Pantser Mentality

I completed my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel in 2010. For the last nine years, I’ve written 50k words every November. This is the premise of NaNoWriMo: Writers all over the world commit to writing a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days, from November 1-November 30. This year, 2020, was set to mark my ten year anniversary of committing to NaNoWriMo despite not being, or aspiring to be, a novelist.

For me, the point of writing a novel every year for a decade was to see if I could do it. It was a challenge, and I like those, be it writing, push-ups, or combating climate change. There have been years I’ve hit 50k by November 15th, others where I’ve had to write 15k on November 30th to make the count, but I’ve never failed to hit my word count.

It’s simply not something I would do, given the slightest possibility that I could make it happen, only this year I didn’t commit. I was focused on the election, the pandemic, work I love, and everything that goes along with those cares. I mean, sure, ten years of NaNo has a nice ring to it, but where is the challenge when I know I can knock out 50k words in a month no problem? So I resigned myself, without ceremony, to not completing a novel this year.

Then something happened. Around November 8th, after the election had been called and a smidge of stress began to melt off, I began to think more joyfully about a writing challenge. On November 15th, with a word count of zero, I sat my butt in a chair and started typing. Knowing that it was likely to be a tough go this year, I made a deal with myself: I’m not writing a novel but I am going to hit my word count. I’ve made these deals with myself dozens of times before, all in the spirit of “the perfect is the enemy of the good” (Voltaire, ish). Better to write what I cared about than demand a novel of myself when I didn’t want to write one. By the end of the day on the 15th, I had 10,835 words on the page.

Part of the appeal of this yearly ritual is:

  1. it forces me to Just Keep Going rather than getting hung up on all of the infinite possibilities a story has when it’s in the works
  2. I have to get up the energy to “start” writing every day, which is a fantastic muscle to flex, especially when that muscle has been atrophied all year
  3. it allows me to track where my imagination has taken me every November for a decade. It’s tough to see the patterns of our own creativity when we are so close to ourselves, but after a decade of novel writing it’s clear that I’m hardcore into writing magical realism and that my driving force to write novels is to challenge myself. When I realized a few years in that I was only writing in the third person, I switched to first  person for the next two novels. When I realized I had a bent toward magical realism, I switched to regular realism just to see what it was like. I had only written fiction up to last year, so I wrote non-fiction last year just to give it a go. I found ways to adapt the challenge of “write a novel in 30 days” to suit my need for variability every year.

This year, as with every year for the last decade, I met myself where I’m at. And, as always, I took myself on a journey. I sat down, without a plan, to see what words would flow out of me. This is what NaNoWriMo folks call being a ‘pantser’, as in ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’

I’ve never shown anyone the novels I wrote in the last ten years for the simple reason that they are absolute trash. Trust me when I say that I wouldn’t inflict this drivel on my worst enemy. The badness of the work doesn’t matter. The quality of the writing was secondary to the quality of the perseverance. This goal of novel writing was to tap into my grit.

Now, you are not my enemies so I would never subject you to these novels, but I thought I’d give you a glimpse into ten years of starting points. Ten first paragraphs, all ‘pantsed’, full of typos and bad grammar, not to mention bad writing, and unseen by any eyes but mine. I offer these to you as talismans to paste at the top of your own blank pages so you are not alone as you begin your own next work; a reminder that you are part of a cohort of gritty wordsmiths (or gamesmiths or metalsmiths or joysmiths or whatever you craft in this world!) bringing something new to life, where once there was nothing.

Ten Years of NaNoWriMo First Paragraphs


There are people to whom this world belongs, or rather, who belong to this world.  They enjoy miso soup, hot dogs, and each others company.  They walk, talk, limit themselves with human emotions, and strive for things that others have and do.  Little do they know, they lucked out big time.  They could easily have been born into a world without miso soup, hot dogs, or other people who they enjoy the company of, but they were not, they were born into a world that was a good fit for them, on the whole.


