Planning

by Lynda Davies

 

I remember being very nervous about asking a question at one of the first author-lectures I attended.

I wanted to know how this successful children's author went about planning her books. How much did she plan ahead? How much did she "just let happen"?

Thankfully that author was gracious and generous in answering honestly: sometimes she planned meticulously, sometimes she didn't. She laughingly told us that throughout our careers we would probably find authors who would argue passionately that you can only write well if you plan exactly how your story is going to proceed; while others will claim if you do that you lose the story's spontaneity and therefore should just go with the flow.

While illuminating, her answer didn't help me much at the time. I have since seen, however, her answer reflected in many books about writing and heard her comments echoed by colleagues during breaks at various seminars and workshops.

So which way is best? I think it depends on the circumstance, what you're writing, what your time-lines are, and whether you're working with others, etcetera, etcetera.

Not much more helpful than the answer from our friendly author is it? Well ... yes, and no.

For a soul who likes plans, I have to confess that I have now followed both writing paths and have been surprised at how much I enjoyed both. Let me explain.

Writing Journey Number One - "the novel well planned"

One of the goals for my PhD is to write a young adult novel that propelled its young male protagonist into a time-travel historical mystery that only he could solve.  I knew the problem vexing my main character as I had been reading and researching the historical context for years. I had previously been on a research trip (for another purpose) to almost all the places this character would have to visit. Somewhat problematically, however, the historical context for the novel stretched over a period of eight hundred years. The only way to make it fit into an acceptable young-adult manuscript would be to follow a tight plan that included the key elements of the mystery, and which left alone the hundreds of other possibilities available as part of the subject-matter.

So what type of plan did I make and how did I go about it? (You may remember, I wrote this novel's draft before I developed the Self-Editing Framework that gave me a strong tool for analysing the structural elements of a story). The plan, therefore, eventually delivered a chapter outline of the novel.

To develop the outline I had to ask myself:

  • What starts the whole thing off (otherwise known as the inciting incident?)
  • What are the key points of the mystery?
  • Where and when does it happen?
  • What do I already know about the historical events or periods in which the action is set?
  • What don't I know and therefore have to research?
  • What do the locations, or sites, look like so I can write about them?
  • Who is the main character?
  • Who are the supporting characters?
  • What science is going to be involved?
  • What do I already know about this and what do I have to find out?
  • How is the mystery going to be solved? How will I know the story has reached its end?

Given that this novel is set across an eight-hundred year time-span, answering those questions proved particularly challenging. In the end I 'interviewed' myself by posing questions that needed replies. The eleven thousand word 'interview transcript' is still on file and I go back to it from time to time J.

This exercise turned out to be a very powerful one: having to answer specific questions forced me to explore the concepts underpinning my story as well address the physical aspects of the world of the novel. Once those issues were clear, I then constructed a chapter outline that set out the critical actions, events, or character dilemmas that were to occur in each scene.

The outline was my road-map, and the "interview document" my travelling-guide. I knew where I was going, what I had to stay focussed on, and if a detour were necessary I could easily find to a way to re-join my original itinerary.

Writing Journey Number Two - "the write-and-plan-as-you-go novel"

I handed in this first draft to my University supervisor and awaited his feedback. Meanwhile my son's school-teacher asked me to recommend a book that she could read to the class during their Study of Society and Environment (SOSE) unit. The book, she said, would have to take the characters (and therefore her audience) to each of the continents and touch on something of historical, social or geographical significance. We considered a number of books and discarded them because they could not provide the scope she wanted. Finally she issued me with a challenge: would I write something for her and the class?

At a loose end (in writing terms), I said "why not?" This started a writing journey unlike anything I had experienced. My parameters were set. I had to find a reason for my 9 or 10 year-old characters to travel to each of the world's continents where they had to encounter those 'things of significance'.

It turned in to a very exciting project whereby the teacher, all the students in the class and I worked together to research the sites and environments that the characters encountered. As the teacher decided the order of the continents our characters had to visit, I had to find a reason to move them around the world of the novel. There was no way to plan for this - or was there?

