I’m writing this post because an About Writing subscriber got in touch to request more detail on how to plan a novel. In this post, I’ll talk about my experience. In next week’s, I’ll provide a step-by-step plan that some other writers follow.
The creative stereotype sometimes pigeonholes us as whimsical hedonists living from one fleeting moment to another, disregarding all of the research and strategy that every creative must employ to create a work of art that means something. In How to write a novel, I briefly mentioned that I was “somewhere in the middle,” regarding how long I spend with an idea before committing it to a novel and how long I spend working on the story.
Some writers plan their entire book before they begin writing the first chapter, but I’m wary of over-thinking my ideas into non-existence. It’s true that ideas need to be realised through strategic thought, but you can plan too much and lose the feeling of your idea.
How to plan a novel with a writing experiment
I begin writing when I have a character in mind. My planning process is a partnership with my character. I let them loose and start writing with them, and, together, we test a few things. Which part of the novel am I writing when I’m writing these first scenes? I don’t know. I have no idea whether they will ultimately make it into the novel or service the first draft. What I’m doing is living with my character and seeing how they respond to certain situations, and I do this on the page.
I have a new character now. He appeared a couple of months ago, at the beginning of April. He has a distinct personality, but that’s it. When he came to me in April, he came to me as almost a stranger. Some writers I know make a list and fill out the character’s missing information—name, job, relationship status, etc. I don’t do this. I start writing. Now that I think about it, I am practising Natalie Goldberg’s First Thoughts writing experiment. I let the character surprise me.
After each writing exercise, I learn a little more. With my current character, I have six entries, and he is beginning to form. I am reaching the stage where I might begin to think about how to plan a novel with the material I’ve written.
Planning my two finished novels
My debut novel began the same loose way. I had characters, and I wrote for them. I had a few short scenes written when I sat down to think about a plan. The scenes were very good, and self-contained. Little moments that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. I felt that merging them into one narrative would detract what I liked about them so much, and that dictated the structure of my debut, The Little Movements. I wrote the rest of the novel in the same way I started. Every chapter is a close-up and self-contained scene, and the novel is non-linear. I wrote multiple chapters for my characters, and I knew that selecting the best chapters in the correct order would make or break my story.
The novel I’m currently editing, Twelve Tracks, was planned similarly. After writing for my character a month or two, I couldn’t ignore her intensely personal relationship with music. In my planning, I stumbled upon a structural idea of containing the narrative within the tracks of an album she loved. She begins playing the album from track one and moves through to its end, track twelve. Every scene in the novel is a memory or thought prompted by the music.
When should you begin planning?
Every novelist has a unique process and must learn how to plan a novel in a way that suits them. In this post, I have explored mine. I’ve illustrated the benefit of delaying the hard planning until you know your characters well. The best way to understand my characters is to unlock the cage and let them run around the page for a while.
Next week, I’ll share a more structured approach to planning. Remember, a subscriber requested this topic. If you subscribe to About Writing and ask me to cover something, I will.