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How to Write a Novel 4.2: The Planning Process

Everyone who has been to primary school probably knows that a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and some will even remember that there has to be a problem and a resolution in there somewhere.

Maybe there will also be a vague idea about a 'story mountain', and, depending on how artistic your teachers were, there will also be a memory of a prettily drawn mountain, something like this:

... the idea being that when the story starts everything is fairly normal and ordinary, then something happens to create a problem that the protagonist (main character) must solve. Depending on how advanced you are through your primary schooling, there may be several unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem before the action reaches a climax, after which will come the resolution, and, as all primary school children love to write with a flourish, the end.

It will look like a nice evenly drawn arc.

I know because I have taught this.

And it is a great start.

But it is a lie.

For a start, it should look like this:

(thank you for pointing this out to me, Kate Forsyth)

or even this:

The story follows what has become known as the 'hero's journey' – a series of steps that appears in every type of narrative in one form or another, and can be recognised in stories from the ancient world right through to contemporary literary and genre based texts.

Knowing these steps can help you plan your story, by helping you identify how the story grows from an idea to its resolution. Use each step to mark a major plot point, then you can fill in the blanks. It should also give you a good idea of how many words you should have expended to get to each point, although I would recommend that you just get your ideas down first and worry about word count later, so long as you are in the general area.

Following the cycle also helps you to remember not to spend too long setting the scene and introducing the character. Something has to happen!

OR you can stick to the arc, but identify where the plot points should fall.

Some people like to create a story board:

or work with systems cards or sticky notes that can be moved around. I saw a gorgeous picture of one writer's studio recently where the whole wall was covered in sticky notes... I wish I could remember who it was so that I could post the picture.

The level or depth of detail is up to you and what works best for you. A wall full of sticky notes is not my style, although I do like to have a strong outline, and I'm becoming a great fan of recording scene summaries on them to move around during the editing process.

I believe Scrivener can do all this for you, too, but I haven't tried it yet.

The other side of planning is knowing who you are writing for (audience) and what genre you are writing. There are word length conventions that remind us that we do not write a 200 000 word tome aimed at 8 year olds, and while you might get away with something that long for your average fantasy reader, most romance readers are happier at less than half that length (although do not confuse this with 'mainstream women's' which can go on for many, many more words). Rules can be broken, but you need to know why and how you are doing it.

Once you have determined who your audience is (not as easy as it sounds, especially if you are writing for children), and what an acceptable length for your genre is generally considered to be (check with books that you think are similar to the one you plan to write), you can pencil in about where your plot points should fall.

As I said, however, write your story first without worrying too much about this.

I tend to spend too long getting started... hence the comment about something has to happen. I blame it on the sorts of books I read when I was a child which had way too little white space for today's readers, and way too much description. I still love them, but would hesitate to read them to my class today. Sad, but true.

To compensate, I am also getting better at cutting out large tracts of unnecessary wordage. In my heart I know this could be avoided by planning more tightly, so it is something that I am working on, but, in the meantime, I just have to bear that in mind as I work out where my plot points should fall.

Oh, and one last thought. Colin Thiele apparently used to write the ending first, because that way he always knew where he was heading. I tried it but found it too constricting, as spontaneous stuff tends to happen while I'm writing and then I'd have to change the ending, anyway, but I suppose it provides a compass, if you want to give it a go. After all he was a brilliant writer, and told fabulous stories, loved by people of all ages.

Most of all, be true to yourself. If you love to plan, plan, if you love to get stuck right in, go for it. I would advise, in fact, everything in moderation.

And have fun.

If its not fun, stop.

... a much prettier mountain to think about a story for.

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