Planning a novel – I do it my way!

Every writer has a different approach to planning their work. Some claim not to plan at all: they just have an idea, start with a blank page and ‘Chapter 1’ and go from there. How they do it, and make it work, I have no idea.

The rest of us will need to do more merely thinking ahead. There’s so much to juggle, setting – both time and place, research where necessary and how much of it to use, and – probably the most important – characters and their backstories. Maybe some people can hold all that in their heads or a few scraps of paper, but I can’t.

Of course there are apps and software that you can use, to organise everything and make it easier to access and use. I have tried to use Scrivener, more than once, but having started my writing in the old days using just a Word document for each chapter, that’s the only way that seems to work for me. Although I started writing fiction only a few years ago I’d spent my professional life before that writing documents, papers, and books too using Word and the habit was too deeply ingrained to change.

My first novel was a planning disaster, with failedpyper1 (1) attempts to develop a complex story without a clear consistent idea of chronology and how the different threads of the story would weave together. It took two years to salvage the chaotic first draft and I never want to go through that again. Then, on a wet Saturday in Winnipeg, I heard an ad. on the radio for a talk at the central library by Andrew Pyper, an author from Toronto. I braved the rain and walked into town from Osborne Village and wondered whether it would be worth it. It was, definitely.

When Pyper talked us through the way he puts the key events, people,  twists, conversations, climaxes, scenes on separate sheets and then pins them up on a wall, it was all so obvious. Think of the big boards they have in police investigations, with photos and names and events, arrows, links, questions and ideas, and you’ve got an image of a plan for a novel. It’s a form of simultaneous visual display: you can see links and connections that don’t present themselves from a ‘list’. This may have something to do with the way our minds work: I happen to be a visual thinker, and quite random sometimes, so this form of display will probably work well for me.

This way of working is useful for developing the structure of the novel too. planning-a-novel-index-cardsIf you’ve got the key points of the story on separate cards you can move them around, arrange them into a time line, into chapters and then into ‘Acts’, either three or five. If you’re not sure what that’s about, Google it and you’ll find endless advice, diagrams, and so on. It’s the way most movies are constructed, and has seeped into the structures of others genres too.

I did warn you I’m a random thinker! So you won’t be surprised that I want to go backwards for a moment, to the very inception of the story, way before you get to the storyboard stage. Something has to spark you off. Pyper calls this the ‘what if’ stage: you read a piece in a newspaper and ask yourself, ‘What if that happened in the last century, not now?’ or ‘What if the key person was young and female not old and male?’ or ‘What if there was a storm and all phone and email communication was lost?’ or ‘What if DNA hadn’t been discovered when the story happened?’ or ‘What if you write this in the first person, not the third person?’

The ‘what if’s’ are endless. I recall that Pyper asked members of the audience to sum up their story in twenty five words and tell us. He then took ‘what if’ questions from the audience, and what a creative five minutes that was. You could see sparks flying all round the room. I asked the inevitable question: ‘Has Pyper ever written all this down, so we could go over it again?’ No, he never had. So all you’ve got is what I’m conveying here, although I’m sure other authors operate in much the same way and have written books about their writing process that I haven’t read.

So, you have an idea, twist it around with ‘what if’s’ to make it more interesting, start thinking about characters – their appearance, clothes, gait, speech, passions and fears, then weave them together and place them in a time and a place, and see what happens.

When you’ve got this far, go to the next stage, the ‘storyboard’ and the structure, and when you start to write, start at the beginning. I know it’s tempting to start on a big scene that’s set somewhere in the middle or right at the end, but you could be wasting an awful lot of time. I know, I did.

Just a caveat about planning too tightly…no matter what you plan on the page, and how detailed may be your vision of an ending, don’t assume that it will all work out exactly as you envisaged. When you get into the detail of your writing things will occur to you for the first time. Your characters may say something that throws the scene into a different direction, and from that all sorts of unanticipated things may happen. My advice is to plan tight for only three or four chapters ahead as you write and leave the future more flexible. If you’ve spent too much time on the long term plot you may want to hang on to it when the best decision would be to change it.

If you’re a teacher, you’ll recognise this dilemma: you have a plan for the week or the semester but learning is less predictable than teaching. For the sake of learning, the plan needs to change, so change it.


Do you plan your novel in detail, or not at all?

‘Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?’ is the question. Being a planner is obvious: the alternative is to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, hence the use of this odd word. (I could elaborate on the origin of this phrase, but not right now.)creataive-brain1

If you’re writing non-fiction or for academic reasons, planning the order of your piece is pretty crucial. Can you imagine an instruction manual written like a novel? But when you’re writing fiction as I am now there are more choices to be made. The ‘pantsers’ make various claims for their preferred approach. Once you have strong characters, they say, these characters will take over and influence the direction of the plot. Another ‘pantser’ rationale is that half the fun of reading mystery, thriller or crime fiction lies in not knowing how the story will end, and the writer needs the same. ‘Where’s the fun in writing?’ a well-known crime writer asked me, ‘if you already know how it’s all going to turn out?’

