Saturday 6 March 2010


To plan or not to plan? A blog-reader, @sleepycatt on Twitter, asked me to blog about planning. I did warn her that I am not the best person to talk about this, but she was undeterred.

Non-writers and writers alike are often fascinated by how and whether authors plan their stories, by which they usually mean "Do you know what's going to happen / do you know what's going to happen next?" I'm quite fascinated myself. It's part of the strange process of creating a novel (or non-fiction, though that's not so strange).

From my own thoughts and my frequent listening to other authors, here are some truths of the matter:
  • some writers do and some don't, and it doesn't seem to be to do with the type of book. You'd think a detective story would need to be planned intricately, but I've often heard crime writers say they don't plan. People tell me that when writing my own thriller, Deathwatch, I must have known who the stalker was, but I didn't. No flipping idea. 
  • each writer's understanding of the question is different. So, for some "planning" might mean outlining every chapter in detail before starting, and for others it might mean having an idea of what will happen at some point and gradually getting there, perhaps planning along the way; for others it will be something in the middle;
  • each author should do what works for him or her and not worry what anyone else is doing. If it works, it's right.
Let me tell you how I tend to go about things, bearing in mind that I call myself a non-planner. You'll see that for a non-planner, I actually do some things that have the same effect as planning. Bear in mind as well that for me every book has its own approach, so I am taking very much an average or a paradigm in the following description.

Step One - the idea comes. It weaves its way into my soul and I begin to obsess. Nothing is written down - that would wreck it (for me). Characters and voices start to grow. They enter my sleep. My husband notices me being distracted and absent. (Nothing new there.) Various important scenes appear, though never the ending. (The only two times I've thought I knew the ending, I was wrong and when I got there there was more to come. The Passionflower Massacre and Sleepwalking, if you're interested.) I do more walking, because walking is my thinking time and the only way ideas and vague plans can come. In my mind during this phase (and others) I am predicting and resolving major dead-ends, discovering what is not going to work - with my earlier novels, I couldn't do this, and the dead-ends were painful when I stubbed my toe on them.)

Step Two - the first chapter comes. I write it. (Sometimes, for example with Fleshmarket and The Highwayman's Footsteps, this happens before stage one. The first chapter establishes the voice, and I can't now proceed until that is 100% spot on for this particular book.

Stage Three - now, usually, a bit of planning happens. This means that I get myself a lovely new notebook, A4 size, and start making random notes - themes, character notes etc. Possibly, if I can, I might sketch out a vague plan of how the plot strands might go. But I can't over-stress that the words "might" and "vague" are operative here. My lovely new notebook is often barely used, until later. Usually, the first things I write in it are stupid and get ripped out quite soon.

Stage Four (though this is usually combined with Stage Three) - I write the next chapter. And the next. And so on. At any point, and often, I do lots of walking and thinking through each next stage. What usually happens is that I know three or four Big Scenes and my task is to get my characters to each one. At many points, things I thought might happen don't, or happen differently, because essentially my characters have taken over.

It is that reason (characters hijacking my brain) that means I can't really plan, and to be honest I lurch from scene to scene in a very scary and choatic way.

What I DO do, however, and this is what allows my book to look very unchaotic eventually, is REVERSE PLAN. This is the most important part of my writing process.

What the hell is REVERSE PLANNING???
Simple: every now and then, for example when things have got a bit complicated and look as though they might go haywire, I go back and write an outline of what I've written, separating each plot strand or character development into a different column or colour on an A4 sheet in landscape format (usually). Gosh, doesn't that sound organised??? This will show me a time-line of everything and allow me to see what sort of story arc or shape I've got, and whether my length / pacing / structure are on course to produce the book I want.

I will probably re-do my RP four times during the book. It allows me to tie up ends properly, make sure that each plot strand has its appropriate weight and shape and just ensure that things are ticking along. In a way, it's the bridle and saddle for my wild Arab stallion of a story. It gives me control, but allows me to have a thrilling ride all the same.

