As I’m getting through to the end of an epic fantasy series, I’ve found the way I’ve planned my novels has changed massively over the years. My general approach to planning is way different to way it used to be. So I wanted to talk about telling your story. Whether, as a writer, you think about the bricks and mortar, the scaffolding, the engineers, the builders with their copies of The Sun stuffed down the front of the van windscreen, or whether you’re happy to wing it. That sort of thing.
When I worked in editorial positions, I always noted the sheer varieties of ways people went about their planning. The important thing to remember is that it’s whatever works for you, not what some idiot on the internet says, least of all me.
I used to be a story traveller. I had a few loose story ideas in mind, but I mostly wanted to go exploring. It was fun. I had a bunch of characters or a setting as a starting point, and tended to work outwards from there. It’s not a bad route: you get to know your characters well, you get to explore a world through their eyes. Everything feels very, very natural, and you can capture a lot of nuances of human interaction because you’re not trying to fit round things through a square shaped hole to make your plot move forwards.
The downside is you can wander off anywhere, kind of forgetting that plot unless you knew instinctively where the characters should be heading. Wandering is good if you’ve a strong sense of place and you want to explore that. It’s useful for that travelogue element of SFF, of discovering places. It puts your imagination in centre stage (though you better have a good one). It’s possibly even useful for some cool character interaction. But I wouldn’t want to write an intricate crime novel this way, and nor is it useful for making calculated story structures.
These are the types of writers who need to plan the plot out in immense detail before they’d even go near the actual writing. I’m talking about a far extreme on this writing spectrum. Some folk want to know not just the beginning, middle and end, chapter by chapter, but every little detail in the middle. That’s cool, of course. You can do a heck of a lot of clever stuff this way. You can not only tick off the kind of structure you want (three acts or more?) but you can make intricate things happen, or see plot issues before you get stuck writing them. You can research the hell out of a concept and nail, for example, a classy piece of period detail. Some say it’s a great way of preventing writer’s block, too, because you know absolutely what you’re going to write about.
Personally, committing fully to this approach takes away a lot of the fun. I like the element of discovery through characters’ eyes, which can then impact the plot, and what if I want to tweak the plot half way through, if things don’t feel right? What’s more, I can’t even get a feel for things until I begin putting prose on paper. Perhaps things can seem a little forced – as if characters are simply jumping through hoops and not acting like human beings at all. It’s not the case all the time, of course, but this is the internet and it was made for sweeping generalisations.
The lighthouse seeker
You’re the kind of kid that sits somewhere in between. You need those markers to aim towards, perhaps the general story acts you have in mind. You can go for runs or a long walk and dwell on nudging things in certain directions; that creative freedom is there. But you can’t be doing with the rigid planning. In fact, rigid planning is just so 1980s, and makes you feel like you’re wearing Spandex. You know instinctively, however, if your story does not hit those certain points at the right time, you’re going to be royally screwed. You story will collapse quicker than a tower of cards.
I used to be like you too, for one book, then Trying To End A Fantasy Series happened to me.
The fluidly fluid approach
Now this is how I’m currently finding my planning efforts. I’ve got in-depth character sketches. I’ve got my worldbuilding all done. I’ve got a series to end, a fairly rigid plot in mind but I need the fluidity of being able to shift things around. To make pieces fit. To make characters resolve their personal plot-lines, to clean up four books of a sprawling mess of ideas. There’s a whole fuck-ton of juggling that’s going on right now, and I still want to maintain that individual novel essence, rather than this book end up being a linear coda to what I’ve done before. No clean-cut approach to planning will work. I need to respect the novel.
I guess in the days before Scrivener this could easily have been arranged with a bunch of Post-It notes and scrapbook scribblings, but on screen, in that wonderful programme, everything is much easier to control. I can move back and forth between a plot or sub-plot, and my writing, which then informs the plot, which then informs the writing, and so on. With Scrivener, I’m totally on top of everything. The idea of sitting down and planning a beginning, middle and end seems laughable right now – I’m picking up ends from two other books. Likewise, if I just went into this blindly, I’d be a moron. Having simple checkpoints doesn’t seem to be enough either, and a world without writing software fills me with fear. Who knows how this will end?
It’s important to say that there’s a whole load of other stuff to keep in mind. You’ve got the worldbuilding (real or secondary), the style to choose (first person or third?), the characters to make real and give lives to, but I’m not going to harp on about those parts right now.
Like you lot, I find the process fascinating, because it shows much about the mind of a writer as it does explain their end results. So, how do you go about planning yours? Are you anally retentive or a free Bohemian spirit who eats writing rules for breakfast?