Using a Plan

outliningI just got a new book yesterday: Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. I’m really excited about this book and I’ll tell you why. John and I are starting our next book, and as much as I’d like to jump right in, I can’t. I have to plan it out. If I don’t, I know I’ll be barreling along and suddenly I won’t know what comes next. When that happens, I could be stymied there for months. I don’t want that to happen. I’m really excited about this story and I want it to be told. Heck, I’ve had a map of 1888 London staring down at me from above my desk for well over a year now, goading me.

Could I have planned our book without this new book to help me? Sure. But I’m always looking for new ways to streamline the process. I’d already taken Patti Larsen’s outlining course, and she got my brain juices flowing in many ways. I used her system to get the main story arc planned. But I stumbled across this little gem when I was adding K. M.’s Structuring Your Novel to my wish list. I had read about it on my friend Roz Morris’ blog, and anything Roz uses is good enough for me (Hi, Roz!). Besides, as an editor, I’m always adding resources to my reference shelf. If I can find books that help me explain issues to my clients, I recommend them.

Anyway, I’m all revved up now. Got my notebook for my outlining (not the standard outlines we did in grade school). Got my book to inspire me. Got my husband (he’s the idea guy that keeps the stories going). Got my research to keep the historical aspects accurate. Now I just need to have the time. I’ll pull it out of somewhere. I have been gloriously busy with clients, which is how I like it. Lots of clients means the bills are paid, which means I’m happy. Heck, the kids may even get winter shoes. I may even get winter shoes. :) But I digress.

My point is, I get to plan. I want to plan out every scene. I want to know if I’m missing a crucial point before I begin writing. Are all my plot points in the right place? Are my subplots making sense? Do they weave in seamlessly? This story will have psychological elements, so it’s crucial that everything works perfectly. I’d rather do the work now than try to dig through the finished draft looking for my mistakes.

Of course, I know not everyone agrees with me. Some writers prefer to discover their story as they write. I feel I’m discovering the story, but it’s during the planning stage. Of course, I still get the thrill of discovery as I write, too. The plan doesn’t flesh everything out, it just provides me with a road map. The characters may still take a side trip now and then, but I feel like I have a guide to get them back on track. If you don’t want to plan ahead of time, more power to you. Every writer has their process. I just thought I’d explain mine today.

Another writer I admire, Chuck Wendig, shared his tips for editing and revising, which utilizes outlining later in the process, so it can be a good skill to master no matter when you use it. Check out his post and apply as needed.

Planning is Not a Bad Word

Not everyone plans their novels. That’s okay. But sometimes, planning can really help you avoid those gaping holes in your plot. It might help you avoid writer’s block. It might even help you write your book more efficiently. Why? Because not only have you thought out your plot line, you’ve taken the time to analyze why this action leads to that one.

One of my favorite lines from Plot vs. Character by Jeff Gerke goes something like this: In life, one thing happens after another. In novels, one thing happens BECAUSE of another.

In order to keep your plot barreling along, one thing must lead to another. Writers who don’t plan often end up rewriting whole scenes later because it occurs to them afterwards that one scene might work better if it were to happen because of another scene. By planning, you can avoid that and get it right the first time, making your rewriting and editing time more efficient.

I’ve heard so often, “But I can’t plan! It ruins my creativity!” Sigh. Even if you plan, nothing is written in stone. Think of a plan as a guide. A path through the woods, even. It doesn’t mean you can’t wander off on the path to the left, it just means you have a map to get back to your story line. If the path to the left works out and adds some great element to your story, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, you’re not lost on page 227 with nowhere to go.

Planning is not an enemy. Planning lets you flesh out your characters so they’re more believable. It gives your plot somewhere to go. Make changes all you want, but having at least a basic plan can really help you work through your story.

Let’s suppose that Ben has plans to take Linda out on a romantic date. It occurs to you as you write that his friend Bob shows up earlier that afternoon, and they completely space on the date because they are having too much fun, leaving Linda feeling like Ben is a real jerk. Later, you are writing a romantic scene between Linda and Ben, only to have spaced on the fact that Ben stood her up. You won’t remember all the details until you reread what you’ve written, leaving you the task to rewrite that romantic scene. Not so romantic now, is it? Planning could have prevented this, because you could refer to a few notes and you could jot in the new ideas that occurred during your writing session.

Okay, I know planning doesn’t work for everyone. But for many writers, especially those working on their first few books, planning can really help. This is especially true if you have a complicated plot or many characters to keep track of. At least give it a try. Use whatever works for you, you don’t have to outline the story. Post-its work well for some people. Others use specialized programs like Scrivener.  Play around with various techniques and see what works for you.