Tuesday, 30 December 2014

How (not) To PLan A Novel

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 my two Victorian crime novels  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, Honour & Obey and now Death & Dominion 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. 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. 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 ....?

11 comments:

  1. Isn't it interesting how different we all are? I begin with an idea, then research - and think of my story as growing out of that (I even think of research as 'growing a story') - somehow, from the weeks of reading and thinking, I find I know more or less what happens. I've given up trying to work out how that happens, and just let the process do its thing!

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    1. best way, Jo. I get fed up of all the ''must do it like me' stuff out there. Puts people off.

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  2. My book started with a plan but not an arc. I struggled to the end and sent it to my editor who seemed to miss the whole point and wanted it to fit into a genre. I added the arc, including dramatic blips on the way to the 'crisis'. Next she began to tell me more things I should change and some of it I agreed with but I think she has missed the point in her desire to fit me into what she feels is the 'right way'. Now I'm wondering if I want my book to fit into a 'genre'. I quite like my idea and the way it pans out. I feel an argument on the way. How do you feel about genre, Carol.

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    1. I feel it is an imposed waste of time. D&D didn't fit ito any genre and so was rejected by my agent. The sales speak for themselves.

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    2. That's what I was hoping you'd say. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you for sharing these helpful hints. Happy new year

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  4. I've only written two novels and they are totally different: one being an adventure/thriller and the other a humorous novel, so I'm hardly qualified at all. I have started another, so if there's a pattern at all, I start off with knowing I have to have a set up, crisis and resolution in the story I want to write. And a subject of course. Then I decide on who is going to people this story, and then I begin. The research happens as I write. For instance for my Skipper's Child, I needed to know how the waterways in Belgium worked during the sixties, so I did all that as I was going along. I love your way of having an end, then a beginning and coaxing them together!

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  5. Very interesting to read, Carol. This sounds just like the way I have embarked on my novel. I have no detailed plan but I know how it begins and ends.

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  6. When I teach writing I stress there's not one way to do it. I will research something that has caught my interest. I sometimes plan out, especially character, but often I think of the next day's writing for a novel. I've been surprised. One walk-on character became a major one with a secondary theme and in a mystery at the end, I changed the murderer. When I went back to lay down hints, I realised they were there. The important thing is to write it. Happy New Year. This blog was a nice gift.

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    1. Thank you! I sooo agree: just write..and enjoy it!

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  7. ...yup, m’Lady... I also need at least a strong idea of the ending... some plot lines take hold, and then these S.O.Bs, the characters, start to dictate what the heck’s going on... .. my name appears on the cover as the writer, but it could just as well be a cast list on there..they run it! (think I’ll do a blog along those lines! ):) LUV the post :)mwaaah

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