Friday, 7 February 2014

How (not) to Plan a Novel

Picture courtesy of Jonathon Fetcher @JonGardener

Whatever we write, be it short story, play, novel or poem, we all go through the same initial process: Planning. There are more ways of planning a piece of writing than there are pieces of writing - please read on quickly as I'm not sure this analogy works.

It is said you are either a ''planner'' or a ''pantster''. As the world's weirdest combination of the two (more anon) I don't think I am in the slightest degree qualified to lay down the law on the Hows and How Nots. Nevertheless, given that my lack of expertise has never stopped me piling in and sharing my ignorance, and several people who've read Diamonds & Dust  have asked me how I went about it, here's what I do:

Thinking: Every book I've ever written has started in the same place. Inside my head. I spend an inordinate amount of time before starting, and during the writing process just mulling over ideas for story development, or characters. Many of them will be discarded. Sometimes I do this lying on my bed, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I carry the story around whatever I'm doing. But however it happens, nothing begins without a lot of thinking taking place. No notes are made at this stage. The thinking will recur regularly right throughout the writing process.

After a lot of cogitation, I progress on to:

Sketching: This is where I might make a few notes on paper. More likely I will write up small sections of the book, or small pieces of dialogue that I quite like. I know the names of the main characters (secondary ones get named as they appear). At this stage I usually have a couple of ''pages'' at the end of a file named ''new book'' with phrases or descriptions that I think I might incorporate.

When I think I know, very roughly, what I might want to say, I progress to

Researching: For Diamonds & Dust I visited London and took pictures of the areas I thought I wanted to use. I went online and searched for original documents (there are loads on various Victorian sites). I transferred the entire contents of 3 local libraries' Victorian history section to my TBR pile (rotating as necessary). And I read every novel written in the period that I could -- frequently skimming to get a sense of it.

At this stage, I have a couple of random pages of notes, some online, a pile of downloaded articles, and books with bits of paper and bus tickets poking out of them. (Jon, who writes sci-fi, watches films and documentaries and reads sci-fi books). Again, researching is not a finite process and will change as I write and need to find out different things.

And now, I start:

Writing: I always do this the same way. I write the end. Then I write the opening section. (Not alone in this: Jon also writes the end first as he likes to know where he's going) Then I write a bit more of the opening ... a bit more of the end. Then I kind of join them up. Yup. Weird. And AT NO STAGE do I ever have a clear idea of the overall structure of the book or what is going to happen next. It's like fast downhill skiing in the dark.


No serious pre-plotting is ever done. None. No story arcs. No narrative graphs. No cards files. Nothing. The story evolves as I write it. And I write in short episodic sections, rather than chapters, tracking the story through a host of different characters. It's a spirally way of doing it rather than a linear one. I think it makes the story far more pacy and exciting - certainly for me as the writer, although it is sometimes like herding cats as bits of plot wonder off into the long grass and have to be rescued.

As I write, I also revise in the light of the direction the story is taking. The whole thing takes about a year. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness. How do you plan ....?


If you'd like to read a free sample of Diamonds&Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so here. US readers can do so here.

35 comments:

  1. That's really interesting Carol. I'm just over halfway through my book (I think), and I'd just thought that I really need to write the ending next, and then fit in the bit in between. I love seeing how other people do things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Like Amanda, I am also about halfway through my book and Carol's method of writing the ending early really strikes a cord or something in my head. I have been allowing my characters to dictate their own pace, something I am not entirely comfortable with. Giving them something to aim at sounds like a great idea to me, and they will probably come to appreciate it too!

      Delete
  2. Plan? What does that word mean ;)
    Great post. Love seeing how authors approach their novels. I've five drafted and none finished so I know all about how I start and nothing yet about how I finish.
    Lots of mulling and thinking, sometimes for years.
    One came from nowhere. Well, it came when I got stung and it tumbled out chaotically. .
    I start at the beginning and soon after, I write the end then the two seem to get attached. After that I might change the beginning and the end and leave the middle..

