Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Week Ten: Planning Your Novel

For me, not planning my novels before writing them would be like marrying someone I had never met.
A novel starts with a single idea. Sometimes a line or two of dialogue. Most often for me it's a visual scene in my head. Two lovers parting at dawn. A man creeping through the darkness, a knife in his hand. A body twisting slowly in the wind ...

From that idea or line or concept or image springs the plan. The blueprint of a novel.

Some writers - probably shaking their heads over my foolishness at this very moment - eschew the plan. They are 'pantsers', i.e. they write by the seats of their pants. They have no desire to know how their novel ends; that would spoil the surprise! So they sit down and write out that line of dialogue or that image in their head, and whizz, they're away, thumping the keys, page after page until they discover who dunnit.

I can't speak for those people, as I have never done that. Or at least not with any success. For me, things go badly awry when I attempt to write without making a plan. For years I wrote literary-style novels that meandered this way and that, and were either unfinished or became curiously flat and lost in the end stages compared to the great energy and promise of their opening chapters.

Then I fell on hard times, and like many writers, turned to pulp fiction to scratch a living.

The discipline of writing pulp fiction to a deadline has always been a fantastic training ground for writers ...

Writing pulp fiction was my great salvation as a novelist. The money was not wonderful, and neither were the novels themselves, but it was work I could easily do at home while breastfeeding baby twins.

The parameters were fairly narrow: not formulaic, per se, but certainly there were strict expectations about length and content. And deadlines were tough. Having only 8-10 weeks in which to write an 85,000 word novel was not unusual. So I learned in a hurry how to plan and structure one of these novels so it would not fall apart in the middle. And my editors wanted - demanded, in fact! - a synopsis before they would commission a new book from me. So I would plan the novel from start to finish over a few days, then write a shiny one or two page synopsis to hook them into offering for it. Then the finished book had to match the expectations set up by this synopsis, of course, so it would morph into a working outline for me to follow as well as a selling document.

After years of drifting along fruitlessly in a literary dream, writing a novel became all about structure: beginning, middle, end; goal, obstacle, resolution; trigger, disaster, success.

In basic terms, your main character enters the first scene in one situation, then turns in a different direction because of some triggering action or event. A new goal has been set for them: win the lover's heart, rescue the hostage, save the world, or perhaps just survive a series of dangerous obstacles. These obstacles need to behave like a crescendo: each is more dangerous than the last, until the ultimate test is faced. In some genres, they call this 'the dark moment', the point at which things seem to be going the heroine's way at last, and then abruptly, a mistake is made, a baddy comes back to life, and all hope is lost.

Our intrepid hero and heroine, braving the whirlpool .... James Gillray: Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis.

As writers we have to steer our characters through the whirlpool of this 'dark moment' and out the other side into catharsis, to sail on into the future, all questions answered, all loose threads drawn up and satisfactorily resolved.

At some level at least, your plan needs to represent the successive stages of this archetypal story. You may be quite mechanical about it, estimating chapter length and events within each chapter, or chart graphs on a whiteboard or a series of sticky Post-It notes. Or you may dash off a loose plan on the back of an envelope, then pin it above your desk - or chuck it in the bin. Whatever works for you is best. But if it's not working, you may want to try another method. I highly recommend the whiteboard and stickies route. I have a thought, scribble it on a stickie, then push it onto the wall next to my desk while I work. It saves having to reach for a notebook, then recall which notebook and where I put it.

The trick is remembering to check your stickies occasionally. Not find them after you've finished the novel, and think, ah ...

Every story has a shape, a 'story arc' that exists in the head long before it exists on paper. For truly massive, multiple-character novels, this shape can be horrendously complex to plot out, taking in many different events in any number of characters' lives, so their high points and low points all coincide to create a really strong climax.

The important point of planning is to establish that arc in your subconscious, so while you're typing away furiously late at night, lost in a character's struggle, some deep-buried part of your brain is remembering that story arc and instinctively laying it down and sticking to it as each scene unfolds.

But if you really can't face the idea of knowing in advance how your novel will end, there's always the no-planning, 'just type Chapter 1 and start writing' approach. Good luck with that!

QUESTION: are you a planner or a pantser?


  1. I'm a sort of half and halfer. I have to have an idea, a situation, and a body. I luckily don't have to provide my publishers with a synopsis, they want a title, and I'm constricted by those, and a vague idea of what it's about so they can provide a cover for Amazon and iTunes! And instead of a white board and stickies, I have a notebook by my desk, but more importantly, a second document open alongside the actual wip, in which I jot down notes as they occur to me. It's fascinating to read those notes back to see how much they've changed by the end. But essential to keep track of who's who, names etc etc.

  2. I'm the same as Lesley - a half and halfer. First draft of first novel wasn't planned at all. Now I tend to do a couple of pages of rough character notes and notes of ideas and then start writing. Then when I hit the point 2/3-3/4 of the way through where the lack of plan is leaving me at risk of it all falling apart, I stop drafting and write a proper plan, and then do 2nd draft from there, which ends up being a combo of bits copied and pasted from draft 1, brand new bits, and bits rewritten/revised from draft 1. At least that's how the last 2 and the current wip have gone. It may change again in the future...

  3. Plan, plan, plan. Falls apart a bit when the plan is lousy, but I couldn't do it any other way!


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