To plan or not to plan.
By Deana Luchia
I’m working on a novel. I’ve been working on it since last September. I’d hoped to be finished with the first draft by Christmas, but here I am, already in May, still working on it. I say working, rather than writing, because there’s more thinking and rethinking, deleting and starting over going on than actual writing.
What I should have done last September, when I started off with a new word doc and what I thought was a great idea for a novel, sitting in a perfect-for-writing spot on the sofa, surrounded by cushions, napping dogs, a bottle of water, healthy snacks, all raring to go, was to make a plan. I think.
I can’t be certain as I’ve never planned any of the fiction I’ve written. Not really. I’m a let’s-see-where-the-story-takes-me kind of fiction writer. (I’m quite the opposite when it comes to non-fiction and features). Which is maybe why I’m not nearly as prolific as I’d like to be. Or why quite elaborate stories which pop into my head seldom make it onto paper.
I can understand why I didn’t plan the first novel that I wrote. I didn’t know I could write a novel. By then I’d written hundreds of articles, several short stories and lots of poetry but a novel…well it was a huge, unwieldy, daunting behemoth of a project: all those pages, those thousands of words, all of them having to flow, to connect, to make sense. How on earth did you keep a story on track with so many characters, plot points, locations and twists? How could you be sure with so many elements to keep your eye on that there weren’t gaping holes or loose ends, and that a seemingly tight plot couldn’t all be unravelled by one single tug from the first person that read it? I don’t think it occurred to me that some of these anxieties could be resolved by planning. I just knew I wasn’t sure I could do any of it but the point was that I was going to try. I was going to see if I had it in me. I suspected that I would peter out after about thirty pages but I hoped that I wouldn’t. And so I started to write.
I wrote that first novel out of utter loneliness and so whether I planned it or didn’t is entirely beside the point, now I look back. Yes, I could have written something better, it could have had more structure, more rounded characters, it could have had fewer loose ends etc etc, but writing it and seeing if I could write what was to me a monster-sized piece of work kept me going when my two tiny children were asleep, and I was lonely and sad, living in the Italian countryside with no neighbours, no friends, no TV or internet, and a soon to be ex-husband who refused to talk to me.
And so I wrote and wrote and then I chopped and changed and edited and rewrote and then I rewrote some more. And at various points of this very long process I did think, maybe I should have planned this novel. Maybe a plan would have been smart.
But anyway, that’s how I wrote my first novel, which a couple of years later I sent out to publishers. It was, of course, rejected by everyone, and various copies of it (at the time everyone wanted hard copies of manuscripts which they would often return with the rejection note) were shoved in drawers and that was that. I don’t know where it is or even if it exists anymore. It was called Meeting Joseph and was about young love and mistaken identity and maybe one day I will find it somewhere, on a hard-drive perhaps, and read it and go…well that doesn’t make any sense. That me thirteen years ago really should have planned…
But what I did learn (aside from the fact that no matter how many rejection letters you receive, each one is just as sad as the first), is that I could commit to a novel both in creating a story that needed to be told over thousands of words, but also to being focused. I started it and finished it and followed through by sending it out. I knew I could do it. I now had a sort of handle on those hitherto daunting page and word counts.
And so a few years after receiving the last of those rejection letters I decided to give it another go. I’d been distracted by the end of my marriage, by moving to England and then to Malta, by finding schools for my kids and making friends. And I’d carved myself a nice career out of freelance journalism which meant I had a job I loved and I earned a decent salary. But now I had an idea for a second novel.
I thought about planning, to the extent that I spent a lot of time googling planning a novel. And I made a few attempts to decide on story arcs and to have firm ideas about what would happen, but it was all rather half-hearted and most of these processes never made it out of my head. The fact that I knew I had four main characters, that one of these was a time-traveller who never ages, and that each first person narrative of the other three had to show how they shifted from being children to adults, just screams at me: Plan! PLAN! But I just wanted to write. I couldn’t wait to get some of my ideas down. I knew where I was going. I knew my characters inside out. I even had a title: God & Dallas. So off I went. Needless to say the editing of this one took a long, long, super long time. And yes I got there and yes I am proud of it and no, I wouldn’t change a single thing about it, but I did think over and over again as I was editing and rewriting: this would have been so much easier if I’d had a plan.
Which is why I’m wondering now, in May, why I decided not to properly plan my third novel. Did I really think a plan wouldn’t help this time? Did I not remember how hard it was to edit a story whose first draft is a stream of ideas? Apparently not. It will be fine, I told myself last September. I will stay focused and write every day and not forget all these ideas I have. It will all come together once I start. Stephen King, one of the most popular writers on the planet, actually advocates not planning and look at him. And so on. And so on. And while I did read up (twice) on the snowflake plan, printed off helpful tables that I should fill in, detailing characters’ back stories and biographies, and made a few notes on plot in a special and rather attractive book I’d bought specially for that purpose, it was very hurried. I was ticking the boxes because I just wanted to get to the writing.
And so eight months later, after several false starts and re-writes, numerous and pointless changes of tense, and deciding it would all be so much better if I switched from first person to third person and then back again, I’ve come to the conclusion that eight months ago I had little more than a great two-line synopsis and a character I’d be friends with. (I kept saying that to everyone who asked what I was writing. She’s such a nice character.) That was it.
So I’m planning this week. (And only writing about planning). There’s not a lot of planning to be done with the characters: After eight months of stop-starting I’ve figured out one of my main characters (still a really nice woman I’d like to be friends with, but also complicated and flawed) and added another character I know inside out from a short story I wrote. But the what happens part is almost entirely different, although the themes of loneliness and wanting to fit in remain. As always, my fingers are itching to get started. But I’m going to resist for a few more days and come up with a plan. Not a rigid one by any means. I’m aiming for some kind of middle ground because I do still believe that sometimes the best stories come from just going with the flow and seeing where the writing takes you, rather than mapping out every twist and turn, but I’m also craving a bit of structure, some sense that I’m not writing page after page of dialogue or creating characters which I don’t need and which don’t fit in with my novel. I think I’ve reached the point where I know it shouldn’t take years to write a novel. Especially when I’ve got so many novels I want to write.
I’d love to know other writers’ thoughts on planning or not planning. Is it helpful? Do you do a detailed plan and stick to it? Do you make a detailed plan but then get derailed almost immediately? Do you never plan and hate the very idea? Please let me know.