I’ve tried different ways of writing novels in the past – whether planning or ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants, aka making it up as you go along). In my early years of writing the novel I got furthest with was a ‘pants’ job (ha! In more ways than one!). I had a theme, knew where I was starting and that was it. But the plot was entirely unplanned, and each time I sat down to write I’d just write anything which came into my head, adding characters, scenes and plot events as they occurred to me. The result was a meandering mess which never reached the end. I gave up at about 55,000 words. At one point I realised I’d written the same scene twice, about two chapters apart. This is writing blind, writing in the dark with no idea of the way ahead. It doesn’t work for me, but I know some writers who can only work this way.
Some people plan novels to the nth degree. I’ve seen novel-writing methods which suggest starting with a sentence, expand that to a paragraph, expand that to a line per chapter, then add a line per scene. Write from the inside out, adding more detail each time, until you end up with a novel plan which could be up to about 10,000 words in length. Lynne Barrett-Lee in her book, Novel: Plan it, Write it, Sell it recommends this approach. If you do this, when you come to write the first draft you will know exactly where the novel is going and how it is going to get there. This is like writing in broad daylight, with bright sunshine lighting every point of the way, and with a detailed map in your hand at all times.
I’ve now completed two novels and am getting going with a third. I’ve realised I need to be somewhere between the planning and pantsing methods. I definitely need an outline plan – a spreadsheet with a couple of sentences about what’s going to happen in each chapter. And before I start writing each chapter, I spend a few minutes scribbling in a notebook, fleshing out those couple of sentences into a page or so of notes before I start typing the scenes. This is working well for me. I know the end point of my journey, I know a few points I will pass through along the way, but I can’t see the whole route. I can only see a little way ahead, like going for a walk by moonlight, but I can see far enough ahead to keep going, and as I progress the moon lights my way a little bit further.
I’m enjoying writing like this. I still get the excitement of wondering what will happen next, and my characters can still surprise me when they do something unexpected. But having a bit of a plan, and a few details about the chapter I’m just starting, means I never need sit and stare at a blank page wondering what on earth to write next. Also it means I know there’s a full novel there, with enough plot to last 90,000 words.
How do you write? Plan it or pants it? What planning techniques do you use?
(Moonlight photo courtesy of Exsodus at freedigitalphotos)