Although I won't make rules for planning (other than "do what works"), and although I wouldn't dream of telling you to do it my way, I do have some suggestions:
  1. Do keep character notes - if you have a memory like mine, you will not remember by word 18,904 that you have said that Character A has blue eyes or once had a kitten called Sue. I recommend doing this either in a notebook with a page for each character, or in a Word doc. I also recommend that you write down precise wording that you used for any detail - because then, when you want to change an aspect of character or personailty, you can do a "find" on the phrase and change them all.
  2. I have used - and recommend - a pin board with little cards that you can move around. You can have different colours for different plot strands, or organise it however you want, but this type of storyboard allows you to make lots of changes as you go, and really to visualise the shape of your book.
  3. Do try to foresee problems before they arise, and if you suspect that something is going wrong, stop, think, walk, think, and don't simply plough ahead hoping it will work itself out.
  4. Don't expect to stick to your plan. Always allow yourself to be adaptable.
  5. It's perfectly possible to plan one section at a time - that's pretty much what I'm doing when I'm walking - so, I write a chapter and then go walking to get the next one. It's just like going shopping...
  6. The fact that I don't make early written notes on my ideas is not a recommendation - it's just me! I like the idea to work itself out organically and I find as soon as I write something down it becomes too strict - strictness is for the later stages of my writing process.
What about novel-writing software? Again, if it works for you, use it. The only one I've used is Writers Café - and in fact, you'll see an endorsement from me on their website. I mention a "sticky plot situation" - funnily enough, that was in the book which is about to come out in May, Wasted. Apart from this, I haven't tried any software but I feel that it would not often be the answer for me: I need to "walk it out", to think in the open air, with my dog, who helpfully doesn't speak to me.

I rather suspect I haven't helped @sleepycatt at all! Honestly, it's a tough and solitary world being a writer, and we just have to find what works. I also believe that it's not only different for each writer, but different for each book - or maybe that's because each of my books is so different from the others.

One thing that's true of all my books, though: the best planning happens not while I'm at my desk but while I'm walking the dog. Unfortunately, she usually has other plans  - I just don't quite know what they are...


Jane Smith said...

For a non-planner, Nicola, you do a lot of planning--just like me.

I've found rolls of lining wallpaper very useful for mind-mapping ideas on. Especially if I grab my children's coloured felt-pens to write with. There's something about the BIIIG page and all that colour which frees something up inside me, and really gets me going. In a non-planning, creative way, of course.

(I wish my dogs were as respectful of my creative process as yours is of yours: unfortunately they have to be watched when I take them out as they have a tendency to disappear across the moors, which is not at all helpful to my muse.)

Dolly said...

I started out as a non-planner, but after few books and several plot holes that made editing so daunting (I hadn't learned bit by bit planning at this stage), I switched to planning and so far I love it. Outlining works for me. First draft goes smoother and quicker.

But my next experiment is going to be looking over and editing what I wrote the day before, rather than waitnig for the whole first draft to finish, and see how that works with an outline.

Mary Hoffman said...

I totally agree about the character notes - which are especially vital if you are writing a series or "sequence" as I am. Personally I use card index boxes and cards with the characters filed under their first names.

And a timeline - must have a timeline. I don't plan it in advance but create it as I go along and then it's very useful to look back at.

But in general I think I am a planner who knows where I'm beginning and where I'll end up but the bit in between might take a very scenic route!

karen ball said...

This is great advice and similair to my own way of working. I keep a separate Word document so that I can remember things as basic as what my characters are called and what they look like. Sometimes I keep a chapter outline so I can remember what happens in every chapter. Yes, I struggle to remember these crucial details! It doesn't mean I don't care about what I'm working on.

Thomas Taylor said...

Thanks for this -- it's always useful to hear how others work. And I'm glad you stress the importance of thinking time, because so much advice for writers revolves around 'write, write, write every day!'. Sometimes a good long spell of regular daydreaming by the sea is what's really needed.

David John Griffin said...

I also find it interesting how we all write differently! The way I write is knowing the beginning (always a good place to start!), a vague middle, a few vague "signposts" along the way to a pretty much decided ending. In fact, for my third, I've written 20,000 words from the beginning and a couple of thousand words of the last chapter already. Now just to fill in the bits in between...I creep forward, one paragraph at a time, looking ahead through the fog at those occasional vague signposts.

I do use a piece of novel-writing software (Mariner StoryMill) and have actually planned a few characters ahead of time with this, the first time I've done that. But even then just word sketches really.

Walking the dog and getting a bit of fresh air also works for me; sometimes coaxing our dog back home to type something before it's forgotten. Not that that's happened for a while, as I haven't written one word more of my WIP since October last year (I've been giving my first novel a "makeover" as it were; amongst other things).


Anonymous said...

I just knew we were soul sisters. I don't plan the same you you don't plan. My methods have earned me comments of being I rather schizoid. Well! I'd be insulted, but Lily, my alter-ego won't hear of it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Very interesting. I let the story filter around in my head for a long time before I write anything as well. I like your reverse planning idea - think I'll give that a shot :)

Shelley Sly said...

Wonderful post.

Rule #4: Don't expect to stick to your plan. Always allow yourself to be adaptable.

This is especially true to me. I know some writers who create their outline and then are SO focused on staying true to that original idea that they lose sight on what could be a better ending.