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Ladies. I think there is an ''acceptable'' way of planning, taught in the ubiquitous Creative Writing Courses and personified in writers like Rowling. Just thought I'd subvert it...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hm....most interesting Hedges! Well...I plan by walking around the cemetery and drinking in the lingering residue of the dead...mind you I do that for leisure too!
    To be honest...little structure is involved in my work, maybe there lies a difference because I predominantly write poetry... however I DO like to tell a story so note taking, to some degree, is vital and I always carry a pen and pad with me whenever I wander off ...( wanderings a bit limited though 'cos of the Agoraphobia )...
    Mostly ideas pop into my head without warning whilst I'm out and about as innumerable triggers activate my senses sending my mind off at tangents, distracting me from all else...( that's probably why I got run over by a learner driver one day as I crossed a zebra crossing...she really freaked out, I recall massaging her shoulders on my way to the hospital trying to calm her down )...
    Anyway, I've enjoyed this insight into your own preparatory regime Hedges. Having read 'Diamonds and Dust' and relished every single word to the point of feeling quite bereft of its company once it came to an end...it's obvious that whatever you're doing to bring ideas to fruition...you're doing it right!...
    Great post...now please carry on writing the sequel...I'm starting to develop a twitch!....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Writing as fast aas my little fingers will let me. (Bully)

      Delete
  5. Thanks, Carol. It's always fascinating to see how other writers work. I rarely know what the ending will be until I'm well on the way.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Always interesting to see how someone else does it - we all get there in the end by our own route don't we? My process, which I did a plog post on recently, has some similarities to yours Carol, but differences too. I suppose what we are both trying to do is refine the chaos and madness so that, at the end of it - there's a book! Here's what I wrote about my way of doing it: http://songoftheseagod.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/the-best-laid-plans/

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm like Francis here when it comes to my fiction. I have a rough idea of the direction the story is going to take, and a sort of idea of how it might end, but too often the characters change my mind for me. I might try your method with my next one though. It might even help me get going!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Always interests me to see wot other people do! For me it's lists blu-tacked all over the walls in front of me.... good thing I don't care about the state of the wallpaper :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aha! The Gardener way. There is such a lot of faff and 'have to do it this way' written about planning ...it is good to see we all have our own methods..and at the end, we all have a book...

      Delete
  9. ... you seem to track almost exactly ( spooky that ) the way I operate... I like to have the rough idea of the ending before I start writing... cheers , ,m'Lady :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great post Carol, I love learning how other people do this writing thing!
    I plan LOTS which may be my lack of experience, or a strategy to delay finishing?!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Possibly both?I sseem to plan less with each book..which is worrying!

      Delete
  11. Oh, I like it! Skipping back from the end to the opening and meeting in the middle, sounds like a working plan to me. Guiding your characters to their final destination... Love it. :) xx

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for sharing Carol, I don't plan anything, I just go with the flow, and sometimes I want to beat myself over the head for not planning! But it's just not my nature, I've tried doing outlines etc, without success.

    It's mostly fun to not know where the story is leading. Unless of course I write myself into a corner. I doubt I'll learn. :-)

    Interesting to hear how you do it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Very interesting to see how you go about it, missus. I can't believe you write the end first! I know my ending usually, but I don't write it, until, well, the end! Hadn't even occurred to me to do otherwise. I do plan considerably more than you, but I would be depressed if I planned out every single scene for the book in advance. Like your research bit, too.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Interesting how many of us go with the flow! What has always concerned me is the over planning that some writers do ..every character documented, every action known beforehand. Surely the essence of writing fiction (like life) is the unpredictability?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Similar. The thinking process is the same. The scenes replay in my head in a loop, changing and editing themselves in the process. Once they stop changing, that's a sign for me to write it.

    When I start writing, I rarely take any notes. I keep it all in my head. I write in order, but if I get stuck, I'll skip that part and move to the next known scene, and later figure out how to connect the parts. I have the main scenes in my head, but the minor ones that get me from one known scene to the other I make on the spot. Like the names of minor characters :) Depending how big the story is, the known scenes might be just a few, everything else might be written on the spot. Often when I get to a scene I haven't planned out, I'll spend some time running it in my head before finally writing it down.

