Planning a novel or any other form of writing can be daunting. That blank page can be your bane or your canvas ready for splashes of creativity. Planning is different for everyone. Planning has to do with plot points, character arcs and events which can lead up to these things—the damage or joy you inflict on your characters leading up to ‘the end’.
There are unlimited methods of planning—sometimes you may need to use a different one for each project—but there are a few things which I’ve found helpful to consider.
1. Architect or Gardener?/ Pantser or Planner?: Do you plan everything meticulously or make it up as you go? Everyone is on a spectrum in between both extremes.
The beloved Australian author Isobelle Carmody has described that “…I go out and look and see if there’s a blue flower over there, so I start to prune around it.”
Research is considered preparation rather than planning, but knowing your stuff can be beneficial before you start writing. Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series) chooses to undertake all her own research. This research ends up being somewhat ‘pantsed’. In an interview by Arrow Books/Random House in 2006 she comments that doing her own research makes the book more unique, than if the research was pre-planned. She takes a number of years to write her big books, researching anything inspiring that comes up along the way.
John Birmingham (How to Be a Writer), describes how he tried ‘planning’. He spent six weeks laying out the whole plot, only to fall into holes caused by his characters having completely different ideas. He comments that there needs to be some level of control, however “…subplots and characters grow under their own power.”
Whether you like to create blueprints first or plant something and see what grows, the main thing is to do what works for you.
2. Start small and grow: Even if you’re a planner, ideas begin with a small spark and can grow creatively under their own energy. They can take time to develop or appear.
In an interview for the So You Want to Be a Writer podcast, Amie Kaufman (The Illuminae Files, Starbound series) describes how she begins with a premise or a big question. This then develops into how it affects the world or how it can manipulate it. She asks questions of the characters: “Who has the capacity to suffer the greatest pain? Who has the capacity to make the greatest change to themselves and the world around them?”
She then writes down everything that she knows will happen in the story (from big events to small moments) and shifts them around so they are in a logical order. Interestingly, she doesn’t do a lot of world building up front.
Gabaldon’s methods are somewhat similar. She starts with small chunks and builds up the story around them through timelines and focus points/historical events. This gives the story a certain shape e.g. “Cross Stitch has 3 overlapping triangles or climaxes. A Breath of Snow and Ashes has waves.”
3. The story so far: Not just a handy TV series tool to help you recap the last episodes in case your Netflix has been down for a few days. Fay Weldon (Why Will No One Publish My Novel?) suggests to stop occasionally, perhaps at the beginning of each chapter to recap on the story so far. This can help to refocus and prevent your characters from climbing that tree when they are meant to be exploring that cave over there.
4. Experiment: Weldon admits she may write the first page five or six times in different tenses and points of view until she feels comfortable with what works. It’s better to do this at the start than find out later (see next point).
5. The body needs a skeleton to stand up: Hands up who would like strong bones and features of the perfect proportions? Kaufman describes the first draft as a skeleton—only a skeleton. It’s important to have foundations before creating those perfect fingernails and long eyelashes.
This is a trap I’ve fallen into—doing so many redrafts of the first few chapters and not moving forward. If you have any extra ideas, take notes along the way to fix up later. It’s easier to modify the skeleton to create two arms of the same length, than to modify a whole arm to the same proportions of the second. Or maybe you’ll be more tempted to keep that first arm and have to deal with only being able to steer your bike in one direction.
6. Headlight writing: With main plot points sorted, I find it beneficial to not do too much detailed planning too far ahead—usually to the next chapter or scene. Birmingham describes blocking out chapters or scenes before writing them. This helps quicken the process of the actual writing—to encourage being in flow—and hopefully preventing the writer from not getting too stuck mid scene.
This has really worked for me. If I think of anything I want for the next chapter or scene, I make a note for the future.
Kaufman explains that it helps to have points to reach along the way, even if you don’t know how they are going to happen.
Whether you’re an architect or gardener, use diagrams or lots of sticky notes, the most important thing is that you plan in a way which works for you. This may mean using a different method for each piece, but it’s more productive than trying to do something by force because it works for someone else. As writing is creative, be creative with planning.