NaNoWriMo: How to Fly by the Seat of Your Pants—and Win

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Today’s post is by author and book coach Stephanie Bourbon (@StephOBourbon).

When I first did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2006, I started with nothing but a book title. That’s a little too much pantsing even for me. But I did land an agent and got published through a small publishing house, and that gave me confidence to come back every year to NaNoWriMo and blast out a first draft. And I always “win.” I have written 15 books and over 1 million words during NaNoWriMo. (Although I don’t love to call it winning—we are all fantastic!)

Do I spend months plotting? Do I have it all worked out before I put pen to paper? I must not have a job? Clearly, I sit and write hours every day to finish every time, right?


I work full time, I have two dogs and a husband. Here is my secret.

How you can “win” as a pantser

If you’re a pantser, that means you are flying by the seat of your pants, dodging problems or lobbing them away as they arrive. There is a myth about us pantsers that we don’t have any idea what we’re doing, but usually we do.

I’m a true pantser, and for me, it works. I know that for others it ends up a big old mess. Think of it like this: Some people need to follow recipes, and others, like me, just toss ingredients together and have a Chef Ramsey-esque meal. Okay, well, maybe not that good, but you get the point.

Not all of the novels I have finished during NaNo are published or even great. Some are in fact a mess. It happens. But, I have finished novels each time, which is the goal.

Your goal is 50,000 words or more, and this is all about the math: 50,000 divided by 30 is 1,667 words a day, which is just over an hour if you write at an average speed. Drop Thanksgiving, and it’s 1,724 words, which is doable for most writers. So don’t think of it as 50,000 words; think of it as a daily goal of 1,724 words. Then:

  • Identify a time of day to write that is realistic. For example, if you can’t write for an hour or two every morning, don’t assume you will magically make up the time elsewhere in November. Instead, choose a time or times that work every day.
  • Have accountability buddies or at least one writer who will cheer you on. The first time I did it, I met a friend of mine in Starbucks once a day, and we talked about our stories as we went.
  • Post about your goals on social media. This also helps you stay on track.
  • Plan to finish before November 30. That way you won’t be too behind if something comes up.

Know these things before you start

This should take you about ten minutes to write down, even if you are pantsing.

  • WHO is your story about? What does she want, need, or desire?
  • WHAT happens in the story? Does she discover that her husband has a secret? Does she find out she’s a wizard? Does she have to go back to a small town filled with only gorgeous available partners ready to settle down?
  • HOW does it end? Know the ending or have a solid idea for the ending.
  • The PREMISE: A strong premise will practically write itself. Steve Kaplan talks about the power of premise in his comedy writing workshop and his book The Hidden Tools of Comedy. I highly recommend it.
  • Additional main characters: the love interest, the best friend, the nemesis.

When you know these things, you can write all the way through your novel and finish it on time. If you want to plan a little more, you can go a few small steps forward and know these story beats.

  • THE BEGINNING: How does it open?
  • THE INCITING INCIDENT: What happens to launch the story forward?
  • THE NEW WORLD: Where does the story take place?
  • THE MIDDLE TURNING POINT: What decision is made?
  • THE CRISIS: What happens that sends your main character into her “all is lost” moment?
  • THE CLIMAX: How does it all come to a head?
  • THE RESOLUTION: This is your ending.

What holds most writers back

EDITING as you go.

Write forward, always. Write new pages, no matter what. There are two reasons for this.

  1. You won’t finish if you keep going back to change things. This is also why I pants because when I have a detailed outline, I don’t stick to it. The characters want to go their own way. (However, at the end of a writing day, I will write out on a notecard what will happen in the next chapter.)
  2. Many writers I work with, or have been critique partners with, get stuck on the words. They forget that they are telling a story.

Story is first

Focus on telling a great story and forget about being a good writer, and you will be golden. If you remember anything from this, remember that. I like to call this my wedding cake writing theory.

When you make a cake, you have the flour, the eggs, the water, the oil. You mix these ingredients, and then you add flavors like chocolate and spices—then bake it. This is what NaNoWriMo is all about.

When you continue to edit or go back and make sure each word is perfect, that’s like the little silver ball on top of the rose on top of the base on top of the grenache on top of the icing on top of the top layer, which is on top of the other layer, etc. Don’t focus on the little silver ball. Focus on the mixing and baking.

A final note

NaNoWriMo is a great place to write a first draft, and it will need revision. This is when I do extensive outlining, actually. After I have the first draft, I let it sit for December. Then in January, I outline it using Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer method and Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story and Story Genius for character.

Understand and know that you will revise, and it will give you the freedom to make mistakes. Your draft won’t be perfect, but done is better than not done. Please don’t query your NaNo novel in December. It’s not ready.

In the comments, I’d love to hear about your experiences flying by the seat of your pants during NaNoWriMo!

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