It always looks like dawn in the city.  And when there’s no way to see the sun come up over the ocean we settle for light pollution to set the mood.  It’s pinks and purples remind her of growing up by the beach, sneaking out of her house as a kid and staying out all night doing what kids do and seeing the sun rise over the Atlantic was a byproduct of those jaunts into the world of hoodlums.  And they did wear hoods.  It was Connecticut.  But that was dawn like a candle and this wasn’t even dawn. It was 3am, or thereabouts, and the fake dawn had been with them since sunset.


There was a place inside of her radiator where she liked to hide.  The radiator was long gone but the casing remained, like a tribute to drawing room farces or movie moments.  It was completely hollow until our protagonist crawled inside and made it her own.  She brought with her first a stuffed whale, six books, a tiny, sharp cactus, and the blanket from her bed.  And a peanut butter sandwich cut into triangles.  She sat there for days, in the time of a young girl, and grew up immeasurably in the doing of it.  She was courageous, independent, and needed no one, not even to know they were there, which they were; oblivious to her new room.


The sound crept into the town under the cover of dense fog. Johanna felt funny when she woke up and took her tea with lemon and honey to ward off throat demons. The morning was so thick that she put the dog on a leash for their morning walk. She couldn’t have said why but she had the feeling that they would lose each other in this kind of space and the fog would seal their separation with unscalable walls. It played tricks on their ears. Johanna heard her dog behind her and afar and the dog, Salamander, growled at the ether and bit at water particles. At one point Johanna thought she heard something snap in Sal’s mouth when she bit at the air. Sal turned immediately and snarled at her. Johanna stood still for almost a minute while the spirit left Sal’s body and returned her to her sheepish, lumbering self. Johanna and Sal cut their walk short at the end of their road and trekked back home where the light was warm and welcoming.


There lived a taker in a dark wood. The taker took steps like a child, small and careful over the uneven terrain. The woods were big, the trees themselves stretching miles up toward the sky and the roots below eventually melting into the magma at earth’s core. Roots that ran along the surface were all interconnected, some rising high to create arches for the taker to walk under, others just barely skating the surface of the earth, coated with damp, sprouted earth. There was little light to filter into down to the ground but the foliage of these trees were broad and shiny and reflections of light trickled down like a champaign fountain until the last, bubbling rays bounced down the canopy to the ground and activated the spores and seeds embedded in the earth. If the detritus of winter hadn’t overwhelmed the urgency of life within the soil, green things would sprout. The taker’s slow walk allowed for ample time to notice these shoots, coming up in every season. The enclosure of the forest led to a more stable temperature than most groves and here all time was the growing time. Slowly but surely, the green things sprouted. Few survived very long or reached any significant height but the new growth churned like ocean waters, cresting and falling back down on itself, feeding the next undulation. The ecosystem on the surface of the land survived in this way, delicate and eternal, since long before the taker had arrived. The trees, like the carpet fibers of a giant, were woven together with such cohesion that it seemed silly to think of them as individuals. There were trees, and then there was forest, and this was, without a doubt, forest. The taker had heard of these woods since its infancy. There were stories in their homeland of a place so vertical that time moved up and down rather than forward and backward. The taker grew up dreaming of the woods and what it would mean to spin life up and down, never caring what happened next or in the past but what was happening elsewhere at that very moment, and how those elsewheres flowed with the takers present. That was the takers guess about vertical time, that it took more people’s lives into account at any given moment, which appealed to her, as she was inclined to want to live as many lives as possible within her own. One might think, given her history, that she might not be so inclined to live within the other lives of the world, that she might want to live as far from them as possible, but to the taker there was little difference. To experience the lives of everyone was to experience nothing as much as to experience everything. To remain alone was to live a small life, her own and the lives of those around her. The details were what made it so painful. And so she dreamt of a world in which she could flit between lives with great ease and little cost to herself. She dreamt of abundance and buffet and she dreamt of the forest.


