire novel ahead of time. A plotter sometimes writes such a thorough and detailed outline that it’s practically a novel in itself. Some plotters outline down to the scene level, while others simply write rough ideas for each chapter.

If you’re a plotter, you know what’s going to happen next. This helps prevent writer’s block and gives you a target. However, if you get stuck or decide to change something, you often find that you must redo your entire outline.


A pantser is a writer who writes “by the seat of your pants,” without an outline. Pantsers just like to start writing and see how it goes, letting the characters loose to do as they choose and to pick the direction of the story.

If you’re a pantser, you have the freedom to change anything at all, at any time you so choose. However, not knowing where you’re going sometimes means you get stuck. Many pantsers have strings of unfinished projects trailing along behind them.


I believe that you can be a combination of both extremes, and NaNoWriMo agrees with me, for it’s come up with this designation this year. A plantser is a writer who has a basic idea where the story is going, but likes the freedom to explore tangents. Plantsers usually have a rough outline of some sort, or at least a vague idea of the plot.

I think this is the best of both worlds. You’ve got the road map, but you’re giving yourself the opportunity to try different routes along the way.

7 Sure-Fire Story Ideas

Coming up with new story ideas is easy for some writers – they have trouble narrowing their ideas down to just one!


However, some writers have more trouble figuring out a good plot to go with their characters. For those who do, here are some tried and true tips:

  • Ask “what if?” – look at any ordinary situation and imagine what would happen if …. What if the blind date that man is waiting for at the table next to yours turns out to be a psychopath — or his soulmate? What if that off-the-beaten-path trail leads to a murder scene? What if the train derails just as it pulls into the station?
  • Finish this quote: _____ was not what it seemed. You can make an unlimited number of stories this way. The new neighbors were not what they seemed. The charming hotel was not what it seemed. The road trip was not what it seemed.
  • Finish this quote as well: If only she/he hadn’t ______. This is another practically infinite prompt. If only he hadn’t taken that short cut. If only she hadn’t tried that new restaurant. If only they hadn’t decided to vacation here.
  • Eavesdrop. This is always a great way to get story ideas. You hear the oddest things in a public location, and any one of them could turn into a great story for you.
  • Reinvent a scene from a book or movie. Take an insignificant scene from a book or movie and imagine that as the opening scene for your story.
  • Surf the net. Type a subject into your search engine and just start clicking anything that looks interesting. You’re bound to come up with something that stirs your imagination pretty quickly.
  • Catch up with the news. Watch online or on TV, or read the newspaper. Something’s sure to catch your eye and trigger your emotions.

These aren’t all the ways a writer can come up with great story ideas, of course, but they’re ones that have always worked.

What are your tried and true idea generating ideas?

Conflict 101

Conflict and tension can be difficult to create and maintain. You don’t need an all-powerful super villain to oppose your character, but you do need some sort of believable conflict if the reader is going to enjoy your stories.


Laurie Johnson says, “The best way to create internal conflict is to really dig deep into the character. Think about what’s driving them, what their motivations are, what their background is, what has happened in the past to make them who they are. From this, think about the emotions they would experience when placed in situations that tap into their conflict and bring these out on the page

The most believable conflicts are the ones that grow naturally out of your characters and their situation. Drop your people into the middle of the action and see how they react. Their feelings, their hopes and dreams, their fears — all these will create the conflicts and tension you need to keep your readers hooked.

You don’t need world-shattering conflicts to have a good story. You just need characters who want things.

Cut to the Chase

Ever pick up what looks like a good read, only to drop it after the first couple of pages?

You’ve probably encountered a weak opening – something even an experienced writer can fall prey to. Sometimes it’s hard to decide just where the action really starts, or just how much backstory the reader is going to need.


Just how do you tell when you’ve been trapped by a weak opening anyway? It’s not as easy as spotting a typo. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to figure it out:

  • When does the tension start? Most of the time, you can skip everything you think you need to add in order to “build up” to the tension. Just start when the main action starts and fill things in later.
  • Does this advance the plot? No matter how much you like a passage, if it’s not absolutely necessary to move the story forward, cut it. If it’s really needed, you’ll find a way to work it in later.
  • Does the reader need this now? Always keep this in mind. Anything the reader doesn’t totally need to know should be saved for later in the story.

The important thing is to hook your audience into the tale. You can amaze them with your eloquence and backstory after you’ve gotten them involved in your characters’ lives.

Hillerman Convention: Day 1

Thursday is the Pre-Converence Conference. Today we learned The Anatomy of Engaging Stories (Bill O’Hanlon)



Elements of an Engaging Story:

  • Characters – must engage the reader; the reader must identify with the character in some way. Create a mental image of the character with names, appearance, gestures, dialogue, and what other characters say or think.
  • Specific sensory details about people, places or actions – use the five senses!
  • Action (Plot: beginnings, middles and ends) – the character must be frustrated or threatened or face conflict somehow, must feel called to act or thwarted in his action.
  • Scene setting – props and sets; think more Little Theater than Hollywood – go for minimal props and setting (place/time/social)
  • Dialogue – bring the reader into the moment
  • Vague enough to allow for imagination (let the reader “hallucinate” much of the description)
  • Repetition of sounds/theme/elements
  • Revisiting the beginning at the end (story arc)

Elmore Leonard used the term “hoppetedoodle” (HOP-tee-doo-dle) to mean too much descriptive detail in a story.

We also had a great lecture about “The Language of Liars,” which is going to be quite useful to me with Chance! Then, it was Tony Hillerman’s 90th birthday party (with cake!), and a chance to see the new educational portal UNM is working on, to take Tony’s legacy to schools and educate young writers.

