I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

by limebirdster

Before I went to university I wrote the beginning of about 10 different fantasy stories. Each time I started a new one I kept my favourite elements of the previous attempt and redesigned everything else around them. I never got more than a few chapters in before I had an idea that didn’t quite fit with what I’d written and so I started all over again. Again.

In our first class we were asked to give a reason for why we wanted to do a writing degree. In a desperate attempt to come up with something that didn’t sound completely stupid, I said that I wanted to actually finish writing something instead of starting story after story and then getting distracted by the next one and not finishing anything.

Sometime after that, I honestly have no idea how long, I watched some kind of documentary about J.K. Rowling and she mentioned planning. She had detailed spreadsheets for every chapter, every part of what she wrote had been meticulously planned out beforehand. I then, probably a few years later to be honest, read a blog written by an author whose fantasy epics are the size of telephone directories. He said that he planned almost nothing. 5% planning, 95% making it up as he goes along.

Now, no planning at all wasn’t getting me all that far. But J.K Rowling’s spreadsheets seemed a bit much. So I sat down with my various different worlds and decided where I wanted the story to end. I then very vaguely planned out the story in about ten bullet points. Roughly three years later and by some kind of miracle, I actually finished the story.

That seems to be the kind of planning that works for me, bullet point the major plot points and come up with the bits in between as I go along. It can get a little out of hand though and I once wrote 40,000 words that were completely unnecessary to the story, I’d just taken the character to a place that I found quite interesting and got carried away with it. Only about 10,000 of those words survived.

I think that was one of my major problems in never finishing anything. I’d come up with a new idea for something and get too excited about that to worry about the rest of the story, and with no direction I just wrote until that idea ran out of steam and waited to have another one that would lead in yet another different direction. I find that if I have at least a vague idea of where I want to end up I might meander around a bit in getting there, but I will always get to that point. Eventually.

Weirdly I’ve found that when writing general fiction I need to plan more for the opposite reason; if I don’t know where I’m going I don’t write anything. With fantasy I can write for hours and get no actually story out of it. With general fiction I can stare at a blank screen for hours and maybe hash out one short scene, but I need to know exactly where I’m going and preferably have some kind of road map and Sat Nav if I’m going to get there. Here is where I follow J.K. Rowling’s example and write tables in word so that I know what I need to write for each chapter.

I think that’s partly due to the fact that I just find writing fantasy easier, so all I need is a vague direction and I can write myself there, with probably quite a few added shortcuts on the way. With other writing I worry more about how it’s going to read and if I don’t give myself a clear set of instructions I’ll just stand around at the start wondering which path to take forever.

But now that I know all that I can plan accordingly and I know what kind of preparation I need to do and, hopefully, I’ll even manage to finish more this way!

How about you? Do you plan? Do you have spreadsheets and tables or do you just wing it and see what you end up with afterwards? Do you plan differently for different genres or is it just me that’s weird that way?

39 Comments to “I Love It When A Plan Comes Together”

  1. This is a good post, describing I think the thoughts that a lot of writers go through, I know I wrestle with this a lot myself. Generally I’m not a planner, I just write and my inspiration only comes as I write, but of course that’s a risk because you might end up in a dead end, so I can certainly see the advantages of planning. I think the type of planning that you describe, with bullet points rather than meticulously planned out spreadsheets is what I need to go for.

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last week or so actually because I decided to do NaNo this year, and I’ve been wondering whether I should do some planning during October so that I can hit the ground running with it on 1 November, or whether to just start on 1 November and hope that I can get up to running speed quickly! I think I need a rough plan if I am to have any hope completing it.

    • From doing it last year Vanessa, I’d definitely say it’s a good idea to have a rough idea where you’re going to go. Just a plot outline and your main characters. Mine changed completely as I went, but it was good to have that so I wasn’t petrified when I started! Add me, I’m limebirdbeth ๐Ÿ™‚ x

    • I find bullet point planning very useful and I agree with Beth, I’d have something planned for NaNo! When I did it I hit a bit of wall in part of the story that I was finding difficult to write which was making me fall behind, so I just looked at my plan and jumped ahead to another part where I could write more quickly! I don’t think I would have made it otherwise!

  2. I’m the exact opposite–I don’t do a lot of plotting and planning for general fiction, but I outline fantasy a lot more. Even then, I don’t quite have the Rowling spreadsheet approach, but I can see where that would be super helpful if you’ve got a giant cast of characters and secret agendas to juggle.

    • It’s funny how people tend to do things the same but then also totally differently! I think it depends on what sticks in your head and how far ahead you’re thinking of things. My thoughts tend to go to the end of the story immediately and then I have to write something down or I’ll forget it by the time I get there!

