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Editor's advice 4 - Planning



Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This new series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the fourth article Maureen deals with planning.

Planning - just how should you go about planning your novel?

Let’s start with a story of three different people who each decide to go walking in the countryside one day.

Walker A sets out with no particular destination in mind, doesn’t take a map and wanders around all day. He gets lost but meets some nice people, sees some interesting sights, finds a lovely pub for lunch, and eventually finds a bus home. He has no clear idea where he’s been but he really enjoyed himself and tells everyone how much fun he had.

B, on the other hand, is very well organised. She has a map, a detailed description of her route, and has made a timetable for herself. She knows when and where she is having lunch, and what time the train home will be. She sees a lot of interesting things on the way because she’s planned her route well. But she also sees things she hadn’t known about before. She can’t stop to look at them now, but she makes a note to come back later and investigate.

C is more relaxed about her day out. She has a clear goal and a rough idea of how she’s going to get there. She’s got a map in her bag, and occasionally looks at it to make sure she’s still going in the right direction. She has a couple of places in mind for lunch. On the way her fancy is caught by various things she sees, so she diverges from her intended path for a while, and then rejoins it later, arriving at her destination

By now you’re probably asking what all this has got to do with writing.

The thing is, when people start writing novels, they’re often like Walker A. They wander around, they find things, they meet people, they have a great time, but they don’t really have much idea what they’re doing. There is a great temptation to throw in everything, regardless of its relevance. After all, you’re making it up as you go along, aren’t you? The trouble is, it’s all too easy for the writer to lose control of the story. The writer has no idea where he or she is, and the reader doesn’t fare much better. The whole thing is a dreadful mess, and it can be terribly frustrating for the writer.

The point is that writing is not just about writing. It’s also about making the most of the ideas, events and characters that the novelist has come up with. Not surprisingly, this requires discipline and control, and the best way to achieve this is through a little careful planning.

The idea of planning doesn’t fit well with the idea of the writer as inspired genius, frantically scribbling away. However, I am willing to bet that, no matter what they would have you think, most successful writers plan as much as they write. They just don’t tell you about it.

The biggest objection that most inexperienced writers raise when someone broaches the delicate matter of planning is that it will get in the way of their inventive powers. A plan will be like a straitjacket. They’ll be stuck with this plan and if they come up with a good idea along the way, they will not be able to use it. They are genuinely horrified at the thought.

This is where we go back to our walkers. Every writer is different. No two writers work in exactly the same way, but they generally use some variation of the same two methods: Walker B’s incredibly organised approach or Walker C’s casual approach. Some people start with one and move to the other as they come to understand their own working methods. Others find that a certain method suits a certain kind of book.

Some people like to know exactly what they’re doing before they start writing. They make very elaborate diagrams of the plot, note what each character is doing and when – this is particularly useful if you’re writing a story which depends very heavily on a complex series of events coming together at just the right moment. Some writers focus on building detailed descriptions of their characters, so they know how they will react in any given situation, and then put them into the action. Once they’ve made a plan, they stick to it, but they then make a note of the ideas they have as they work, and then go back later and see if they can be incorporated into the story. If not, they might be worth using elsewhere.

Other writers make a less detailed plan, giving more room to experiment with what they discover along the way. They can retrace their steps later, to make sure that the diversion from the main plot works, or that the character they bumped into does fit into the narrative. It’s important for them to have a rough idea of what’s going on but they prefer not to plan too much in advance.

But what about A, still floundering around with no idea what he’s doing? It’s not too late. Planning can help him too. When he gets home, he looks at the map to figure out where he’s been so he can visit those places again, and make better use of his next day out. Likewise, the inexperienced writer can look at that cumbersome first draft and make a plan of what he’s written, to help him find the weaknesses and understand what he needs to do next. Indeed, some experienced writers actually prefer to write that chaotic first draft, just to get the ideas down on paper before they forget them.

The point is that in some respects it doesn’t actually matter when you do the planning; the important thing to remember is that you’ll have to do it at some stage in the process of writing a novel, and to find the point in the process that works best for you.

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.

© Maureen Kincaid Speller 2007