Could it be that different fictional genres encourage different approaches to planning? If the story is principally character-driven, then surely the development of the characters during the story will drive the shape and narrative of the story. But crime fiction is surely different, isn’t it? Unless the author is capable of holding a mass of detail suspended in her head without the need to write it down in advance. The final stages of a crime story are heavily dependent, it seems to me, on the detail. This could be about ‘chronology’ – when exactly did certain events happen, and in what order? Or it could be about forensic detail and its role in the denouement.

Specific things said or done and mentioned, or not mentioned, in the text are what the reader relies on to work out what actually happened. That’s part of the challenge of crime and mystery fiction: it’s a game between writer and reader, dependent on the careful planting of clues which are then spotted and interpreted by the vigilant reader. If that’s the heart of the genre, it’s really hard to envisage how the writer could succeed without planning.

I need to plan. I wrote my first novel without a proper plan and got into a terrible mess as a result. It took two years to disentangle the web of plot, sub-plots, plan_novelconfusions and unnecessary scenes and characters, and once or twice the whole thing nearly ended up in the bin. Never again, and as I turned towards crime fiction the need for planning became more intense. There’s still fun in working out how all the threads will tie together, and how the reader will be keep on turning the pages, but the fun’s now in the planning, not in the actual first draft.

The planning takes time, going back and forth, adjusting, adding detail, making sure the backstory fits together and propels the action forwards. For the structure of the story, that’s the creative stage. When the first draft is started, following the narrative structure established in the plan, then the creativity of language, dialogue and setting are to the fore. For me, it’s the plan that enables me to write quickly and fluently: without the detailed outline I’m constantly stopping and starting, losing the flow.

So, are you a planner or a pantser?

In next week’s post, I’ll try to explain how I actually plan. It’s pretty messy!


Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

Diverse approaches to writing

For two days I’ve been in the company of writers, at the first Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle, and my mind is almost too busy to cope. I arrived here by car, plane and train from the Outer Hebrides on Friday night, made my own small contribution to the event running a workshop on ‘Writing Local Fiction’ on Saturday morning, and then, relieved of any responsibility, settled down to enjoy learning from others. What I have learned since then is enough to keep this blog going for weeks, but for now I’ll choose just one element that especially interested me yesterday.

It was a panel discussion presented as a ‘Clash of the Genres’ with two historical novelists, William Ryan and Ben Kane, versus two crime/thriller writers Matt Hilton and Sheila Quigley. The ‘debate’ that developed was less a clash of genres than a clash of approaches to the task of writing. Each of the four very successful writers organised their writing in completely different ways. Matt Hilton turned a childhood addiction to American thrillers into a career emulating that genre from a distance, producing American style thrillers of his own for several years before he ever visited the USA. When he visits there now I wonder how some of his readers receive his broad Cumbrian accent. Hilton has absorbed the details of his specific genre so well that his reproduction of it is perfect. He was never ‘taught’ to write, he just learned it through reading. He draws his inspiration and ideas from visual images, a juxtaposition of landscape and objects and people that sparks the kernel of the story. ‘Who is that man?’ he asks himself. ‘Where has he come from? Why is wearing that, and what’s happening over that hill?’

Sheila Quigley also learned to write through reading, but finds her material not in photographic images from another country but all around her home in the north-east of England, in the street, the pub, the post office; intensely local personal landscapes that she peoples with characters that come into her head fully formed and write their stories through her. One of her readers described her talent as ‘channeling’, as a medium between the spirits of her characters and the words that pour into her laptop. She has never planned any of her work more than four pages ahead, writing down what she sees and hears in her head. She began writing little pieces about the area and ‘sending them off’ – to whom and where I wondered – until one day an agent rang from London and asked if she could write crime fiction set in the north-east. ‘Of course,’ she replied, not knowing the first thing about crime fiction, and many books later she is still going strong. Could that still happen now, or has publishing become too risk-averse?

Historical novelist Ben Kane was a vet in a former life who grew tired of the long hours and broken weekends on call and looked for another way to earn a living. Boyhood in Ireland – with no television – had brought a passion for books and history that led him inexorably towards  as he put it, ‘men with swords’ and that’s what he writes about, mostly the Roman Army and Empire. Not content with sedentary research, and as a way of keeping fit, he decided to do his research experientially, dressing as a Roman legionary to walk Hadrian’s Wall for example, to get the full sensation of such a life. Whatever he does, it works, and he obviously loves every minute of it.

