Friday, 9 December 2016

How Not To Plan A Novel (Some Tips)


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 three 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, Death & Dominion and now Rack & Ruin 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 finally, 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 wander 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 eight months. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness.

How do you plan ....?

14 comments:

  1. As I've just finished a novel, I can join in this! I can't begin to qualify the hours/days/weeks of thinking. Then some lovely research (which included a trip to Ireland, in the name of work, you understand). Then i started writing and everything fell apart in my head and I just had to trust the process that it would come together again. An editor made a huge contribution at the end.

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    1. An editor is ESSENTIAL! ...I have 2.

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    2. I disagree. Never used one. I think you should be able to plot your own novels and see where it could be improved (I'm sure you can really, Carol!); I think it's part of the process of being a writer. Some editors will always disagree with what you feel is right, but then so will some PEOPLE. I have lots of reviews for The Devil You Know that are so complimentary that I've been damp-eyed (book bloggers/regular readers who are not real life friends, I hasten to add, not anyone with an agenda!!), but one that criticised the format. I invited her to expand on this by email, and she did. Bits that others thought were highlights (and one aspect in particular that made it stand out for at least 4 reviewers) she felt didn't work.

      HOWEVER!!! I think test readers ARE essential. I have just two, who I can trust to give me an objective view (that IS the one where you view it from the view of many not just yourself, isn't it??? I always get mixed up!!).

      Other thing is that it takes experience. My first three books could all be improved, in partic The Other Side which is too confusing. It's also about being able to be honest, and say, "Yeah, okay. I really HAVE got to go back and rewrite 3 chapters from the present tense...". Or, like I've just done, read it all through after a week's 'settle' and realise that the alternative past-present thing for the chapters isn't working, and you've got to re-structure the whole thing....

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    3. Re-definition of editor: I think, if you've never used one, you may not appreciate the benefits of a good one ~Ok I've had both. An editor acts as test reader and as suggester of other ideas. You happen to be lucky in that you have a good set-up. many people don't and rely on 'friends' or contacts who may well NOT have the courage to tell the truth.My point ids, maybe, a compromise position: you MUST have yur mss read by competent and knowledgeable people....especially if you are starting out. Once you get beyond 10 books, you begin as you say, to self -edit. Though I note some of the BIG NAMES still credit an editor.

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    4. I take on board all your points, and can see what you mean - indeed, if I had had input from an editor with the first novels they would have been better, and I would have learned something from them! BUT I wouldn't have learned how to do it myself if someone else was pointing out all my weak points, and that would have meant I wasn't constantly (I hope) improving. I really do think that knowing how to structure a novel is part of the art; it's not just about the great dialogue, etc. Yes, I am lucky... I know with the two I trust that I can say "I don't need to know if you personally liked this or that character, I need to know if it WORKS". Yes... you're right, it does take a few books. I've written over 20 novels so if I wasn't learning how to edit now, it'd be a bit poor!!

      Then again, I've read so many novels which credit an editor that I think need... a good edit. There are few who really understand it. Re the big names who credit an editor, of course they do. I've read that Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland, for instance, never even saw a keyboard - JC would write hers in longhand and hand them over, and BC would use a dictaphone! Perhaps extreme cases. And yes, of course all trad pubs and big names use editors. It's part of the production of a best seller. I believe some new writers, though, just write a first draft, do a bit of twiddling about, and hand it over to an editor to sort out. When I attempted a collaboration, my so-called co-writer sent me a scrappy and barely literate first draft, and then started chattering on social media about having sent her first novel to 'her editor' (ie, me). She appeared to think that you just think of a story, then send it to the editor to make it publishable. Julia receives manuscripts from writers who do this, and think it's her job to turn it into something that people are going to want to read. My original point is just that an editor isn't necessarily essential, that was all.... hey, we've gone off topic, for a change!!! :) xx

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  2. Exactly the person I'm happy to know (Twitter and FB). Expected not really something different

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  3. What a lovely way to create a story! You make it sound almost pleasant, a fun thing to do. I just knew my own approach was all wrong!

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    1. I am the anti-dote to all those 'you have to do it like this' posts!

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  4. I dont plan my novels - maybe that's where I've been going wrong!

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  5. It sounds a lot like my own process. I love brainstorming... even if most of the time, I have to do it with just myself ;-)

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  6. I'm fascinated by the idea of starting with the end, then writing the beginning, and finally keep writing a bit more of each until you join the two together. I've never heard of anybody else doing it that way, but--hey!--if it works, I'm all for it! I'm also very impressed by all the effort you make to get the period atmosphere right.

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    1. I am regarded with horror by all the plotters whenever I say this is how I work. But then I lok at their pages and pages f notes and think: why bother to write the book? You've already written it!

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  7. Sounds totally logical, CarolStar! I've only written two novels, but I follow a similar process, although I had a bit of a structural list before I started both mine and not sections. The rest sort of took care of itself.

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  8. I've found every project is different. But overall they begin with imagining and I generally end up with multiple revisions. I am both pantser and plotter. Your process reminds me of my improvisation process for public speaking. Quickly think of an end while taking a breath, then a beginning and launch. Once started the middle will work its way out while keeping the end goal in mind. With writing, I like to give my characters a long leash. I'll still have notes, but often they will lead me down unexplored and fascinating paths.

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