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To Plan or Not to Plan?

Why planning might give you more freedom than you think.

Writers are always asked about planning: How much of a book is mapped out before you begin? How closely do you stick to your plan once you start writing? How long do you allow for the planning stage?

No two people write the same way. Some authors plan meticulously. Some have no idea what they’re going to write until they sit in front of their laptop. Some need a rough outline to begin work.

I’d always thought it was enough to have a rough idea of my story before I began. I’d have a vague notion of each character – Tom is aging, brittle and a busybody; Max is funny, kind and secretly depressed – and I’d know what the story was about – Tom and Max’s unusual friendship. I’d also know how I wanted the story to end – Tom and Max are best friends – and a couple of the obstacles in their paths – their ages, their views on the world. I might even have decided on a few images or lines that I absolutely wanted to be included in the story.

And then I would start writing and Tom and Max would quickly take on a life of their own. Each of them would react in ways I hadn’t considered. New strands of plot would be woven in, as would new characters, sub-plots and twists and turns. Pages would be deleted, characters merged, large sections painstakingly reread line by line looking for the point where things didn't quite work as I'd hoped. It would take a long time. Sometimes, a really long time, for it all to make sense, for it to come together as a whole: For it to work.

Which is why, even though there’s something wonderfully freeing about telling a story wherever it takes you, I have changed my mind about planning and now, like nothing better than a very detailed synopsis. One that runs to several thousand words and that isn’t meant to be seen by anyone but me.

It’s nothing like the synopsis that forms part of a submission; it’s a step by step telling of a story that includes everyone and everything that happens. It doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind as I go along – in fact I often do – but having an extremely detailed plan allows me to focus on the writing – the specific vocabulary, the form of sentences, the images, the dialogue, the descriptions – the magical part of writing. There is a freedom, I have discovered, in having the scaffolding firmly in place so that I can experiment with ‘how’ a story comes together.

If you're struggling to get to The End of your novel, why not sign up for my Planning and Plotting Workshop? Contact me for more details.


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