How to Write A Novel: Step 4, or, To Plan or Not to Plan
Planning is one of those vexed questions that some experts on writing can become quite passionate about, even resorting to saying unkind things about writers who do it differently to them.
I’ve read quite a lot about planning, however, and I’ve come to the conclusion that EVERYONE plans (or, possibly, doesn’t plan – but I’ll come to that in a moment) differently.
At the two extremes are writers who plan their story to the nth degree with everything that is going to happen neatly organised into scenes, chapters, et cetera and so forth, and those who get an idea and just start writing with the intention of seeing where it takes them, writing, as it were, by the seat of their pants.
The former tend to scorn the latter as undisciplined, whilst the latter label the former uncreative.
I doubt, given the type of personalities involved, that there will ever be consensus on the issue. I’m also convinced that most of us fit somewhere in the middle, on a spectrum of planning styles, and that we often approach it differently at different times.
And that we need to be both disciplined AND creative in our approach, to be successful.
While I’m doubting things, I might also say that I doubt that there is any writer out there who has no plan at all.
No hear me out, oh, ye confirmed seat-of-pants-ers. I bet you had an idea. I bet you had a strong vision of your character(s) in your head... you possibly even spent days imagining scenes and dialogues and at least an outline of where you wanted this story to end or how you wanted your character to grow... you knew when it was going to be set (more or less) and what the world looked like. You probably knew who your audience was going to be and about how long you thought the story would be. More or less.
It might all have been in your head, but it was a plan... of sorts.
So, if we look at planning styles as a sort of continuum, you might be right down there on the far left of the page, but you would still be there.
To you serious planners, that might not be planning, which can become an art form in itself, but that is okay. You are up there on the far right of the page.
On Teaching Story Writing...
As a teacher (in a school, with children, who are, from time to time required to write something), I’ve met students who cannot even start to think about writing until they’ve had lots of scaffolding put in place, and I’ve met students who are chaffing at the bit to get started and don’t want to muck about with all that organising stuff.
I wouldn’t like to suggest that either group produces better writing than the other. Some of the students who plan meticulously create amazing stories once they get going, others never get past the early stages of planning to actually write a story. Of the racers, some write brilliant, creative stories (often with lots of scribbling out and asterisks to direct the reader to some important bit that needs to be added in – just there), but some write unreadable (and frequently unpunctuated) statements connected by and then, and then, and then.
All of them will improve on editing (especially after conferencing with peers and teachers).
I suspect that those children all grow up to be... us. Writers who like to plan, or writers who are impatient to get writing. And we, too, all improve on editing – especially after conferencing with peers (critique group members, beta readers, Mum) and industry professionals (editors).
There are some great teachers of planning out there, and I’m looking forward to a workshop with one of them in a couple of weeks (very excited!) because I’m well aware that this is an area where I can definitely grow – and I will happily report back to you on how it all goes – because I’m a bit right down there on the left of the planning continuum.
On Practising What I Preach...
I do plan. I scribble out a quick outline of a story idea and create high speed character profiles, with arrows pointing to how they will change and grow as problems are encountered and overcome. I try to find an ending. I save it as 01idea in a folder with a title that will hopefully remind me what the idea is about when I come back to it.
I will then spend lots of time walking, showering, or sitting staring out the window, and go back and cross stuff out and add stuff in, and probably save it as 02idea in the same folder.
In the meantime, I will start writing, because I have to.
Mmm, yes, I was the one who chaffed at the bit at school, the story wanted out!
I will also start researching things I need to know about, and record links to useful information, or copy and paste tracts of stuff to a file called 01info. There is rarely a 02info because 01 just keeps growing. Sometimes, I just have about 50 tabs open in my web browser and a pile of books on the floor.
And I will write.
This is all quite different to the process I like to put in place for my school students. For them, I provide graphic organisers (age/development appropriate) to record their characters (who?), story ideas (what?), settings (when? and where?), motivations (why?) and a story board or story mountain (how?).
We create word banks together, and practise describing things, or writing dialogue, or developing a great opening hook.
For older students, I will encourage them to think about what they need to know and look up relevant information in (God forbid!) books or online.
For little ones, or those who struggle, I provide pre-formatted structures to encourage a beginning, a middle and an end. Which I sometimes even get.
We also read lots of great narratives to help understand format and structure... and I also often get back great fan fiction and sometimes even great retells!
Once in a while, I get a great story that is original and unique.
I know that there are methodologies out there for planning stories that set all this out in a grown-up format, too, with whole courses devoted to the planning element of writing, so this is not all I’ve got to say on the subject.
I’ll go into more detail on different aspects of planning, and different ideas, but, in the meantime, I challenge you to think about where you sit on the continuum. Do you prefer to plan carefully before you start, or are you impatient to get going to find out where the road leads you?