I've found that some of the best plot decisions I've made have been ones that I've strayed just a bit from my outline. Always helps to be prepared, but flexible.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jane - I agree: a disappearing dog requiring much shouting and stomping over moors is not conducive.

Bookmaven - totally agree about the time-line. Very important to note down times when you say "the next day" or if it was Sunday when such and such happened. In certain settings, we may also need to know eg whether it's school holidays / what month etc. My ongoing time-line for Deathwatch made me realise that the climax would happen a few days before Halloween - and I realised that it would be PERFECT if it was ON Halloween, so I shuggled everything around on the time-line.

Lynn (behlerblog, for those who don't know the lovely Lynn Price!) - I've always been in two minds about that. As for soul sisters - indeed!

David - you've reminded me of something that I never do (though you are welcome to!) - I NEVER write a later chapter/scene before I get to it. That would be like eating the cake before the sandwich - very, very naughty!

Thomas - I agree: I can't stand it when writers make "rules" about method. The right method is whatever works.

Dolly - actually, i ALWAYS go over the previous chapter before writing the next one. Probably half my writing preiod is taken up with re-writing the previous session. It's partly because going over is easier than writing new words, partly because I like to read them aloud then and see what they sound like, and partly because it just works for me and I can often picks up problems then.

Others - glad it chimed!

Jo Franklin said...

This is all very interesting and something I'm trying to address in my own writing. I am a relentless planner in my life - I used to do it for a living. But didn't manage to transfer that to my writing until recently. I am now trying to learn to plan more.

My first book has had so many rewrites and extra layers of plot added because when I started it I didn't have a clue where I was going and ended up going nowhere in particular. 20+ rewrites later it's fantastic.

So on book number two I decided to plan - That meant writing 8 bullet points down. I had a couple of key showdowns in mind and I did character sheets that I have never looked at since. But I found it useful to crystalise my characters. By the way I would recommend getting a book on astrology when devising characters. I'm not into studying my stars myself, but good astrology books give you 'characters in a nutshell' the pros and cons of their characters and I found it really useful to make sure that people were more rounded.
Then I wrote a first, very fast, rough draft in about 6-8 weeks. Then I was able to see the gaping holes in my plot and knew how to make the boring bits as interesting as the thrilling bits.
I am now at the end of draft 2 but am leaving it to mature for a few months while I have one final re-write of the first book. If no one wants it this time it's going to be filed as a learning experience.
Ros of Dirty White Candy and How to nail your novel, has some interesting tips on planning for those who do want to plan (and she does a lot of ghost writing to tight commercial deadlines so needs to stay focussed). I'm going to see if I can implement some of her advice when I review book 2.

Glynis Peters said...

I dived straight into my novel, then read blogs about planning etc. I 'borrowed' a few ideas and it helped.
For book two I have started a plan of how to plan. I get ideas when I walk the dogs, or swim lengths in the pool.

Interesting post.

steeleweed said...

I build (mentally) one or two characters that are interesting (to me) and place them in a situation that is interesting (to me). Then I let them write the story.

I used to do a lot of public speaking and found that if I wrote out my speeches in advance, they were terrible - Extemporaneous was the only way for me. Need I say I am VERY BAD at planning?

This posting is the most useful and helpful article I've ever come across and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. If your husband and my wife were okay with it, I'd probably propose :-). Toffee anyone?

Lacer said...

Thanks again for a very useful post. I'm editing my first manuscript at the moment and thinking / writing notes about my second, what I've found is that both books have been planned differently, not that I plan that much. The first manuscript is quite a sequential story, nearly everything in the story happens to my main character and apart from breaks for her to go to sleep, the story doesn't stop. So when it came to planning I had a rough idea for the whole book but more concrete for a few chapters ahead. My new story involves more people and isn't so sequential, so bits of the story have come to me all over the place, so I've been planning and writing bits of it all over the place.

I'm glad though that I'm not the only one who reverse plans, I had to do that with the first manuscript, seeing what I had and then going back and planning with it.

Jill said...

I'm a walker, too. I have to walk in order to figure things out, even if only to clear my head. I have a cat, though, and she won't take walks with me. Oh, and several fish--same with them--no walking with my fish on leashes.

How I hate outlines! I'd rather box myself in a corner over and over than make an outline on paper. I usually have a loose one in my head. And I don't mean a screw.

Jose said...

Interesting insight into how a pro does it :) I am probably fairly similar, I don't plan as such but think things through whilst on an amble or in the shower. The latter seems to work for me particularly well - I just need to figure out how to write/take notes whilst in there.

catdownunder said...

