"I don't need to plan - I have it all in my head"
I hear this a lot. Together with "I have never outlined anything...boring" and "It takes all the fun out of storytelling."
Well, dear hearts, bollocks to that.
Planning, preparing and outlining are vital for several important reasons.
- They bring consistency into the tale
- They allow you to see holes not just in your plot, but in your settings and characters
- They can help you find weaknesses and irrelevancies before you spend hours writing rubbish
But most importantly
They LIBERATE you!
Planning is not boring
No, it isn't; really! I am not pissing you about here.
That it can be is probably the biggest reason people do not do it. Together with bone-idle laziness and impatience, I suppose. But whether it is boring or not is far more about how you go about it than anything else.
Out there, in the wild-wild world of the web-a-sphere, there are a ton of tools to help you plan. Beat sheets, templates of different types, multi-layered programs with room for research and notes and yawn-yawn-yawn!
Oh, for goodness sake, it doesn't have to be like that at all.
Notes are important, but how you make them is also important. Writing is meant to be fun and that should include every part of the process.
To me, the difference between planning and writing is in the detail. My planning is far more open and less verbose, but I do not pair it down to bullet points. Rather, it more resembles how I would explain my story to someone sharing a jug of beer in one of my taverns. The book, on the other hand, is the rehearsed, fine-tuned and carefully executed version of my chatty story.
So, when I make my notes, whether that is the timeline, the character profiles, the plot or the conversations, my notes are chatty and free-thinking, and smothered with corrections.
And trust me, they are not boring!
Timelines and Mapping
Whatever the subject of your story, it will probably take place in one or more locations and will follow some sort of timeline.
If you do not plan this properly, you can create a plethora of headaches for yourself. Characters can't get to locations at the right time (or worse, need to be in two places at once), you can get lost in your own world, the weather can be all wrong and .... well, hundreds of things.
Working out when and where and how long it takes to get from A to B can save you hours of rewrites and can even add interesting plot elements that you would never think of on the fly. Like what happens when the hero is late for the party?
I hate character templates. You know, height, weight, favourite album.... When you meet someone in real life, you don't ask them a series of questions before you start chatting about the weather, you just mention it is raining and wait to see what happens next.
However nice this is to do when writing your bestseller, it is better to get it over and done with earlier. So, when you come up with a character, stop and think about them. Don't ask questions, but just start waffling on about them. It can be as random as anything; have fun! Then, once that is done, clean it up so you can refer to it again later.
But don't ignore profiling your characters, especially your main ones. Like with anything else, thinking about them outside of the story can raise interesting ideas that might otherwise have stayed undiscovered.
The Liberating Bit
I could go on and on about making notes and planning, but look through the site and there are loads of articles - I have listed some at the bottom.
But the main point of this post is to talk about how liberating planning in detail is.
My epic saga, Dirt, is currently sitting at over a million words. It is a complicated story with complicated people in it. I might have written in a light style, but it is a deep and convoluted world that I have tried to bring to life in a realistic way. When I first started writing, I thought I could get away with a basic plot summary, but I was kidding myself. I soon got lost, contradicted myself, got my dates wrong and suddenly needed a dragon to go supersonic if it was to get to the battle on time.
More to the point, keeping track of where I was took the fun out of writing.
So I stopped and changed the way I worked.
I created proper timelines, broke down my plot into chapters, researched speed of travel, food, all kinds of things. My characters were fleshed out, had parents added and made notes of not just when we first met them but where so I didn't forget.
I used OneNote for all this because I like blank pieces of paper, and this gave me that while allowing me to file notes into a useful order.
At the end of the change of direction, I now knew exactly where my book was headed with all the twists and turns. I was able to sit at my keyboard and write without having to worry whether I was screwing up. I wrote quicker, better and it was loads more fun. I became a storyteller again, sitting on a barstool, entertaining my audience.
It was liberating.
Writing is a bit like stand-up comedy. A comedian might not script every single word of their new show, but they work out the jokes in advance and rehearse like crazy to get the timing right.
Writing a book is no different. For me, the planning is the rehearsal and the writing of the book is the performance. If I want to perform brilliantly, then I have to rehearse like mad.
There you go, my few reasons why I think the seat-of-the-pants approach to writing a book is a fool's errand. Don't skimp, don't be lazy. You may well write a book without going to all this fuss, and it might be a very good book. But might it have been a better book if you had gone to the trouble of working out the kinks first?