Non-planner's guide to planning

Why is it that when you're trying to write the thing you should be writing - i.e. the novel - your brain decides to do a little dogleg and tell you that what you really should be doing is writing about how rubbish you are at planning? Procrastination? Don't get me started. For now, I give an amateur's eye view of how to plan when you're rubbish at planning...


Typewriter Story


Writing is such a strange, personal process. Some people like to plan everything to the nth degree before they commit a word to paper. Some people hate planning and just launch themselves into the process. Some write longhand, some can only write by keyboard.

I am definitely not a willing planner. It’s why this book is taking so long – every sentence and chapter is this weird voyage of painful discovery, followed by angst, followed by rewrite. Terry Pratchett said it best when he declared that a first draft ‘is you telling yourself the story’. The only trouble is that I’m three quarters of the way through my second draft and still telling myself the damn story.


The trouble is I'm impatient. I want to get on with IT. But, I don't know what IT is half the time. I spent one whole term in my MA rocking up with what I thought was the latest start to the novel only to be packed off home again and told (nicely) to try again.


I have, however, over the course of the past three years, learned a few handy tricks and, in case there's anyone else as allergic as me to planning, herewith is my amateur non-planner's guide to planning:


Focus on character

It’s like planning-lite. You do have to think a bit before you commit pen to paper, finger to typewriter, whatever, but it’s the fun planning. You basically get to gossip to yourself about the imaginary people in your head.

On a serious note, I can almost guarantee that the moment you can’t think what your character would do or say next is because you do not know him or her well enough. This development can be an ongoing thing – I’m still realising stuff about my characters three years later – but it’s worth considering starting a character biography for your main protagonist(s) early on. Scrutinise every aspect of their personality and back story.


I’m definitely a believer in character driving plot (others feel differently and sometimes it depends on what you’re writing). I have always found the writing easier when I know why my imaginary friends are behaving in a certain way.


You can find all sorts of Q&As out there on the interweb that will help get you started.

Always ask yourself the exact opposite of the thing you just thought
For instance, you have a character called Mike who is a genetic scientist. In your character development you’ve decided he’s atheist. But, what if he wasn’t? What if religion is a big part of who he is? Cognitive dissonance (best described to me as seeing a lamb being born and then tucking into one for Sunday lunch) is what I find so interesting about us humans. That capacity to believe two opposing things at the same time creates tension and tension creates plot.

Switch format
For the past two weeks I have been stuck on the order of certain events that unfold over the course of a forty-eight-hour period in my novel. I’ve written loads of bits of sections and I keep moving them about on the page, this way and that, but none of them have felt quite right.

I get frustrated and chimpy when this happens. I stop writing, I beat myself up. I grumble about not very important stuff. I push and push and keep moving the same three or four sections around in the word document. And, then, out of the blue, I remember to switch format. I take a notebook and pencil and I start freewriting around the problem.

I just did this and fixed what’s been bothering me for weeks in the space of one piece of A4. If you’re really lucky, not only will you unlock the problem at hand, but you might release a whole stream of thoughts. This happened to me a couple of months ago, using the same process. The only stupid thing about this is that it takes me so long to remember that I actually have a really useful process that helps me get out of my mental loops.

Failing that, talk to someone
Find someone you trust who understands what you are trying to achieve and talk it through. Invariably just the act of speaking will tug at different parts of your brain and you may even find that you fix the problem before they’ve even had the chance to draw breath. And if not, then a different perspective can always be helpful.

The key is to frame the conversation with your trusted one. Don't overtalk it - that's a surefire way to make sure you never go back to the paper/keyboard. Likewise, don't be surprised if your trusted someone gets carried away and starts telling you how you should do other things. Don’t get angry with them, you asked them to help, remember? Just bring them gently back to the original problem and tell them you’ll think about the other stuff. Even if you have no intention of doing so. Although, speaking from experience, once I’ve stopped being grumpy about being told what to do (it’s another problem me and my chimp are working on), I usually realise that the idea was a good one, or at least the kernel of a different way of thinking.  

Use a note-taking app
This is a new one for me. I’m a big notebook fan and try to carry one everywhere I go. As above, I find actual paper and a writing implement unlocks a different part of my brain. But, there are times when I don’t remember the notebook and have a thought so wil ‘o the wisp-like that if it is not committed to something there and then, it’s gone. This is because I have a terrible memory. I don't mean I forget the odd thing - entire conversations disappear down some rabbit hole never to be seen again.


So, everything has to be written down in some capacity. Which is why note-taking apps are about to save my life. My husband’s been going on about OneNote for ages and I’m just starting to see why. I now have all manner of folders covering random novel thoughts, feature ideas, interesting things I spotted, sentences I read and like. Even blog posts.

Consider using a software package like Scrivener
While I am a rubbish plotter, I’ve had to do masses of research and had information lying about in all sorts of notebooks. Scrivener helped me file those notes in an easy-to-access, orderly fashion. You can also use it to create digital cue cards for each chapter, which you can name and then move about. I found this really helpful when trying to make sense of my timeline. Behind each cue card you can then either write the chapter itself or make longer notes. Depends how much of a planner you are.

Think about planning
Seriously, if I ever get to the second novel, I’m going to force myself to do some plot planning. I have a sneaking suspicion it might make things move slightly faster.

Let me know if you have different tips. I always like to learn how other people write.