  3. That seems to be the kind of planning that works for me, bullet point the major plot points and come up with the bits in between as I go along.

    I do something similar. I write out what happens in the scene in general (I don’t plan out the characters reactions to events in the scene though, I let that come to me as I write out the first draft).

    I’ve found that for every 100 words of my ‘plan’, I end up writing some 2000 words in the first draft of the story, so its working out quite well so far.

    • That sounds like a pretty good ratio mlfables, and you’ve still got some room to manouvre and be creative, sounds like a perfect recipe to me!

  4. Hannibal Smith always had a plan, even if he made it up as he went along. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Good post, Ster. I think a lot of writers have this same issue. Depending on the ultimate goal, I suppose any way can work.

    Personally, for shorter pieces, I’ll get an idea for a theme (usually from a scene moment, or a piece of dialogue) and build around that, without the spreadsheet or bullet list detail. But, longer pieces require planning. If only – as you say – to keep on-track. Honestly, I’m amazed by writers who say they can just sit down and write away, without knowing where the story is going to go!

    I think it’s important to appreciate the freedom of storytelling, though, and making up your own world (even if it isn’t a fantasy one). That’s why exacting outlines usually take the wind from my sails: I feel like I’ve already told the story! Plus, those little adventures of detail and characterization can be so much fun!

    I hope you didn’t just trash those 30,000 words you mention cutting from that one story. Even if it might not fit in one story, it might do so in another. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I agree, I can just sit down and write for a while but I can’t help thinking ahead and then I have to make some notes or I’ll forget everything!

      I know what you mean about the planning taking the wind from your sails, once you’ve got everything sorted actually sitting down and writing it all out is really hard!

      Unfortunately those 30,000 words were all about a place that I don’t think I’ll ever use again, but I’ve still got them on file somewhere just in case!

  5. I write crime rather than fantasy, and I love planning more than writing, so I have to be careful not to keep planning till I run out of impetus and can’t be bothered to write the thing. Also my characters tend to go off on their own little paths without consulting me (common experience, I think) and if I don’t leave some wriggle room in the story I can’t use what might be a really good bit of subplot or action that the characters dream up on their own.

    • I think planning so much that you don’t want to write the actual story is quite a common problem amoung us planners! I once heard a talk by Michael Morpurgo and he said that coming up with ideas is great fun but then you have to sit down and actually do the writing!

      Some wiggle room is definitely important, if you leave yourself nowhere to go then you’ll probably just back yourself into a corner and get frustrated with it all.

  6. I’ve always just written by the seat of my pants. Once in a while I’ll do a story (almost always for someone else) with a general idea of what I want it to say, but actually find those harder to write because in some sense I’ve limited my outcome.
    I’ve been thinking about the planning thing too, as have many others here I see. I will have to try it soon. Great post limebirdster, very thought provoking!

    • I definitly used to always use the seat of my pants approach, I think it was when I started to get a bit more ambitious with my stories that I had to start making notes because if I tried to keep it all in my head I’d just get distracted by a different idea and never get anywhere! I’m quite disorganised though, I need a bit of structure or I’ll never get out of the door!

  7. I must have some sort of direction or I end up deleting most of it. It is important for me to know where I am going so I usually write a brief synopsis about each chapter before I write it. That way I have a mini book that I need to flesh out. Not the most exciting, however, I do leave space for my creativity to wander. Great post!

    • I agree about needing direction, if I don’t know where I’m going I’ll probably never get anywhere! I like the idea of having a mini book to start with, that’s how it’s done when you’re hired to write a book for someone else so it must work!

  8. I plan, plan, plan. I HAVE to. I do extensive planning outside of spreadsheets. Before I start writing, I complete profiles for every character (including their fave foods, habits, dreams, ancestry… Everything), write a premise, write a summary, summarize every chapter, plan scenes (to be sure they all have motivation, high point, etc.), etc. I have to make sure everything makes SENSE. I’m a chronic planner and researcher. I have to know where things are going before I get into it. That’s just my thing.
    Short stories though? I just start writing and let it fly.

  9. My plans are mostly in my head, but I always keep a chronological table of events because, since my books are laid in the 30th century, I need to keep track of the dates of when things happened over the course of future history. My problem is always the middle of the book. I always have a clear-cut beginning and end, but getting from one place to the other is hard. I think in The Termite Queen I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, and although it turned out too long, at least I was able to write a complete story. Same with the Ki’shto’ba series – it will be several volumes, but the fact that I based it on myth made it fairly easy to keep on track – the plot was given to me and I just had to make adjustments so it would fit the termite culture. But The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars is another matter entirely. It’s a fictionalized biography, and so what do I do with the middle of the Captain’s life? I still don’t really know and that’s one of the reasons I got bogged down. I also kept adding characters (after all, a man does meet a lot of interesting people over the course of his life) and they would fascinate me and I would overdevelop them. Those aren’t the only things wrong with the book. I think it’s hopeless! And yet … there is some good stuff in it, particularly in the first 40 years of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin’s life. Sigh. I must remember never to start a book unless I have a fully conceived plot.