Guest Post: Subject is Variable – Character is Everything

Today’s guest lecturer is Amanda Rosenblatt:

When writing anything, whether it is an OpEd blog, a creative short story, or a fact sheet, the character put into the text is crucial. When I say “character,” I do not mean a talking rabbit that solves crimes.

People who are lucky to find careers in writing aren’t always going to be lucky enough to write about what they want to. Some are very blessed to have gotten to release the content they wanted to, or they find success in self-publishing, but there are others who write about the subject matter they are given to work with.

Any true writer is just happy to write and can work with anything they are given. The written word is their broken glass, the subject being the glue, and the final product becoming the mosaic made from materials once deemed worthless.

A great example of this concept is “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” The “My Little Pony” franchise before 2010 was successful at selling toys, but their films and TV series were lackluster in their reception, at best. Now, the fourth generation of the franchise is highly successful and noted for its depth in storytelling, as well as character building.

The people who created this generation were not the makers of the subject, being “My Little Pony.” The series was born from a toy Hasbro released in the early 1980s, so it is not new.

The writers worked with what they had to make something better. Something relevant to modern society that was educational and entertaining. Not only did it appeal to children, its target audience, but it even pulled in an adult audience, who lovingly call themselves Bronies or PegaSisters.

Were the writers for this show passionate about the subject matter at first? Likely no, since it was just another writing job and they were adults building the concept of a children’s show. But look at what they created with the subject matter given!

The moral of the story is that it shouldn’t matter if you are writing a technical manual, a satirical piece, or a feature story. Take the subject, give it life, infect it with character, and make the words work with you. You’ll give them all something to talk about, even if it’s completely by accident.

Amanda Rosenblatt is a fellow contributor to with J.E.S. Hays, and a writer for VA Home Loan Centers. Follow the VA HLC Twitter account, or visit their site.

Catch ‘Em Quick

Writing a catchy first paragraph is a must for every writer, but especially for fiction writers. If the reader isn’t hooked in the first paragraph, sometimes the first two or three if they’re generous, they’re not going to be interested in finishing the story.


“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, April 1986

The first thing you need to keep in mind is this quote from Joyce Carol Oates. She’s right: in order to craft a really fascinating first sentence or paragraph, you must have your ending already crafted. All this means, of course, is that you finish your first draft before you wrack your brain trying to find that perfect  opening scene. Get the story down, then worry about creating your “hook.”

A good first paragraph starts in the midst of the action. Don’t begin your story with the character waking up and brushing his teeth, then eating breakfast and going to work. Start with the body falling past the window in his office. The reader will wait a bit to learn more about your protagonist if you give them a good enough story.

Once you’ve completed your first draft, find the scene that starts your action, and lead with that scene. That’s your hook.

What is a Scene?

Many writers, especially new writers, have trouble with scenes. They can picture the beginning of their story and the end, but what comes between gets a little hazy.


The key to keeping your story moving is to be able to write a good scene, and to keep those scenes coming. And the key to a good scene is conflict.

Pages of prose do not a scene make, nor does dialogue between characters. Unless there is some sort of conflict and movement from one value state to another, you don’t have a scene. You should have movement from negative to positive, or vice versa. Hate turns to love, or guilt to innocence. Each scene should have some sort of “turn” or movement.

Make sure your scenes go somewhere. They must follow the story pyramid: inciting incidents, progressive complications and tension, climax and resolution. If you get stuck, think about your character arc: is your character getting closer to his goals or further away? It has to move in one direction or the other along the arc for it to be a successful scene.

Unfortunately, the easy to understand scenes are often the most difficult to craft. The scenes that stick in a reader’s mind are the ones you’ve had to edit and re-edit to perfection. And when you’re writing scenes, remember: the first thing that comes into your mind is something that’s already been done. Go deeper and seek out the real tension and conflict that will drive a truly memorable scene.

Plot or Character Driven?

Are you a plot-driven or character-driven writer? By this I mean what sorts of stories do you typically write?


It all depends on what sorts of questions you ask. Do you find yourself asking “What if” questions, such as “What if a tornado hit my town?” or “What if that man suddenly started running down the street toward me?” These are plot questions, questions about the story itself. Stories that answer this sort of question are plot-driven stories.

If you find yourself asking “Why” questions, such as “Why did that woman just laugh?” or “Why does that man feel the need to step in and help that person?” then you’re asking character questions. Stories that deal with internal struggles are character-driven stories.

Good stories have a mix of both plot and character – they have an external plot driving the story, but they also have internal character struggles going on at the same time. The trick is to pay attention to what you’re doing so you can have an even mix of character-driven scenes and plot-driven scenes.

Action: The Fight Scene

Writing an action scene isn’t as easy as it sounds sometimes. Take the fight scene, for example.


It’s not enough to write “He punched the man in the face.” Your readers need to know specifics if they’re going to imagine the scene properly.

Here are some things you might want to keep in mind when writing those scenes:

  • What type of punches are thrown?
  • What types of holds are used?
  • What types of throws are used?
  • What type of weapons are used?
  • What type of ammunition is used in the weapons?
  • What does it feel like to throw a punch?
  • What does it feel like to take one?
  • What does it feel like to wrestle?
  • What does it feel like to fire a weapon?
  • What are the emotions your characters would feel during the fight?
  • What are the sounds they might hear?
  • What scents might be present during a fight?

This is also the time you want to do your research. Trust me, while some of your readers won’t know that a Glock pistol doesn’t have a safety catch, there are plenty of gun enthusiasts who will – and they’ll be turned off by your lack of research if you give your character a Glock with a safety catch. Find out all about boxing or whatever martial arts your character may know. Learn the names of some of the wrestling moves your character might use. Look up that firearm and learn its capabilities. If you’ve never been in a fight, consider going to a boxing match or martial arts tournament so you can see the nitty-gritty of what’s going on.