Why and How I Plan my Novels
Often when I talk to audiences about my writing, I am asked: ‘Do you plan your novels in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?’ I love this question – it enables me to bang on about one of my great passions, which I will come to in a minute… (Spoiler: it’s planning!)
But first – the reason I’m writing this now is that I was asked this very question recently at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, and afterwards at least twenty people either spoke to me or emailed/tweeted me later saying a version of this: ‘Thank you SO MUCH for what you said about planning – I can now see a way forward for my novel. So many writers tell you they don’t plan at all, and I’d kind of felt it was something one isn’t supposed to do…’
It doesn’t surprise me to hear this. Often – at festivals, in libraries, in theatres and book shops – I am asked the planning question not by a member of the audience (as at Swanwick) but by an interviewer who is interviewing me and one or two other crime writers on a panel, and almost always the other crime writers say, ‘Oh, I never plan. I’d hate to plan – I’d feel as if I’d told the story already. The writing process is how I discover the story…’ Etcetera. (The notable exceptions to this rule that I can I can recall are Jeffery Deaver and Andrew Gross, both of whom are planning aficionados, and would no more fail to plan their novels in advance than fail to put clothes on before going to the shops.)
There’s no denying, though, that – at least in my experience – ninety per cent of novelists asked will say that they don’t plan, and they will often follow that up with a comment that implies planning would somehow take the fun/creativity out of the process for them.
The opposite is true for me. And, since so many people at the Swanwick summer school found this helpful to hear, I’ve decided to write about it. So…here goes:
WHY AND HOW I PLAN MY NOVELS:
The main reason I’m a planner is that it’s huge fun! It makes life SO much easier for a writer, and it gives you something concrete to look forward to. I would hate to start writing a novel with no clue as to what might happen from chapter to chapter, or how it might end. It would be like stripping the old wallpaper in your house and pulling up all the old carpets with literally no idea how you want the rooms to look at the end of the process, once you’ve finished all your hard work. How much more satisfying would it be to tear up all that old stuff with a clear vision in your mind as to how your beautiful, newly-refurbished house will look?
I find it’s the same with books. I like to look forward to the finished product, confident that I’ll still feel it’s as solid and exciting then as I do at the start. Not all ideas are good; not all inspirations can be made to work. Without a start-to-finish plan of what’s going to happen in my novel, I don’t know for certain that the idea is viable. It’s by writing a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene synopsis that I put this to the test. I’d hate to invest years or even months in an idea I suspected was great, and then get to where the denouement should be and find myself thinking, ‘Yikes! I can’t think of a decent ending!’
Writers tend to be at least slightly neurotic. The process of planning first and then writing the proper book afterwards is IDEAL for anyone of a neurotic disposition. You don’t have to call it ‘planning’, either – I agree, the word is a bit pedestrian and makes you think of traffic calming measures being discussed in city council meetings. You can call it ‘Story Architecture’ instead – that sounds pretentious, but is actually a very accurate way of describing the process.
An architect wouldn’t start a building project, slapping the cement onto the bricks, without first doing at least one drawing, and probably more, of the proposed house. He’d probably want to look at that drawing and have the chance to think, ‘Hang on! There are eight bedrooms and only one loo! Better add another loo!’ And loos are so much easier to add to a drawing than to an already-standing mansion – at that point, you’d have to have a whole extension thing going on, or even pull down your house and start from scratch. Much more work, cost and hassle.
This is as true of clues as it is of loos. If you notice at the planning stage that you’ve got absolutely no clues that might lead readers to suspect either your culprit or anyone else, that’s a huge problem in a traditional crime novel. If you have a plan, you can write under the heading ‘Chapter 10’ the words ‘Think of major clue and insert it here, though subtly.’ Then, when you come to write the actual book, you’ve already got all your plot and structure and characters fully sorted and fleshed out – you can concentrate on writing as well and clearly and elegantly and beautifully as you can, bringing your already-sorted story to life, without simultaneously worrying, ‘Is this plot, in fact, working?’ (And, by the way, when you’re writing the plan, you don’t have to write elegantly and beautifully. You just need to get the information down clearly. My book plans read as if they were written by a robot: ‘First this happens, then this happens…’)
If you get the planning and plan-editing process right, you should only have to write one complete draft of your novel. Of course, there will be edits later on, but you might not have to do a complete second draft that feels almost like starting from scratch. A lot of the thriller-writers I know who turn up their noses at planning end up writing four or five drafts of their novel before they’re happy with it. You might want to do that – in which case, you should do it! – but if you’d like to spend one year writing a book rather than five, planning is the way forward.
Planning is also a great way of making sure that your novel does in fact have a plot – just like getting an X-ray would be a great way to check there’s a skeleton inside your body! A doctor could say, ‘Look, there are all the bones, in the right places. Be comforted to know that you’re not just a bundle of soft pink flesh!’ The same is true of looking at a plan for a novel – if there’s not enough plot, or a badly-calibrated plot, that will show up on your X-ray plan.
The biggest lie uttered by writers about planning is that it somehow limits or stifles creativity. This is absolutely untrue. Planners simply divide their writing process into two equally important and creative stages: story architecture, and actual writing. Both are fun. And yes, of course you can make as many changes as you want when you come to write the book – I’ve changed characters, endings, plot strands, everything *very* spontaneously, even with my plan at my side, when it’s felt like the right thing to do. I still wouldn’t be without my trusty plan, though.
I think there’s also a misconception in some people’s minds that if you care and talk about and prioritise planning – plotting – that somehow this must mean you don’t care about character depth and psychological insight. This is total nonsense! If you’ve got fascinating characters to write about, have enough respect for them to make sure you’ve constructed a great plot for them to appear in. Plot and character are not rivals – they’re co-conspirators.
That’s why I write the way I write. As for how to plan, it’s very simple. I treat each novel plan as if it were a novel. I open a new document, I call it (for example) ‘DID YOU SEE MELODY? Plan’, and then I write, in this order:
- One-or-two-line elevator pitch: that is, how I would describe the driving narrative force in the book to someone who knew nothing about it.
- Blurb: More detailed story description in maximum two paragraphs, containing strong plot hook
- Setting: Time and Place, e.g. Paradise Valley, Arizona, 2017 in the case of Did You See Melody?
- Characters. A list of all characters, major and minor. Names, ages, personalities, appearances, and anything else I think would be useful to know about them.
- Background Information – this is anything I want to bear in mind before the action of the story begins, e.g.: ‘Carol and Bob used to be married and live in London. Then they adopted a child who was allergic to gluten, so they moved to a gluten-free gated estate in New Zealand, and after three uneventful years of living there…
- Then I’d write the heading ‘Chapter-by-Chapter Plan’ and write a detailed description of what will happen in each chapter. This includes everything important, from murders to ‘Carol wondered if Bob was giving her a funny look – but was she imagining it?’ If a chapter is divided into two or three scenes (as mine often are) then I separate those scenes with a little row of asterisks.
And then I plan the whole book from start to finish, regularly going back and revising my plan as I go along, until I’m happy with it. It can take up to two months – but it’s so worth it. There’s no better, more confidence-inspiring way to start writing a book than with a great, solid plan on your desk.