As chaotic and challenging as it seemed to me in comparison to the more orderly process I had used before; inventing, researching, responding, and writing 'continent-by-continent' created its own structure and its own coherence. To get my characters from one part of the world to another, they had to solve a riddle whose answer would reveal the hidden location of a portion of a talisman that needed to be re-assembled.

The overall story was therefore broken into sections that had its own:

  • Inciting Incident (i.e., the new clue that needed solving and which sent them off to different parts of the world)
  • Turning Points (i.e., chapter-by-chapter, sequence-by-sequence, continent-by-continent)
  • Act Climaxes (i.e., where something big changed for the characters); and finally the
  • Story Climax (i.e., when the characters solved the mystery that irreversibly changed their lives).

For each continental challenge, I found myself asking the same sorts of questions as those that arose when creating the plan for an entire manuscript. Only this time, it was on a smaller scale, and this time I was working with others who sometimes came up with some sublime surprises for me and my characters.

Why did I end up making sectional plans for this novel? Why couldn't I just go with the flow?

Potholes and Smooth Roads - what I learned

I am writing in a genre for a readership that is categorised as "young-adult speculative fiction". Generic convention says that something has to happen to launch the characters into a life-changing situation involving elements of the fantastic. And the story has to keep moving.

As the writer I have to know what has happened, and what is going to happen, so I can build the tension and suspense that makes my readers want to stay with me to the last page.

This is where the plan comes in, but I am finding it hard to articulate for you the benefits and drawbacks of planning a whole novel or only doing it bit by bit because I suspect every time I sit down to write the experience will be different; and I acknowledge that each and every one of us has been "made" or "formed" differently as writers and planning might not work for you. But if you are considering it, here are some thoughts that might help.

The smooth road of planning well ahead

I get a great deal of satisfaction in setting out the whole journey on a macro scale. It shows me in broad brushstrokes where I'm going and roughly how I'm going to get there.

I love researching and doing it before I start writing because it means the facts, environments, political and historical contexts can subconsciously burble away until a complex ambience for the story becomes available for me to draw on when I do write. It allows me to write from knowledge-base, it lets the ideas 'gel' and helps me foreshadow those 'set-up' moments we all need in our stories.

Planning well ahead means I have time to get pictures of the sites my characters will visit, or go there myself so I can experience the location physically.

The potholes of planning and writing as you go

With no whole-of-novel plan, there were times when I didn't know where my story was going and writing became hard, making it easy for distractions to dominate my time.

I needed to create a chapter outline as I went so that I knew what was going on and what had to be tied up by the end.

Because I only had a very broad over-arching goal for the story, I had to find a focus for each section (based simply on the need for the section/scene to occur on a particular continent) which gobbled up a lot of time in research.

Conversely I had very little time to research and could not visit the real-world sites personally in preparation. I love having visual clues to get a feel for the places I put in my stories and therefore had to find another solution. That's when I discovered the wonderful Google Earth. I thank all those keen photographers who post their snapshots on the site from the bottom of my heart. Wow! It became a bit of ritual for me to say to a friend on arrival to the office each day: 'I've been to China [or Brazil or Paris] this morning before brekkie'.

Smooth patches on 'the planning and writing as you go' road

Those 'aha' moments were exciting when I worked out the reason or purpose for the scene.

There were moments of discovery about a real-world site, or historical event, which were simply sublime because of the linkages that could be made between them and events in the story.

Surprises

In the end, though, I discovered that the way I constructed my story didn't change very much at all regardless of whether I had a fully-fleshed out plan or not. I asked myself the same sort of questions; I needed the same ingredients to create the world of my story; and I used the same colour-palette to paint my story's picture with words.

One of the biggest surprises has been the realisation that even with plans, unbidden characters and events and moments demand their place, and we should have enough 'give' to let them in.

And this, perhaps, is what Stephen King might be talking about when he says:

'I believe stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil  you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it's enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.' (p 128)

Until next time,

Lynda.


References

King, Stephen. On Writing: a memoir of the craft. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.

© Lynda Davies

 

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