    • Your plots sound far too complex to try writing them without a plan! I know what you mean about the middle section, I find myself coming up with all kinds of subplots to fill the space! Good luck with The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, I’m sure you’ll work it out!

  10. Good content — thanks for posting this!

  11. If I let myself get distracted by spreadsheets – me and Excel are having a love affair – then I would never get any writing done.

    Got the most part, I just try to jake sure I know what/where the end is and then just write until I get there. Beyond that, I find that s couple of billet points, if I get stuck, if enough’planning’ to pull me out of the holes I find myself in.

    • Oh dear, planning can get a bit distracting can’t it! I like to know the end too, sometimes I’ve decided on the ending before I’ve worked out the beginning! It’s always nice to have something to pull you out of those annoying holes, you can get stuck in them for quite a while otherwise!

  12. Can I just say that when you write lots of words which you don’t use, they are not a waste of time. This is your time of discovery for your characters, setting, plot and theme. Think about if you were writing a book about tortoises. You would read everything you could find on the subject before deciding what you were and were not going to use for your own book. All that reading wouldn’t be wasted because you would have to become an expert on the subject before you wrote a book about it. This is the same with fiction, except we can only do so much research before we have to become an expert on our fictional world and our fictional characters. You are merely researching your fictional world and becoming an expert on it when yo do all that writing. When writers don’t know enough about the fictional world they have created, this is when they can suffer from writer’s block. Sorry if I talk too much. Great post and well done for finishing.

    • That’s a very good point, everything you write is useful for the story in some way, even if it doesn’t make it through the edit. Even if it just shows you that you’re going wrong then it still served some kind of purpose! Don’t worry about talking, you can never say too much and we’re a site of writers, we all like to type! Thanks for your comment.

  13. How each writer approaches it is fascinating. I’m a notorious non-planner, and love the fact I’ve no clue what will come in the next paragraph. Somehow, a story comes out of my fingers. At some critical mass point, a direction takes shape and things start to firm, usually at least 40% of the way or more. And even after that point, how I tell it remains a mystery.

    I’d guess 90% of the stories I write start with a first sentence that comes from feel and mood, and from there, the first words create a new imaginary circumstance.

  14. I liked how you contrasted the two fantasy authors and their different approaches — I know that, in the case of my songwriting, trying to emulate someone else’s writing method wouldn’t necessarily work for me, and the real challenge is experimenting until I find something I am actually comfortable with.

  15. Wonderful post and comments. It’s neat to read about different writers’ processes.

    Since my only genre is the memoir, I can only speak about that. I wrote random, stand-alone stories for a long time and wondered what to do with them. It wasn’t until I decided on a theme that I could pick and choose which stories would go in and which parts of them would go in. Then I had to write other stories that built on the theme and even more material to connect each story. Essentially I rewrote each piece to transform from a stand-alone story to a part of a greater whole. Without the theme, I had bunches of files; with the theme, I hope I have a compelling memoir.

    • Thanks Lorna, I always find it interesting to read how other people write, everyone does it differently! I hope you have a compelling memoir too, sounds like you’ve worked out a pretty good formula there!

  16. I don’t plot at all. I always have a rough idea of where I’m taking it, but generally I find the best ideas come to me as I’m writing and I seem to find my flow as I go along. I was fortunate enough to meet horror writer James Herbert this week and he said he doesn’t plan either, so I feel slightly more comfortable now I know I am in good company when it comes to not planning my work ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Itโ€™s nice when you know the inspiration is going to come as you go and itโ€™s always good to have company, good or bad!

  17. I’ve gone back and forth on this subject for a long time. I usually know the beginning and the end and a few scenes in between. And I have found that I sometimes write myself into a corner or dead end by not planning it all but I enjoy discovering where the story is going as I go. I’m trying to do a bit more outlining but I get bored with that after a while. I prefer just going for it!

  18. I’m definitely a planner with a tendency to wander.

    I need to know where the story is headed. Without knowing that I stop and start and don’t manage to get into any sort of rhythm. That said, the characters are free to disobey me and wander off on their own and do their things as they see fit. I have my plan to steer things back when required.

  19. Your opening paragraph completely sums up my writing issues, even down to taking bits of old stories I never finished and re-working them. I ended up giving up trying to write novels and just write short stories now because I can start and finish them with one thought! Maybe I’ll start planning before this year’s NaNoWriMo and see if that helps..! Thanks

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