The world was a sadder place than she remembered it to be. When she’d been here last year she was determined to love it and this year she was determined to ignore it. But it pressed in at the edges of her eyeballs making everything brighter and whiter than it normally was. She remembered a story that she first heard here, maybe the first story she’d ever heard. It was about a lizard who owed an impossible debt to a milk snake. The milk snake, confident in it’s ability to exact demands on the other creatures of the desert, reveled in the lizard’s paralyzed fear and took the moment of advantage to lick the lizard slowly and steadily with it’s muscular tongue. The lizard was so violated and afraid that it couldn’t move a muscle. The lizard owed the milk snake a debt for driving a standing owl out of it’s home when it’s youngest child had been too ill to move. The milk snake, having received no payment from the lizard in the coming days, had threatened the lizard with the life of t it’s youngest child. The snake was arrogant and egomaniacal and decided to further enhance it’s reputation for physical prowess by telling the lizard that in order to save his youngest offspring he would have to compete with the snake in a contest of who had a more sensitive sense of smell. The lizard, knowing he would lose with just his tiny little nose slots, snuck into the milk snakes’ hole that night and used it’s little claws to tear out the snake’s tongue. He then shoved the snake’s tongue in his own mouth and when the snake showed up for the contest the next day with nothing but a bloody stump where it’s sensory organ had once been, it knew it had lost. The lizard, remembering how confidently and cruelly the snake had licked him from head to toe the day before, slowly let the tongue emerge from it’s mouth and unfurl onto the desert floor. A look of fear flickered in the milk snake’s eyes and it slithered backward, away from the protective fury of the lizard. To this day, the offspring off the milk snake and every other snake on earth does not stay out of it’s mouth long but flicks in and out to protect itself from the wrath of all of it’s victim’s families who are just waiting for the right moment to pounce.


Imogen awoke to a sharp pain in her right side. The hilt of the knife stuck out of her abdomen, the blade fully submerged. She gasped and pulled it from her body, grasping for the black and gold knife handle, desperate to remove it before the poison took hold. She called out for help but her no sound escaped. Her fingers passed through air where the blade was, had been, should have been. The pain began to subside. It was a dull ache now, lessening by the second. Her heart rate slowed and she closed her eyes. There was nothing but blackness. No remains of the dream, no continuation, nothing whatsoever to fear.


Three of clubs, two of diamonds, six of spades. Not even the poker deck had anything to say about hearts. She brushed the cards dramatically off the table with a sigh. Already on the floor was her tarot deck, which she had bought for herself despite the fact that you were apparantly only supposed to obtain them as gifts. Like surprise parties, another thing she’d never been gifted. Which was stupid. Just another way to make people without partners feel alone in the world instead of surrounded by infinite possibility and a strong network of healthy, loving relationships. Syra bent down to collect the cards. A daddy long legs was crawling across the six of cups. “Am I a fucking witch now?” she grumbled, tipping the card upright to encourage the spider to fuck the fuck off.


It’s very cold today. It’s 11.36pm as i begin my hour of writing. why oh why didn’t i do this earlier when i had literally nothing going on.


I completed my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel in 2010. Since then, I’ve written 50k words every November. This is the premise of NaNoWriMo: Writers all over the world commit to writing a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days, from November 1-November 30. This year, 2020, marks ten years that I’ve been committing to NaNoWriMo. I’ve never showed anyone these novel for the simple reason that they are absolute trash. Trust me, I wouldn’t inflict this drivel on my worst enemy. Each of these novels is a first draft that I have never returned to and never intended to return to. The only one of them that still haunts me is from 2015. It was a good story and I’d love for it to be out in the world in a WAY better iterative form, but it’s still absolute garbage right now. The point of writing a novel every year for a decade, for me, was never to be a published novelist. The point was to challenge myself to write a LOT and not care about polish. The point was to see if I could do it. The point was to get it DONE. In that decade, there have been years I’ve hit 50k by November 15th, others where I’ve had to write 15k on November 30th to make the count, but I’ve never failed to hit my word count. It’s simply not something I would do, given the slightest possibility that I could make it happen.

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