Finally, chairing the panel with charm and grace, was William Ryan, also Irish, also a unstoppable reader as a child who ended up barrister before he too tired of the long hours and heavy demands and turned his hand to something else. This time the passion was Soviet Russia in the 1930s, with an underlying theme befitting a barrister, the search for truth and justice. His hero, Captain Korolev, shares that passion, in the unpromising and dangerous context of Stalin’s dictatorship. Research for Ryan is both digital and personal, and the planning meticulous, such a contrast to the unplanned narratives from Quigley. Of the four, only Ryan had subjected himself to a ‘Creative Writing’ course, and though he ‘learned a great deal from it’ – he is a very polite man – he was offered during a two year course no guidance whatsoever about the structure of full-length fiction.

There’ll be more in future posts about the usefulness or otherwise of ‘Creative Writing’ as an academic discipline with qualifications. For now, I need to reflect on the diversity of how writers approach their work, and how I do so myself. In my morning workshop yesterday I tried to share the approach I can see developing for me with the three books now done and a fourth beginning to take shape. Research? Yes, early on to get a feel for the period and then again later to answer specific questions that the emerging narrative throws up. Planning ahead? Essential for me, but still allowing that in the end the characters themselves may react in unpredicted ways, bending the story to fit their demands. And what of the characters themselves? The most important lesson I have learned and acted upon has been to start to write not about the plot but about the life stories of my characters, their childhoods, their parents, schooling, likes and dislikes, how they speak, dress, walk. Only a fraction of all this might find its way into the story, but the story is enriched by it. It is that deeper understanding of who your people are, filtered through the imagination and onto the page, that allows those same people to take your little plot and make it something worthwhile and interesting. I don’t think Dan Brown ever understood that, or maybe he didn’t need to as his books sold in the millions with some of the weakest characters and the most clunky dialogue that ever appeared between book covers. I’m trying not to think about the implications of that.


How I (almost) walked the Cumbria Way

I’m back at home, and smiling as I re-read my last post where I was speculating about how it would be to walk the Cumbria Way. What’s the phrase I’m groping for – how misguided could I have been? in your dreams Ruthie! you must be kidding? Any of those would do. Walking about 14 miles a day with a heavy rucksack, day after day, regardless of the weather, your mood or your state of health, hips and feet is tough. I came to the conclusion before very long that ten miles is probably enough, not for endurance but for pleasure. The quality of my new rucksack was such that the carrying load was bearable, and my boots and lightweight Gortex jacket defied the downpours spendidly, but after about six hours walking I just wanted to stop. ‘Are we there yet?’ was thought if not said, and every upwards incline, however benign, felt like a mountain.

That’s enough grumbling. There were some great bits: Langstrath is a splendid valley and worth a re-visit in better weather. Whoever built the path from there over the Stake Pass is a genius and the gradient melted away under your boots. A sunny morning in Langdale is peerless. The Old Vicarage in Caldbeck and The Old Rectory in Torver are divine: thank you to the Church of England for selling them both, so that I could stay in them and eat delicious food. Suffice to say that when Saturday’s forecast warned of torrential rain, thunder and lightning for the last 14 miles from Torver to Ulverston, I hatched a plan, and it worked. I rode home in my daughter’s car with most of the bags I and my companions had been  carrying and arrived back in Ulverston about six hours ahead of them. Bliss, and eternal thanks to my daughter for her cheerful agreement to rescue me.

Did I think about Book Four while plodding through Cumbria? Not at a conscious level, but maybe there was something going on in my head beyond the immediate priorities of the next hill or the next meal. When I got back to my little house yesterday I found a large sheet of paper and spread it out on the kitchen table, and now I’m trying to plan in a non-linear way, scribbling mini-portraits of characters, connecting them with lines and arrows and watching the web of relationships develop. Events and turning points are creeping into the picture too, and a list of the necessary research. Maybe all this was actually percolating during the walk as it seems to be tumbling onto the paper with impressive speed. There are yawning gaps of course, but already a denouement is taking shape. This might be the occasion for starting at the end and planning backwards, a process I’ve used many times in my professional life but never yet in my writing. Who knows; it’s very early days, but already I feel that something interesting will emerge.



Can you teach someone how to write fiction?

There was such a huge response to my post on the question ‘Can you teach writing?’ that I decided to add some more, so here it is. I didn’t make this stuff up: I learned it from my own painful experience, and from great guides like Andrew Pyper, Matthew Hall and William Ryan, whose ideas I have shamelessly plundered. Here goes….

