Writing advice

Planning early, part one – the pros

A smart man once said, “you won’t get anything done by planning.” I say smart – he’s actually a complete moron (before you say anything, no, it wasn’t me). But for all the many, many dumb things that man has said, there is actually a little bit of truth to this. You can spend all your time writing, but at some point you’re going to hit a wall. Enter, stage left – the plan!

Before I go any further, I should clarify the context of this post. I spoke at the end of my last post about planning versus writing. Obviously, planning is a vital part of writing a novel. However, when you’re in the very early stages, where you’ve got nothing except your inspiration/idea, planning isn’t necessarily a good thing. A plan is pointless if it isn’t implemented, but when you’re starting a novel you need to exercise some measure of caution not to over-plan. On the other hand, having absolutely no plan can cause you to quickly lose focus.

So how much is too much/little? That, in itself, is a very hard question to answer, so instead I’m going to simply list reasons why you should/shouldn’t plan immediately.

Let’s start with some pros of planning:

  • It helps you to keep focus
    In the very early stages of writing, your plan will be pretty basic. You might include a couple of characters, with some simple information about them such as gender, appearance, profession etc. Likewise, you could write down a rough outline of your first scene (at least, the first scene you’re writing, as it might not end up being the very first scene of the novel). This is useful, but more than anything else you should start your plan with some sort of goal or focus, and what that is depends on what inspired you.What is the most important aspect of your story – why are you writing it? If, for example, you’re writing a romance story, you might consider tone the most important – keeping it light-hearted, full of good humour etc. Maybe it’s some major plot twist, whereby we discover the beggar is actually the heir to the throne – you need to be sure to build up to the dramatic reveal gradually, and not give it away too early. Whatever it is, your story needs to have focus, and starting your plan with this is a great way to keep from diverting. “The most important thing about my story is…” – plaster that at the top of every page, so you don’t forget it!
  • It isn’t set in stone (but it’s a great way of laying the foundations)
    The great thing about an early plan is, much like what you’ll be writing, it’s just a first draft. It’s useful to have an idea of where you want the story to progress, but if you decide to change parts as you go, or find a certain aspect isn’t working, you can look over your plan and adjust accordingly. The last thing you’d want to do is have several thousand words written, only to decide “Actually, I want the main character to be a cross between a werewolf and a pretzel”, and then have to go back through and change everything.
  • It stops you forgetting things
    Or, rather, it means it doesn’t matter if (like me) you forget everything. Losing a fantastic story idea is the second worst thing in the world to lose (a sneeze is first, obviously). You could be driving, or in the shower (I’ll explain in another post, but these are great places to let your mind wander!) and have a flash of inspiration. Quickly jotting it down in your plan keeps it safe, in case something distracts you and the idea vanishes. Keep in mind, however, to write it down in such a manner that it makes sense when you read it back. Imagine you’re writing some high-fantasy epic, similar to Lord of the Rings, and find all you’ve written down is “banana poison leads to war LOOK AT THE CLOCK”. Good luck with that.
  • It can help you get unstuck
    I think I’m safe in saying there isn’t a single published author that hasn’t, at one point in time, done some background research while writing their novel. Research is a fundamental aspect of the writing process; it gives your writing authority (among other things, which I’ll discuss another time), and instils in the reader the idea that you really know what you’re talking about. When you’re starting out writing, research can be a great source of inspiration, but it can also help if you don’t know how to start.Say you want to write a story set on a modern, trans-continental train. However, you’ve never been on one before, so how do you know what to write? Reading up about them, even in just surface details, will give you a starting point so that you can then get to writing. Another point of this is if you find yourself suddenly unable to write. Maybe you’ve hit a block, or you’re running out of steam. Going back to your plan can help you identify any weaknesses of the scene you’re writing, and figure out how to move past them.
  • It saves editing time later
    Writing a novel takes time, and most of this is spent in the drafting/editing phases. Going back to this train scenario, let’s say you’ve finished the first draft. “Huzzah,” you think, “time to look up whether or not everything I’ve said is true.” And, it turns out, nothing you said is true; you can’t get a Paris-Thailand train for £1.50, you don’t get to drive the train, and the main character’s dog, his faithful companion throughout the intense and isolating spiritual journey, is not allowed on the train.Having a plan at the very start means you don’t (or hopefully won’t) have to spend hours later, going back through your story with a magnifying glass, trying to spot every instance of something that isn’t possible. Or, in the dog-not-allowed scenario, having to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

Writers need to use every tool available to craft their novels, and having a solid plan is vital. It makes your life easier later on, when it comes to editing and re-drafting, and it helps to keep you on track and not forget the great question – “why am I writing this?”. If your original intention is to create a character so vulgar your reader literally vomits over the pages, stick to it! Don’t suddenly have them adopt a puppy, build a school in a third-world country, or donate blood. So if you find this has started to happen, then that might be a sign you need to take a step back and start some planning.

In my next post, I’ll list some reasons why planning at the start isn’t such a great idea. It isn’t a case of “planning is bad”, so much as “planning too much is bad”. It’s like going out for drinks on a Saturday evening; you can plan it all you want, as far in advance as you want, but eventually you’ll need to leave the house if you want to actually do the drinking. Or you can be like me, and just never leave the house!

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