Monday, May 5, 2014

Stuff people ask: how do you plan your book?

There are certain questions that writers get asked quite often. Where do you get your ideas? is one. Do you write a set amount every day or just whenever you feel like it? is another. There is also the cheeky How much do you earn? which rates alongside Do you know J.K.Rowling? (Answers to those last two: i) not as much as you'd think; ii) no, sorry.)

One question that interests me quite a lot is How do you plan your book? - because although I know how I plan mine, it's a process that seems to vary widely from author to author. There's no single magic formula (sorry again). I have heard of authors who like to plan everything in minute detail before they start writing a single paragraph, and others who like to plunge straight in without planning anything at all, and see where the story takes them. I canvassed a few opinions amongst author friends, and this is what they had to say about book planning.

Emma Haughton writes thrillers for teenagers and young adults – the first, Now You See Me, was published by Usborne on 1st May 2014.

Emma says: "Once I have most of the chapters in place in the first draft I set up a spreadsheet with all the chapters in the first column, then in the other columns I put a brief description, characters in that chapter, location, date and time. I fill it in gradually as I go. It's just a handy way of checking you've got your timings rights, appropriate weather for that season, and making sure you don't repeat things like location too often.

"Excel is pretty easy to learn. It's also really handy for when you need to shift scenes around or add something in cos it gives you an instant overview of your story
. I love anything that gets me thinking about story in macro terms
. The thing is you don't have to be a planner to use it. I usually don't set up the spreadsheet till I'm into draft 2
"I like filling out the spreadsheet. It's a way of kidding yourself you're writing, like writing out revision notes for an exam.

Rhian Ivory is a writer of MG and YA, and a teacher of Children's lit & Creative writing.

Rhian says: "I do that too (see above) but use post-its and a massive sheet of paper which I stick up on the wall in front of me so I can see it all the time. I am more hands on and like to physically move stuff around and see all the different coloured post-its etc.

Lee Weatherly is the author of the bestselling Angel series, as well as almost 50 other books for children and teenagers. She’s originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, and lives in Hampshire, England with her husband. Her books have been translated into over 10 different languages.

Lee says: "I do LOTS of planning before I start to write. Then lots more planning as I go. Usually this is just notes to myself, rather than a synopsis-with-a-capital-S. And I do notecards at some point. And...that's kind of it. At some point, if I'm lucky, the storyline begins to feel sleek and simple in my head, and then I know I'm on the right track. Or else it feels like Gargantua the Octopus.

"I use notecards the way Rhian uses post-it notes. I use different-coloured ones for different characters/storylines, so that when they're all laid out on the floor I can see the story's spine at a glance."

As for me, well, although I do all my actual writing on my MacBook, I tend to do the planning the old-fashioned way: with paper and pen. I have a notebook that my agent gave me years ago when she first took me on. The notebook is invested with a certain OMG I ACTUALLY HAVE AN AGENT!!! quality; it's my magic book. I jot down ideas in it lest they slip out of my head to be replaced with other people's exam timetables and reminders to pick up cat litter from the Co-op. I also sketch out more detailed book plans in it, sometimes literally - the right-hand page in the photo at the top of this blog post shows a plan of the interior of the church from The Glass Demon. I created that so that I would never get mixed up and have a particular window in one location in one scene and then accidentally put it somewhere else later.

I also like to have a detailed synopsis before I start writing, because on the occasions when I have started work with only a vague idea of how events were going to unfold I have either written myself into a corner and had to rewrite stuff, or had actual continuity errors, the worst being the reappearance of someone who had been killed off earlier! Thankfully I noticed that howler before I showed the first draft to anyone, but it still makes me shudder. A detailed synopsis can also iron out all those annoying issues such as how am I going to get this character to do something as blatantly inadvisable as this? before you actually get to them.

All of us (above) are planners in some shape or form. I can't imagine sitting down and starting to write without some idea of where the story is going. I'd love to hear from other people about how they plan! Are you a Post-It note planner or a notecard user? Is there anyone out there with enough bottle to sit down and start writing with no idea of where it will lead? Have you ever done this, and how did it work out? I'd love to know...


  1. Great post. I feel inadequate. I am not a planner. I write a brief plot synopsis, then just sit down and start writing (when I'm not procrastinating). I work things out as I go along and occasionally jot down notes about the characters, or ideas for plot. It must work though, because two of my first drafts have gone straight to the copy editing stage.

  2. I try to do as much planning as I can before I start writing, but I find it impossible to produce a detailed plan of the whole thing. I have descriptions of characters and their motivations, a 3-page synopsis and a list the first dozen scenes. I am currently experimenting with the Snowflake planning method, but have yet come to a firm conclusion on its usefulness.

  3. Great post, and I think the one thing that really comes through is that there's no one way that works for everybody. I'm always fascinated to hear about other authors' methods, but if I had to change my ways I'd be miserable...!

  4. Wow, Hilary - straight to copyediting! Your subconcious must be planning then!

  5. When I first wrote fiction I didn't plan at all and my plots were a mess! I try now to have a road map of sorts and am gradually coming round to having a more detailed plan before I start writing. It's always nice to leave room for a few surprises though..

  6. It's all so relative....Penny (above) says she finds it impossible to do a detailed plan of the whole thing, but her 3 page synopsis, character descriptions etc probably constitute what I would consider a very detailed plan! Maybe I'm winging it more than I think...

  7. This is all very interesting. Sometimes I think I need to spend more time in the planning stage because occasionally I run aground, but if I spend too much time planning then I worry about getting cold feet. So I suppose what works best for me is an iterative process of research, plan, write, assess, revise...repeat however many times until I'm there. Sometimes I take a copy of a long word document and reduce each chapter to a few bullet points. That way I can get a bird's eye view of the whole document which is good for assessing structure. It's easier to move chapters around if they're just a few lines long. This time though, I'm going to give Scrivener a whirl because it's supposed to be really good for juggling chapters.