There are a number of aspects of teaching how to write fiction. Let’s divide the process up and pay attention to at least some of them…

  1. Translating thoughts into words and sentences. This is about vocabulary and rhythm, the sound, imagery and flow of the language. If you need to pay attention to grammatical accuracy, this is where the conventions need to explained and practiced. Some of the rules of these conventions – the use of the apostrophe, for example – might need to be ‘taught’, but the best learning is from reading and speaking words aloud, analysing the ‘poetry’ of others’ language and how the full meaning is conveyed, and then bringing those insights into your own work. Working with others encourages you to hear your language, get feedback on it, and refine it constantly to achieve the effect you are striving for.
  2. Finding and developing ‘characters’. People are the essence of fiction, who they are, how they react to the world and others to them, how they speak, walk, dress. There is no easy way to develop the characters who will inhabit and drive your story, and every writer will have their own way to find and flesh out the people they need. You can start with an image, from life, from a picture, or in your head. Then you think and ask questions of this image until it develops dimensions and warmth. What motivates the person, how do they look and sound, what are they afraid of, what and who do they love, – the questions are the ones you use to check out anyone who does or will mean a great deal to you. All and any questions are relevant here, some of them very personal. Even if you never use the answers to all the questions in your story, it helps to deepen each character in this way. Once you have the details, add things like birthdays, favourite colours, hair style, etc and make a separate file, or file card, for each character to help continuity and consistency. It’ll save so much time later. This process can be both taught and practised to great effect, before you embark on a first draft of anything.
  3. Plot, and the ‘Three act structure’. You can research the theories of plot and structure online to great effect, and as much as you want. The three act structure is most commonly used in films, or in crime fiction, but you’ll find it in all forms of fiction, back to Dickens, Jane Austen and other classics that were around long before such a structure was given a name. Most fiction starts with a question – ‘What if…?’ – or a crisis, to kick start the action and grab the reader’s attention. Much of the plot will then evolve from the interaction between the characters and the events, to drive the story forward. Action is generated by both external events and internal processes, such as the emotional reactions of the characters, and their development and changes over time. We want our characters to have an impact on the external events and also be affected by them, creating tension on a number of levels to keep the reader engaged. The relationship between character and plot, between internal and external can be as complicated as you can handle, and as the reader you have in mind will be happy with. My advice would be to keep things relatively simple while you’re learning the craft.
  4. Point of view: whose shoulder are you sitting on, seeing and hearing what they see and hear in each scene? Do you write in the first person, or the third person? In the present tense, or the past. The ‘costs and benefits’ of all those approaches can also be ‘taught’ and rehearsed, leaving you the writer ultimately to make the best choices for the effect they wish to generate.
  5. The idea of a ‘theme’ that runs throughout your work. I’m not certain about this for a beginning writer. It could lead to some pretty pretentious and self-conscious stuff, and needs to be handled lightly, but this too – like keeping notes on the details of your characters – can help the continuity of longer works of fiction and add to the shape and structure of what you write. You should be able to answer the question ‘What’s your story about?’ without just recounting what happens. Incidentally, the answer to the question will also help in ‘pitching’ your story to an agent or anyone else in the book and film business. In the scale of what can be ‘taught’, the issue of ‘theme’ might not be the first thing I would ask the apprentice writer to tackle, but it would be something to work on before you start to write in earnest.
  6. Planning and thinking before you start to write: learning patience, when all you want to do is get writing. I paid a heavy price for my impatience in writing my first novel, embarking on the first draft way too soon and getting into all sorts of trouble that took years – yes, years – to untangle. What I’ve learned to do – having been well taught in various workshops – is to start with an idea or a question, and gradually expand to a page of the overall shape of the plot, then expand again, and again, and again, into ‘Acts’ or stages, then into sections, then chapters. I call this working from the inside, out.
  7. Displaying your plan. By this time you’ll have an outline for most of your sections or chapters. Now pin them up somewhere, on a wall, or lay them on a cleared floor, and look at them. Take in the big picture and start moving things around, adding bits, changing bits. You can’t do this by reading sequentially on a screen: you have to get a ‘simultaneous visual impression’ of the shape of the whole work, before you start to write. This is your map of the territory. You may change your mind about the route once you embark on the trip, and you may even change your destination, but the map is always there to ground you and to keep you going if you start to feel lost or stuck.

I’ve written this pretty fast – it’s a blog post of a thousand words or so after all, not an essay. There’s loads more you could add, and heaps of great books and advice available. But this might do for a start. I wish I’d thought about these few things before I started. I haven’t even mentioned dialogue, which is definitely something you can be taught, but if you get the characters rights, and the setting, and speak out loud whatever you have characters say, you can improve the quality of dialogue immeasurably. And then there’s the challenge of the opening paragraph. Bets way to learn that is to look at opening paragraphs, consider what makes them work, and then write your own. See what I mean? So much to be learned, and all of it can be taught, if you have the right teacher.