Continuing my early articles for writing beginners on the art of writing. (With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to use them). Also available in paperback and ebook in a compilation called 'Write On! - the writer's help book'.
This might seem a little out of place, coming at No 15, but these pieces have been chosen at random from all the articles published. However, I decided now would be a good point to mention how my approach to the physical act of writing is thanks in part to my father and his various quirks. One that occurred to me recently was his passion for planning car journeys. Okay, so where’s this going?
(Stick with me; it’s a tenuous link, I admit, but very relevant).
Father’s approach to planning involved many cups of tea and more maps than Montgomery’s North Africa campaign. And it seemed to take about the same amount of time. Actually, trotting across the desert would have been child’s play to him, because he’d done it for real, back when men used Brylcream instead of fancy 'product' and wore giant shorts made of canvas with regulation creases down the front so they could stand upright by themselves. (Photo court of Imperial War Museum)
Whatever the trip, he planned rest stops, with places of interest to visit en route. Not that they were of much interest to the rest of us, but that’s another story. Essential to this were lay-bys or pull-ins where he could fire up the portable stove for a brew, complete with camping chairs (a matter of toe-curling embarrassment for my brother and me). He also planned locations for emergency overnight stops – nearly always, it seemed, in a field with a slope just to keep us on our toes throughout the night. He was very good that way.
But he always got us there and back, wherever 'there' was, because he worked to a plan.
This degree of forethought has often come back to me when working on a novel, because embarking on a book is much like taking a journey. You don’t always know where it will lead, and circumstances might force a change of direction along the way … but at least you should avoid too many wrong turnings and ending up in somebody’s prize manure heap. It therefore makes sense to plan before you leave. If you don’t, as my old man was wont to say, you could end up going round and round and vanishing up your own fundament.
In short, planning helps you explore the possibilities in your writing and maximise the potential of a storyline … and deal with some of the pitfalls you might encounter along the way.
There are, of course, authors who do not plan. They simply sit down and write, the words pouring forth in a fair old gush of consciousness. Lucky them. On the other hand, none of us knows how long they’ve been thinking about it.
So how to plan? Well, there are various methods and levels to use, among them the following:
1. Rough sketch. Anything from back-of-an-envelope scratchings to a casual list of how you see the story going. This is planning at its most basic – but can lead on to so much more if it opens up the thinking process.
2. Book synopsis. A more orderly storyline ‘telling’ the story in brief detail so you can follow a more-or-less pre-determined path. This kind of synopsis would be used in the same way when approaching agents or publishers, but hopefully a ‘cleaned up’ version complete with the characters and – most importantly – the ending.
3. Chapter synopsis. This calls for greater detail showing the progression by chapter, but presumes a greater focus on sticking tightly to the storyline. This way, each chapter becomes almost a mini-book, showing the beginning, middle and end.
4. Key point indicator. Taking up from the rough sketch, this method might be useful, for example, when planning a thriller, showing the main bursts of action and tension which would form the backbone of your plot. You still have to fill in all the gaps in between, but this offers a useful framework to start with.
5. Diary plan. The timeline - the chronology of events in the correct order - is often the most difficult bit to get right. Creating a diary (whether the story takes place over an hour or several days/weeks, it doesn’t matter) is essential for keeping everything in the right order, so that you don’t find events tripping over each other, or characters out of position. This method is particularly useful when the timing and duration of events is crucial to the story, especially when taking place over a very tight time-span, where every second or minute counts.
6. Character biographies. This can be anything from a couple of lines of description to a full biography, showing background, age, family, education, jobs, relationships and so forth. If your story is character-led, knowing how they might react according to type is vital. It ensures you keep the physical characteristics constant, too. Cutting out a photo of someone resembling each of your characters is a useful way of doing this and keeps the faces fresh in your memory.
7. Theme? Could you describe your book in one sentence (the elevator pitch of film fame)? Settling on the basic story and theme in easily described shorthand might help put it into perspective, even in your own mind.
Even given my father’s benign, Monty-esque influence, I prefer a mix of 1 and 4, with a dash of 5. But that’s just me. Whatever your choice of method, each can contribute in its own subtle way to the planning process, because they can help you maintain control and focus on where the book is going.
· Planning helps clarify direction and method.
· Having a plan helps you focus and saves time and effort.
· A plan will show you the possibilities, potential and pitfalls of your story.
· Good planning means you already have some of the work done before you begin writing.