The Best Laid Plans of a Writer

Writer's Stop

Right, let’s get back on track with some posts about writing. After all, that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? 🙂

Now, today I want to talk about planning. First, let me start out with a little story:

One day, there was a writer who didn’t like to plan. He had loads of ideas swirling around in his head and he wanted to write everything! But each time he would think of a story to write, when he sat down and started typing out the first chapter, he realisedhe didn’t know what would happen next.

‘Oh, bugger!’ he cried. ‘Oh well, never mind. I’ll just write something else.’

And so he was stuck in an eternal loop of unfinished stories and unfulfilled dreams of being a published author.

Yeah, that’s right, that was me. Until a few months ago, that is…

‘What happened a few months ago?’ I hear you ask. Well, I’ll tell you.

I learned to plan.

It’s not a particularly easy thing for a writer to acknowledge, but I knew deep down that my writing was suffering from a lack of planning and I am by no means a naturally gifted and “special” writer who can just rush through a story without anything to show them the way. You know what those sorts of people are called? Pantsers. That’s what us writery types call them, anyway.

Here’s the official definition of the word. *cough* taken from urban dictionary *cough*:

Pantser

A NaNoWriMo term that means that you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ when you are writing your novel. You have nothing but the absolute basics planned out for your novel.
This outlook towards writing is often opposed by the ‘planner’, who knows exactly what is going to happen, when it will happen, and where it will happen. There is often enmity between the two types of writers.
Another pantser?! Seriously, GTFO.

Take note of the second paragraph. Planner. That is what you should aspire to, more or less.

I hate planning, I will admit that, but it does have HUGE benefits. Take a look at this example:

Chapter One

  • Swordfight / conflict
  • Rain
  • Slippery footing
  • Main char – discussion about amulet
  • Discovers amulet’s power / destiny
  • Attacked by assassins
  • Almost poisoned – fear
  • Escapes with amulet into city
  • Who do the assassins belong to? Who wants him dead?

That’s it. That is as much as I write about any one chapter. I tried out this method after browsing the web on the search for planning advice. Before, I had stuck to strict play-by-play summaries of each chapter and I’d always burned out and got bored. I like it when there’s still a lot of freedom to move in my writing. Think of each bullet point as an island and imagine there’s just blank space in between each one. That blank space is where you can really use your imagination and play around as much as you like. So long as you stick to the bullet points and hit each one of them at some point, you can’t go wrong. I guarantee it. Just make sure you have a few points that conjure up an image and set the scene, a few points that deal with the plot and character’s progression and then a couple that are just action/movement and finally one that asks a question for the chapter to end on and draw the reader deeper into your story.

As for the overall structure of the plot, I approach it like so. This is advice I adapted from Michael Moorcock’s brilliant How to Write a Book in Three Days, by the way:

Part 1 – Hit the hero with a heap of trouble. Give them a problem to overcome. Give them a reason to try to overcome it.

Part 2 – Increase the trouble that the hero is facing. Give him more crap to deal with. Keep giving him a personal reason to keep trying to overcome it.

Part 3 – Put your hero in so much trouble that the reader isn’t sure he’ll survive it. Break him, bash him about, make him beg for mercy.

Part 4 – Find a way for your hero to triumph. Tie up any loose ends. Provide a satisfying conclusion.

All you need do is fit your chapter plans in and around those four parts and you’re already halfway to the finish line.

My Top Ten Planning Tips

  1. Whenever you feel lost or don’t know what to write, just look at your chapter plan and make sure you’re sticking to each bullet point.
  2. Cover everything and don’t try to rush.
  3. If your characters insist on going in a different direction, stop and plan ahead a few more chapters to see if it works.
  4. Make sure that you have the ending already planned out.
  5. Plan out at least one chapter from the middle of your story. Make it an event/scene you really want to write.
  6. Make sure all your characters and their motivations/goals are clear in your mind before you plan.
  7. Think of a few objects and images that will form the visual theme of your story. Incorporate these elements into your plot.
  8. Don’t plan out every single chapter before you start writing (unless you enjoy planning). Most likely a lot will change as you delve into the first chapters of your story and you’ll only demoralise yourself. Plan ahead by two or three chapters at all times.
  9. Equally, make sure you have the entire journey/arc of your story clear in your mind. Just in very basic forms (e.g. amulet discovered, hero goes on journey to east, takes part in huge battle against demons, confronts antagonist in ruined temple).
  10. Enjoy your writing! The best advice I can give you is to write what you find interesting and fun. If you’re bored writing it, people will be bored reading it. That’s the secret to writing well.

What do you reckon? Got any of your own planning tips or stories to share? Are you a pantser or a planner?

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Stuck? It’s not you, it’s your character!

Traits

When I start writing something new, whether it’s a new story or the first chapter for a new character, I occasionally find myself not fully getting into the writing. Usually, it’s a case of going back and doing a little more plotting, character development or just taking a break to collect my thoughts. On rare occasions, though, I realise what the real problem is… the character.

I ran into this problem recently, in fact. I had two main characters that I was intending to use to tell the story. They were both fully formed in my mind and I felt that I knew all about them and knew how they would speak, react and live. The only thing was, one of the characters didn’t seem right. I felt like I was writing a sub-plot (and not a very interesting one). I thought about ways to change this character’s story around and make them more interesting to follow. In the end, nothing worked. I knew that this character needed to be in the story, but he just wasn’t a viewpoint character.

So, I took another character that I had been developing and explored him in more detail. He was a little older, grittier, more bitter and had something to prove to the world. Now this was the kind of character that I could really do something with. What’s more, he was the opposite of my other viewpoint character and I could already see conflict emerging between them.

I can’t give you any concrete advice on spotting whether your character might be wrong. It’s instinct, really. Try writing a chapter with that character and see how it flows. Read it back to yourself and see if you like the character and believe their motives. If not, strip it back down and try another tack. When you’ve exhausted all possible ways of salvaging the character, then you can start thinking about a new character. Don’t just throw characters away straight off the bat, though. They need development and time to grow in your mind. If you’re struggling to come up with characters who excite you, try thinking of a negative trait and a positive one and then amplifying them for the purposes of your character. Conflicting traits are present in real people and they provide great inner conflict for your story.

Plotting the Fantasy Novel #1

Hi all, as I will continuously be posting on the subject of plotting a novel, I have marked this post as the first in a possible series.

I wasn’t planning to post anything today, but I was getting stuck into some work on my novel’s plot and I thought I would share an article that I was reading today on the subject. It can be found right here.

I found this very useful and hopefully you will get something out of it too!