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).
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don't expect to stick to your plan. Always allow yourself to be adaptable.
- 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...
- 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.
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...