My equivalent of walking is to pedal. I have a physical disability that makes it difficult to actually write things down so I DO rely on my memory. The most that I might write down will be a string of single words. You can train your memory if you need to.
However when I get to the keyboard I will sometimes write things I know I will not use - just because I need to know and understand more about my characters. "Ah, so that is how you reacted!" It helps me keep them under control - I think.
I will find out whether this method works if I ever get anything actually published!

CC MacKenzie said...

Sometimes I try to plan - but then usually it doesn't work because my characters are not fully formed. I've tried mindmaps (no surprise there), they've been useful on A5 pads linked together and can double as a timeline.

The 'best' (two) have come to me in dreams (spooky but true) with characters and story fully formed. I wake up and write everything down as fast as I can. My current WIP became eighty A4 pages within three hours - DH opened one eye, grunted and went back to sleep. Hiking in the peak district every day also helps with thinking time.

I've recently had an op for breast cancer (all clear and on the home straight) which has played havoc with the creative process. However, the left side of my brain is sparking and I'm going with the flow, secure in the knowledge that an ouline is on paper.

But an outline is only a map of the journey, many many detours will be taken by the time I reach the destination.

Great post Nicola.


steeleweed said...

Afterthought on TT's comment: It may only take me a few minutes to write a poem but it may take days to get my head in the right place to compose it. Prose isn't all that different. Before I write a chapter, I mentally live it. Suspect my thinking/writing is about 50/50.

SF said...

Thanks for this insight, Nicola.

Before I started my novel, I worried that I didn't have a plan, but the thought of actually writing a plan was pretty scary, and stopped me writing anything at all! Then I thought, stuff it, I'll just start. So much easier!

I find I'm planning as I'm going, which is why your Reverse Planning strategy is getting stuck by post-it to my wall.

Sheila said...

Thanks Nicola, especially for giving a name to reverse planning, which coincidentally I have taken to doing with Writers' Cafe - so much easier to re-arrange a story by moving chunks of plot about on the screen first! - although I always find it frightening to move whole chapters anyway.
I will try and keep character profiles in future, as I realise that would save me from having to trawl through the word file later looking to see if the main character had the same job at the end as at the start.

Sally Zigmond said...

Nicola: another great post. That and the resultant fascinating comments have confirmed what I already feared. I have no method--I am totally chaotic. I have an A4 spiral-bound notebook for each novel but that too becomes an incoherent mess after a while.) I also lose stuff. This means that I probably work ten times as hard as I need to because an awful lot ends up in the trash can--or under the bed.

I do walk though--alone, sans mutt, and find that ideas do coalesce. But what I mainly do is lean on gates or sit on boundary stones and let my mind wander.

Theresa Milstein said...

I have a very similar style to you in my non-planning planning. Your step one is exactly like mine, so reading it was a bit eerie. I call that stage being possessed. In fact, in my post from yesterday, that's exactly what I call it.

Anonymous said...

I used not to plan short stories at all. Now I've started not letting myself write anything at all until I know what happens at the end and what will have happened to change everything in the middle... just because it's only a few thousand words doesn't mean I can go around letting it get flappy...

But the stories I've done this way have only just gone out on the market, so I still don't know whether improving my discipline is actually making the results more likely to sell!

Jo Treggiari said...

I don't outline - well I will under much duress- but I do make notes before I begin a book. Those notes will include character sketches, setting, plot, atmosphere, sometimes small scenes. Anything really as it occurs to me. I write them out longhand and then type them up and save as a word document.
I carry a notebook with me- a new one labeled for each new book-- and I scrawl things down in it all the time. Often with questions directed to myself and lots of question marks and underlining, until I feel as if I've got the voice of the thing right.
I walk a lot. Every day and whenever I am feeling blocked. It's amazing how it clears my mind and opens up my imagination. If I am stuck, I am always able to see the way after a walk. It would be interesting to know how many writers amble as part of the creative process.
Sometimes my notebooks are bursting at the seams by the end, crammed with maps, and drawings and words. Sometimes they are less full. It depends on the book. The last one I wrote was very hard and yet my note book was half-filled.

Anonymous said...

I wrote my first novel by the seat of my pants and have regretted it for over two years of constant revision and editing. I now plan and outline before writing anything. What I plan usually changes along the way, but at least there are no gaping holes to fill later.

I keep a notebook filled with character bios, illustrations I drew of them, family trees as well as character trees (showing relationships b/t protags and antags) setting descriptions and so much more.

I, too, have blogged on the organization of prewriting and others may find my information useful as well. It can be found in two places: and Http://

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try the trial version of Writer's Café. The time line view looks useful, so thanks for the tip. In the mean time, have you seen FreeMind? It's a good brainstorming tool which can also be used for what I call scatter-brained planning.