In which there are many ways to plan out your novel, but why bother taking all that time?
So, I know I’ve had a lot of time away from all you lovely people, but in my defence I have been doing Actual Writing for the Novel! I know, I amaze myself sometimes…
Anyway, while I’m buried under a pile of trying to remember how sentences combine to make chapters, I thought I’d share with you some of the ways in which I planned my novel; what order I tackle things in, and how each method helps me. Obviously, as I have been repeating since the beginning of this series, this is in no way intended to be any kind of ‘How To’ on the ‘correct way to plan a novel’, because I generally feel that no one should ever look to me for guidance on the right ways to do anything (I have far too much trial-and-error, with a strong emphasis on the error!) but if you are currently plotting out a story, or trying to, or will want to some time in the future, then hopefully this will prove useful!
Why Plot Ahead?
So you know how it goes: you get this really great idea for a story, and you just know it’s a strong one, and you’ve got all these great characters to go in it, and there’s going to be all these exciting twists and turns and you want to just start writing immediately! Get going while it’s all fresh in your mind. You might forget the best bits otherwise! And you’re all fired up with enthusiasm and muse-vibes!
Why risk all that by taking a step back and wasting time with planning it all out on paper before you get going?
Now, I do have to acknowledge, here and now, that plotting out your story before you write it isn’t for everyone, that there are amazing cryptids out there called ‘pantsers’, as in they write by the seat of their pants. For those of you not familiar with these magical beings, these are writers that can just sit down at their keyboards and just know what to do without struggling about and they just… they just write a novel. Without planning. Or like… needing to know what comes next!
To all of you such magical beings out there, I am in awe of your mad skills but I really don’t know how you do it!
Failing such wondrous gifts, I feel that planning out a story before you sit down and devote time and effort and everyone else’s sanity to it has several advantages:
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
For one thing, I find that having a whole story planned out means I’m far less likely to abandon the project. (This may or may not have been a common issue in my early writing career. And my current career. Um.)
I can’t lose my train of thought if Life gets in the way for a while and I need to put the project down for a few days: my train of thought is already there in the broad strokes and the writing process just fills in the details. Jotting everything out in as much detail as I can while the ideas are fresh, shuffling them hurriedly into order while the shape of the story is there right behind my eyelids is a great help. I’ll have a beginning, middle and end of the story all laid out and even if I get a bit lost in the middle (more on that in a minute) I’ll still have signs and clues to get me back on track.
As a result, I don’t get discouraged so easily, and can at the very least force myself to bash out the roughest of rough first drafts to fling at a friendly beta reader who can try and explain where the madness has crept in!
What Is My Story Anyway?
Terry Pratchett once said of first drafts that they were “essentially just telling yourself the story.” That’s how I feel about writing up my plan for a story.
I might start off with some initial ideas, but it’s only by jotting all those ideas down, shuffling them around and generally corralling them until they start making sense that I can find the story that’s been floating around in my head for ages. And having told myself that story the first time, I can start to get a better feel for things like; what kind of story is it? What kind of tone should I aim for? What kind of audience? Where might it fit with other stories of mine?
It’s also a useful stage for me to try and identify any weak points in the plot, any areas where I might have made a leap of intuition or just have left a big gap in my plot which needs to be thoughts about and fixed.
For example, I find that it’s common for me to easily plan up to the middle of a story when things are about to pretend to go right for the protagonist, or the tension’s the highest, and then… well I know the ending! I have the last chapter! But no, I have no idea how we got from Point F to Point M.
Not a single clue!
Alternatively, I might have a character with a big role in the first half of the book who has apparently completely disappeared around chapter 9, never to return! Well, if he vanished like that, did I really need him at the start? If not, I could maybe combine his character with another person with a role in the second half who maybe showed up around chapter 7. If he did in fact need to be there the whole time, is there any way he can be tied to the end? If not, I can still make a note that I need to write him out properly.
Aren’t I glad that I’ve spotted that at this initial stage?
What Is My Story Actually Saying Though?
Finally, plotting everything out in details allows me to try and identify any themes or ideas that I especially like and would like to develop more fully. We writers can really mine gold-dust out of our subconscious given half a chance, but we don’t need to leave such gold-dust in its raw form. Spotting something I really love at an early stage allows me to try and make the most of anything that will make my story stand out and shine among all the others, and the earlier I find it, the better it can be integrated.
Conversely, it is worth acknowledging – as I will also discuss in more detail in another post – that some of our ideas, once we write them down on paper, are terrible. Now, I know that everyone’s criteria for something they neither want to write nor read will be different. But I am currently trying to properly unpick how I managed to write in a major over-arching theme into the whole series of my novels that I flat-out disagree with and will not stand behind.
It’s not that I set out to write a theme that in the cold light of a new day is kind of xenophobic, because of course I didn’t! But it can happen that you have one idea, and then another one, and another one and individually none of them are bad or even questionable at all. And then they all start coming together and make up a pattern between them that… well, that could raise some eyebrows, let’s say.
The point I’m making is that one of the reasons I think many creators respond defensively to audiences of their work objecting to certain themes which they did not intend to be in their work lies in how much blood, sweat and tears they’ve expended in making that work. No, they might not agree with every aspect of their own creation, but trying to back down from a completed piece is extremely difficult. You’ve spent months and years slaving over that work, and it can be extremely difficult to look at the finished product and acknowledge that there’s something kind of messed up lurking right there in the middle where you didn’t spot it.
I’m sure I’m not alone in the level of personal investment I have for my work, even when it’s terrible and bad.
But by planning everything out in detail, in the event that I notice something I’m not going to be proud of myself for writing, there’s a lot less of a connection to any single part(s) of my whole. As you’ll see in Part 2, which is full of pictures of my personal planning process, although unpicking a particular plot-thread is difficult and time-consuming, it’s also not so emotionally draining. Either I’m discarding bullet-points in a document, or colour-coded post-its, and neither of these took a lot out of me in terms of eloquent word-play or refined story-telling. They were ideas, and on consideration they weren’t that good.
Essentially, planning – for me, at least – is the practise run. It’s the equivalent of speaking your ideas out loud and checking that they all sound as good outside of your head as they did while still inside of it. If story-telling was dress-making, it would be the mock-up.
And for me at least, no matter how tempting it might be to just sit down and get writing straight away when I have a good idea, I think it’s the most vital step you can take.
If this is your first time on this blog: Hi! Chronicles in Creation is an on-going series in which I discuss various aspects of writing and world-building in more-or-less real time, screw ups and all!
If you’d like to see some of my actual original fiction; check out the Ghosts & Gowns series and see what you think!