Six impossible things

If you do want to plan

So if you are going to do some pre-planning before you start writing your book, where do you begin and how do you do it?

As usual, it depends on the writer and the story, but here are a few things to consider:

First, why are you doing the planning? There are two good reasons and one bad one for this. The two good ones are 1) You have tried advance planning before and found it useful, so you are going to keep doing it, or 2) You have never done any advance planning before, but you think that it is likely to benefit you (or you just hope it will help, possibly with some specific problem you already know you have).

The bad reason, of course, is because somebody else told you that you had to do an outline and/or a ton of planning in advance, and so you think you should. If this is you, please reread my previous post, paying special attention to the part that talks about writers with a different process, and then throw away all the planning stuff and sit down at the computer and surprise yourself.

If you fall into one of the first two categories, the next question is whether you have something specific that you hope to accomplish. If you’ve done this before, presumably you know a bit about what works for you and what doesn’t. If you haven’t – is this a complete experiment, or do you know that you never have a decent plot, or you always have trouble with the characters, or your settings and backstory are never as satisfying as you want them to be?

It is important to think about this stuff because what you hope to achieve by planning has a lot to do with what kind of planning you do, and with where you start. Contrary to what the how-to books generally say, there is no one right place to start planning, and no specific type of planning that is right for every writer.

For instance, if you know that you always default to really generic descriptions, your pre-writing planning might focus on places – figuring out where certain Big Scenes will (probably) occur and making up detailed layouts and descriptions of what makes each place unique. Even without a terribly detailed idea of the plot, one usually can pick out at least a few places where the main character is going to do things: their bedroom, living room, and kitchen; their workplace; their favorite post-work hangout; their best friend’s apartment; the woods they’re going to get lost in or travel through. You may need to stop and come up with some more place-descriptions when you’ve written enough story to know what else you’ll need, but you can probably make up enough to get started.

Or if you know that your characters always lack something, you might focus on that aspect – making lists of people who logically might be in the story, given what you know about its plot and where/when it is set (e.g., cab driver and grocery clerk for a modern city; hostler and mudlark for Victorian steampunk). The idea behind this is not to look at characters you already know you will need, but at all the other folks who could be around and might be useful to know about at some point, the minor characters that you might not otherwise think about but who can make events more real-feeling just by running through a scene in the background.

If it’s the major characters who give you fits, you might find writing a description of everyone’s relationship to everyone else helpful. Or possibly one of those fill-in-the-blank character sheets would work for you. Or, since many writers get to know their characters by writing them, writing a couple of scenes from different characters’ viewpoints – scenes that don’t belong in this story, or at least, that you don’t intend to put in it – can help. Roger Zelazny said that he always wrote a few scenes from his main characters’ pre-story, little incidents that had nothing to do with the novel, before he started writing the actual story. This can be particularly helpful for characters who are important to the plot but who don’t have much stage time and/or who aren’t supposed to be viewpoint characters in the main story.

Maybe it’s the names of imaginary places and cultures that’s your particular problem. On occasion, I’ve made up a bunch of place-names and/or first and last names that I can mix and match later, just so I have a bunch of things that sound right to choose from. I find it a lot easier to make up a list of five or ten names that sound sufficiently similar to come from the same background country/culture, and that will be sufficiently different-sounding from my other list of five or ten names from some other background, if I do all of it at once, up front. But some writers have no trouble getting the same effect by keeping tabs on things like that as they go.

The most common problem that drives writers to do pre-writing planning seems to be problems with plot, and there are a gazillion how-to-do-it methods out there. Most of them seem to start with “what do your main characters want?” or “what is your main character’s problem/goal?” which is fine if that works for you. The first time I heard this, I thought it was a brilliant idea; it took me a while to figure out that that is never where I start looking when I look for a plot.

So before you dive headlong into any of the systems that are out there, stop for a minute and think about whether it feels right to you. Not “right” in the “this is True” sense; right in the “this fits me like a custom-made glove” sense. Because you can start with what your characters want, but you don’t have to. You can start with where they are from, or with what they are afraid of, or with wanting to write about a particular event like Carnival in Brazil or a presidential election or the invention of the printing press.

Lately, I seem to be starting with either a completely outside-the-main-character problem (like a natural disaster that is about to break over my heroine’s unsuspecting head) or with the villain’s Clever Plan and/or backstory. Oddly, this doesn’t mean starting with what the villain wants, necessarily; in the current work-in-development, I have a group of people who commit a murder prior to the start of the story. Of the four or five of them, I know what one of them wants and why he decided to help murder the victim, but the other three? No clue, yet. And I’m not worrying about that part at the moment – I’m more concerned with what each of them does in the ten years or so after the murder and what positions they are in at the start of my current story. Oh, and what the “murder victim,” who is perhaps not as dead as they expected him to be, has been doing all this time.

The point is this: if you are going to spend time on this kind of pre-writing and planning, aim it in a direction that is likely to be useful to you. There is no other reason or purpose for doing it. No editor is going to ask to see your detailed diagrams of the furniture layout in the hero’s sitting room (and if you offer them, the editor will likely groan); no publisher is going to want a look at your character questionnaires or early scenes or plot diagrams. And nobody is going to ask whether the final manuscript follows the plot outline you started with (well, except maybe some grad student looking for something to write a thesis on, but even then it isn’t usual). And if all you need is a list of place-names that sound right, you do not have to laboriously work through a detailed plot-plan or setting list or character questionnaire. Just do the parts that you fine helpful.