    So, while I'm not a planner in the sense that I make outlines, complex diagrams or character sheets, I wouldn't call myself a pantser because I do plan my story, I always know from the beginning where it's going and what parts must happen. Those unexpected turns and twists that a story can take usually happen in the thinking stage, although when I start writing, the characters might end up saying something completely different than I thought they would say, and take me completely by surprise.

    Because I plan everything before I write it, in the edit stage my edits are mostly cosmetic because the plot is well thought out before it was written. I have to do it that way, because once I write it down, that movie in my head stops and it's hard to get into the scene again. It's like, once I write it down, that's how it happened. So I'm careful what I write.

    For the two stories I'm working on right now, I have some of those key scenes figured out, the path between them is missing, and I only have a vague idea how to end it, not a clear scene yet. No outline. One I'm already writing, and I'm planning on starting the other one in a day or two, so everything that's unknown will have to be worked out on the spot. The ending too, probably.

    ReplyDelete
  16. thanks for sharing this. Nice to know that I am not alone....

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thank goodness! I thought I was the only one who didn't plan. The story appear in my head.(Just like you, Carol, it always happens when I'm in bed) Why? I don't know.
    I take it from there. I never write the ending. I did it once, but my characters took the story in a different way - to the way they want the story to end. So, now I leave it up to them to lead me.
    The hundreds and hundreds of e-books on plotting, outlining and planning are useless to me - I don't use them, because I don't need them.
    So I believe I'm a Pantser.
    Love the fishes.....I did feed them ☺
    Elle Anor

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for this. And for feeding the fish. So few people do.....

      Delete
  18. Fascinating insight Carol - thank you! So, I am clearly still in the 'thinking' stage, I hope I move on from there as my lovely new corkboard is blank and looking very sorry for itself :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Never use one.....hahaha...Jon says the postits were done as he was trying to do the third of a trilogy and had to work out how to introduce the various strands..

      Delete
    2. It's like writing a paper, in that you have to live with it. The difference is I write the beginning last - when I know what I've said.

      What intelligent fish!
      Tony Stone

      Delete
    3. They are writing a group novel on blogging... so they tell me.

      Delete
  19. There's so much work in writing. I know someone who overplans a bit too much she nearly has a whole book for each of her characters.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I like your point about writing the end first. That makes such good sense. I've always tried to stop myself from doing that for reasons best known only to me! I shall try that out... if ever I get the chance to write again!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Just like you - lots of simmering and then jigsaw writing. The only thing I will add is that PLEASE do stop and consider that what you have just half-created or conceived might be part of a series...or you'll do an Ailsa. You'll write Book2 which will be moderately successful and then the readers will have to bully you into writing a prequel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah - sussed who you are!!!! Mind, I now have the reverse, having written what I thought was a one-off novel, am now having to write a sequel, unexpectedly! All good.....

      Delete
  22. I'm surprised. Diamonds and Dust gave the impression of being well-planned, with all the bits coming together in the end. I supposed if you don't plan but do a lot of editing, you can end up with a product that's just as good. Or better?

    I'm glad you wrote this.It might even persuade me to write about my writing process at some point, even though it includes panic!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Panic is an essential ingredient, believe me. And don't be too fooled....a lot gets sorted at the editing/2nd draft phase...

      Delete
  23. Enjoyed reading this very much as I'm a semi-planner, but do like to go with the flow once I start writing. I read a 'how to write a novel' book recently that was obsessed with planning - post-its, mind-maps, file cards, character questionnaires etc - which just threw me into total confusion when I gave it a go!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Great post. I too lean more toward the spirilic method of planning. The way I see it, My characters are going to take the story in their own direction anyways; I'm just along for the ride, more or less. My "planning" is much more akin to uncovering the story rather than creating it. Wonderful insights, Carol.

    ReplyDelete

So here's your chance! Talk to me. Comments will be visible after moderation.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.