Do You Plan Your Work?

An evaluation of why some writers plan in advance whilst others plot as they write.

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Writers seem to fall into one of two camps: those who plan, and those who do not.

Planners particularly fascinate me. I try to be one of them, but I struggle. Planners plan, sometimes intricately, working on research and plotting for days or weeks or even months before committing a single word to the blank page of their actual story.

Ken Follet is a well-known planner. By the time his plans are done, he’s typically got around fifty typed pages to make use of. “I start out with a concept,” Ken says, “and then I see what’s wrong with it. And I see how to make it better. One thing I quite often do is I go through it backwards and I write a one-line summary of each chapter, but starting with the last chapter. And what that does is it shows me where the final scenes are not fulfilling the promises raised by the early scenes—which, for me, is terribly important.”

This work ethic is phenomenal; Ken will often spend six months on his planning stage before even getting to the creative writing side, and the quality shows in his books, of course—which are incredibly popular and sell in the hundreds of thousands.

A convert to planning their books is Thomas Mogford, who was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger award with his debut novel. He used to write his way through without planning a route, discovering as he went, and says that his first couple of manuscripts ended up in a drawer as a result.

For him, things changed during a conversation with his wife, when she asked him how long he spent plotting a book. He explained it was usually two to three weeks, to which she suggested he try investing more time upfront. “I prevaricated,” Mogford later said, “then was forced to admit the truth: I’d never spent very long on plot because it was both boring and scary—fault lines were in danger of being exposed. And because the writing part was so, well…fun. She raised her eyebrows.”

He’s now an avid planner as a result of his wife’s challenge, and the book deals came in only after he began doing this.

Not planning can work, if you have the confidence. It doesn’t suit everyone, as to begin a story without knowing where it ends can be scary and, in some circumstances, result in a weak ending. However, if you can effectively structure a storyline, and be confident in editing as you go, writing by the seat of your pants can work. It often results in a surprise as much for the writer as it does for the reader, and that can often make for a stronger story.

Rose Tremain, writer of some thirteen full-length novels and a number of short story collections, argues: “Don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” David Baldacci, author of Absolute Power, adds: “The books just flow. I build them brick by brick. I don’t know how the book will end when I sit down to write.”

Both styles have different challenges that they need to face. Those who plan can be literal-minded about their planning; they may well stick with a bad one even as they realise it’s failing. On the other hand, those who plunge in without a plan can type a lot of words to figure out what they want to say, which can slow them down; they write long and then have to cut parts they don’t use.

David Morrell much prefers to plot as he writes and says: “I like to think of the book as being an adventure. I have this mantra which says, ‘Serve the story, listen to the story.’ And often the story knows better than I do what it wants to be. And I have found by trial and error that if I try to do an outline, I’m trying to control the story, and it’s not talking to me.”

Each style has its strengths. At the core of each, though, is the ability to tell a story. If you can still channel your creativity and imagination, then that’s the secret of a good story; how you get there is entirely down to you.

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Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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