Hey! So you guys seemed to like the last writing tip, so here’s my next installment! This one…well, we’ll talk about it.
Tip #2: Plan It
I can already hear some of you griping about this. “But I write just fine with a white screen in front of me, thank you very much. I don’t need to plan anything.”
Until very recently (like 3 months ago), I was this person. Give me a blank piece of paper and a casual observation of something that got the wheels spinning, and I was off and running. I wrote something like 30 pages in a notebook about St. Peter as a teenager meeting Jesus just because I read someone say Jesus was a passive aggressive rebel with real trouble with authority. I thought that sounded awesome and I needed to write that out. Instead, the story transformed into me working through some demons.
So I get it. Being a pantser (someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”) is still how I get a story idea rolling.
But I’m quickly discovering how helpful actually plans can be. You’d think I’d have realized this before, being a teacher and preaching to my students how important planning is, but it didn’t apply to me.
God, I really am my students some days.
My first full-length novel was a work in progress for something like 4 years or more. In the Word doc I used for the story, I kept a loose outline of what I wanted to happen in the story. I had even written the ending already, since that was what had come to mind for me when creating the idea for it. (And let me tell you, I never write the ending first.)
That outline helped me remember what I was thinking for the story. I used that as a guideline to keep me on track, though I didn’t completely follow it. I fleshed things out more as I went along, adding scenes here or there, changing scenes that no longer worked. So while I wasn’t 100% tied to my plans, they certainly helped.
They gave me something to look forward to. There were scenes I wanted to write badly and working chronologically through the story kept me motivated to keep writing to get to those scenes.
The plans also helped me remember what my end goal was. That story had a purpose, a character arc that I was especially excited about. Without my outline, I might have forgotten that over the years.
But plans don’t have to just be for stories like that, works years in the process.
My next story (which I’m still writing) is a retelling of Robin Hood, from Marian’s perspective. I actually found a 16 page draft of a particularly moving scene on my desktop, written two years ago. For that, there was no outline, just familiar characters I love and an interesting conflict.
So I created an outline. The story was vivid in my head and before I knew it, I’d planned out nearly the entire story in a couple of afternoons. And once I had that outline, I was excited to get to writing it.
Sure, my plans changed a little once I got the story going. I thought of interesting plot twists, unexpected conflicts, and making one character darker than I had originally planned. But I had a guideline to work off of, and idea how I wanted things to eventually go. So even when I didn’t use the entire outline, I had a framework to stick to. Now, around 2 months later, I’m now up to about 43,000 words.
And actually, I’m dealing with a little writer’s block because some of my scenes aren’t coming together right. Why? Because I didn’t plan those out.
Every writer has their own process for planning that works for them. I don’t want to suggest one sure-fire way of doing it because I don’t know what that looks like. For me, it involves notebook paper and a pencil. Always. There’s just something about paper that gets my creative juices flowing.
My process is basically to become semi-obsessed with some crazy idea to the point where my hand itches to write it. At that point, I can usually visualize how I want the story to start. I make a bullet point list of how I see the story going. It usually ends up looking a little something like this:
“-Jade walks through the school, trying to avoid everyone’s notice.
-Ryan sees her, moves through the hall toward her. Jade confronts him for spreading rumors about her.”
Sometimes I am wildly specific about what I want happening, other times I’m incredibly vague. It depends on how well I see the scene in my head. Most of the time, my head plays it out like a movie.
I try not to start writing until I have a plan now. And if I’m not excited about the story after I have my plans, it probably means there’s something wrong with the story, that the conflict is lacking or something is missing–another subplot probably.
I saw that author Aimee Carter (The Goddess Test) uses note cards to plot out her stories, writing major events on the cards and rearranging them as needed to make the story work. I thought that was pretty smart, but I don’t think it will work for me.
Planning is hard. It’s hard to want to sit down and map everything out before you get going. I totally get it. Ironically, I didn’t plan this post out before I started writing it. Did it work? I think so. But this is also a 1,000 word post and not a 50,000+ word novel with characters, plot, and conflicts. I can get away with it here. I can’t there.
It may take some time to discover what your method is and that’s ok. Even published authors will frequently post about how their process suddenly doesn’t work with the new book they’re writing. Every novel is its own adventure and we learn new things about ourselves along the way.
I think that’s really what the creative process’s purpose is, actually.