Because the only reason to do any of this work is if it helps you perform some aspect of the storytelling more easily and effectively. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a waste of time. If doing any of this gets in the way of your writing, if it’s counterproductive, stop immediately and throw it all away. Ultimately, you are trying to write a story, not create the most detailed database of background notes ever made.

  1. Another eminently timely piece of advice. One of the next-in-line books wants an outline (by which I mean plot outline, and it probably says something that I wasn’t even considering that there were other kinds) — because it’s a mystery, and yeah, “you know that you never have a decent plot” rang a certain bell, and it seems like it might be good to have *some* idea of how I’m going to set out the clues before I dive in.

    And reading this made me realize that I really have very little idea of how to go about making the outline I need. What my character wants isn’t a lot of help, I’ve known that since I got the first inkling of the idea; it’s how he’s going to go about achieving it that leaves me flailing.

    I may need to do some pre-planning for my pre-planning.

    • You need to figure out how detailed your outline has to be.

      There are those who start with a four sentence overview and work progressively downward for more details.

      Me, I figure out the first scene, pull out a sheet of paper, and start going scene by scene.

      • The idea of outlining an entire novel scene-by-scene is so horrifying to me that I can’t even hold the notion in my head long enough to contemplate levels of detail.

        I think what I need is some other kind of approach than a linear this-happens-then-this-then-this. Lay out the clues like a jigsaw puzzle, and then write my character discovering them? Describe the plot (as in cunning-plot, not plot-of-the-story) from the villain’s POV? Write up a fake court transcript detailing the evidence for a jury? None of those feels quite right, but they’re all dancing around the problem I need to solve.

  2. Oh, and what the “murder victim,” who is perhaps not as dead as they expected him to be, has been doing all this time.

    Oooh! I can’ wait to read your WIP! What a teaser!

    Ultimately, you are trying to write a story, not create the most detailed database of background notes ever made.

    Hah! With all of Tolkien’s notes published in umpteen volumes, we think we have to do it the way he did. 😉 (I am a Tolkien admirer, but what worked for him doesn’t necessarily work for everybody else.)

    I am a pre-planner, myself. I tried facing down the blank page, and it totally didn’t work for me.

    I need maps and floorplans to help me visualize the spaces in which the story transpires.

    I find notes on relationships between characters really helpful, mostly just brief phrases to jog my memory.

    I definitely need cultural notes, fairly extensive ones, since my plots often deal with the clash between my heroine’s calling and the mores of her culture.

    And I find it helpful to have “a day in the life” notes, so that I know what an ordinary day for my protag involves, even though those ordinary days will be disrupted – to one degree or another – in the course of my story.

    • Oooh! I can’t wait to read your WIP! What a teaser!

      Now I’m wondering. Did you have a breakthrough on the story you’ve been struggling with for the past year? Or is this a new one?

      (Hopefully the HTML tags work.)

      • Nope, they didn’t. Here we go again. (My kingdom for a Preview button.)

        Oh, and what the “murder victim,” who is perhaps not as dead as they expected him to be, has been doing all this time.

        Now I’m wondering. Did you have a breakthrough on the story you’ve been struggling with for the past year? Or is this a new one?

  3. I’ve had agents ask for a synopsis of my works in progress (likely so they can gauge their interest in more than just the book I’m querying) but you’re right that it’s mostly just for you. It helps me to have a general structure, and with my current one, I’ve needed more help in the plot department than usual. Hopefully it helps!

  4. I remember a few times in uni when I had to write and hand in an outline for some piece of writing. I never liked that. I may write notes to a greater or lesser extent (usually less and sometimes not), but outlines? The closest I come under my own steam to this is a laundry list of items that I want to cover. It works for me for what I have needed. If I need to change it, I will. If I don’t, I won’t.

    • The requirement of an outline for academic writing is at least partly to ward against plagiarism. I TA’d for an academic writing class, and asking for an outline, and then drafts in process helped us to know whether the final draft was the student’s own work. It also helped the student by preventing them from spending a lot of time going off in an unproductive direction.

      • Outlines that are required for academic purposes or for publication purposes are not the same as the kind of prewriting work a novelist chooses to do. Required outlines have a different purpose; they are written to sell the book to a publisher or to allow professors to track students’ progress, not to assist the writer. And a lot of the time, they don’t. Assist, I mean.

        • I wonder if that’s not where some non-planners’ aversion to outlining comes from. They know outlines in school weren’t helpful, and even once they learn that writer-outline doesn’t mean the same thing as school-outline, that negative association is still there.

      • It did not help me. I do not write that way. I deal with each item by the strength of the idea potential. I do not know that until I have finished my research and am preparing to write. Then, I seize hold of the idea with the strongest potential and write it. Repeated as needed to cover the items.

        An outline to me is deciding what to write before I know what I should write. A bureaucratic way of writing.

        As to protection from plagirism, it would be even easier to create an outline from something that already exists than to create a new outline.

  5. “Hah! With all of Tolkien’s notes published in umpteen volumes, we think we have to do it the way he did. 😉 (I am a Tolkien admirer, but what worked for him doesn’t necessarily work for everybody else.)”

    And Tolkien, let’s not forget, worked on the Matter of Arda his entire adult life. And the reason he left behind so MANY volumes of notes is that he kept “niggling,” as he put it, and changing his mind.

    And that he was Tolkien, and we aren’t.

    • The Hobbit and LOTR began as a linguistic exercise. In 1912, Tolkien came across a Finnish grammar (“It was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”) and decided to invent a language structured like Finnish. Then he thought about the people who spoke this language, his highly Celticized elves. From there, as he said, “the tale grew in the telling.”

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