Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Pros of Planning

With Nanowrimo coming up in a mere 7 weeks, and having just entered the ‘100 for 100’ challenge over at Go Teen Writers , I have been thinking a lot about planning novels. I’m not usually a planner. I much prefer to come up with a premise, maybe a few scenes that I want to take place, and then start writing. Talking with my sister, I tried to justify my lack of planning with the following argument: 

If you plan a novel, you know that something exciting is coming up soon, and so you’re not too worried about every individual scene, so much as ‘slogging through the boring bits’ to get to the exciting plot point you know is around the corner. Whereas if you don’t plan, you never know what’s going to happen, so you have nothing to look forward to, and you’re forced to make every scene equally exciting.

Unsurprisingly, she shot my argument down like a fish in a barrel, pointing to several examples of novels which were clearly not planned, which had very dull middle sections. And she was right – when reading a novel, you can usually tell whether the author planned it before they wrote it, or whether they just say down and wrote, and tried to tighten it up afterwards. I struggle to get through the latter kind. Justine Larbestier’s How to Ditch Your Fairy was like this for me, as was Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels. Books like these have good premises, good characters, and even good plot points, but they wander. I often feel like the same events happen over and over again. As my sister pointed out: if you’re forced to make every scene equally exciting, that’s just the problem. No scene is more exciting than the rest. There’s no rising tension, there’s just a sense of plodding along through the same plot points, until you get to the end.

Against all the odds, I am beginning to see the merits of planning. I returned this week to the novel I began planning back in July using the Snowflake Method (thoughts on that over here), and I discovered something very useful – my main character, Ink, was boring.  Whereas the other characters had backgrounds that connected them to the conflict of the plot, and motivations rooted in complex backstories, Ink was described (and I cringe to write these words) as “a vaguely dissatisfied teenager” who wants to “change the world” although she “has the potential for a secure job”. It doesn’t sound like compelling reading.

So I cut her. Ink is banished to the dustbin of novel-writing forever, to be replaced with (hopefully) much more compelling characters. And you know how long it took me to cut her? Under a minute, since I realised this in the very early stages of planning. And how much time had I wasted on a boring character? Maybe an hour, at most. By comparison, several years ago I wrote some thirty thousand words about a girl named Katie who could be described with nothing more than the tags “ordinary teenager” and perhaps “flaming red hair with a temper to match”. When I realised she had no emotional connection to the other characters, and was perhaps most kindly described as “sociopathic”, I scrapped the story, because there wasn’t much I could do when all thirty thousand words were first-person, from her point of view. Had I realised my main character lacked pretty much everything except a name and a hair colour during the planning stage, I could have remedied it then.

The moral of this story is: planning isn’t all bad. The only thing I have ever written which has made it to second draft was written with no plan, but I think I have to accept that that might have been a once off. It looks like planning could save me a lot of time and a lot of effort, as well as producing better results. This revelation makes me sad, and won’t stop me from sitting down in front of a blank screen and writing down the first words that pop into my head, but it might make me stop to think before I write thirty thousand more of them.

Has anyone else had a revelation like this? Do you find planned-out novels are better than others?

(Also, the latest report on the Snowflake Method is that it can be quite a bit of fun, if you skip steps 5, 6, 7 and 9.)


  1. Hi, love the blog!
    I'm currently battling through my own planning demons....
    Best of luck with NaNoWriMo!

    1. Thanks Anna! I hope your battles are going well. What are you planning for Nano?