To plan or not to plan a novel?

That is the question.

A writing colleague and I were talking the other day about whether we should or shouldn’t plan our novels. I said I felt as I’d heard Rose Tremain say she’d felt: that if she plans, the subsequent writing bores her and if the writing bores her, it will surely bore readers … .
But I also knew as I spoke that there was a deeper resistance to planning in me and it is this: planning is the rockface, not the romance. Planning is the dangerous hard work from which I might fall off and injure myself (ie, the piece will prove itself to be nothing but piss and wind) and I am afraid that planning will destroy the romance of the words themselves. However I also know that if I write off in any old direction it takes twice (or thrice) as long and I get despondent. My colleague said: Novels and stories should come from deep places, from the soul, should be inspired, ie, romantic, but it’s difficult to square that with planning, let alone keeping an eye on the marketplace. (Hurrah, I said to myself .) But she also said: ‘But I am coming round to the idea of putting a structure in place, just a little something, for the inspiration to hold onto. It’s a bit like letting a climbing flower grow feely but putting a wire in front of it and saying, “This way, I want you here”.’I think her analogy brilliant. She is right. I also came up with one of my own: I need the bedrock of planning to provide a solid base for the romance (the soul) of what I write. Serendipitiously I found this, here, when idly searching for ‘bedrock and soul’:‘The substrate here is woodsy humus and soul pockets over bedrock … ‘ which says it all, really, even if unintentionally. But I shall leave the last word on planning to one of my favourite writers in my favourite book:

John Fowles wrote this, on pages 85 & 86 of my copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

You may think novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons. … Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world.

About Angela

I write fiction about the difficulty we have when we try to say what's in our hearts.
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10 Responses to To plan or not to plan a novel?

  1. BooksPlease says:

    A very interesting post. Everyone is different in how they approach things I suppose. Planning bores me, but a little structure can help – your analogies depict it well.

    Sidetracking a little – when I worked for a local authority our team came within the planning dept (we weren’t planners, but that’s another story) and the planners had plans of what plans they were compiling – ugh!

  2. verbivore says:

    I think this is such a pertinent question. I meet every Tuesday with another writer and we discuss how our work is going and we had a quick conversation on planning vs no planning just this week. She doesn’t plan much, she works out the generalities and then runs with it hoping to be able to rein it all in during revision and I’m the opposite – I overplan and then often have to flush out later to make things appropriately messy. I’d like to challenge myself on my next project to do less planning and see how the story might grow on its own – as an experiment. Would be very interesting to see where I end up!

  3. Juxtabook says:

    I hate planning of all varieties. I hated planning essays when I was a student; I hated planning lessons when I was a teacher; I hate business plans now I run a business. Of these three I think business plans are the most dispensible, mainly because I run a business dealing in one-offs (second-hand books, by their nature all different) and plans make no sense when nothing is predictable. On the other hand trying to teach 30 kids without some kind of plan is a short way to a nervous break down.

    As I read for pleasure, to get away from all that planning, I would hate to think writers were bogged down in plannning on their readers’ behalf!

  4. Angela Young says:

    Thanks all so much for your comments.

    BooksPlease: Planners with plans of plans … oh help! That’s surely the VIP of displacement activities?

    Verbivore: it’s such a difficult balance to strike isn’t it? I think the only way is to go with my instinct for each story (some need more planning than others)and see what happens.

    Juxtabook: I think ‘bogged down’ are the operative words … if that ever happens I know I’m wasting my time. But the day before yesterday I made what I call a ‘washing-line’ plan (term stolen from somewhere else but now, unforgiveably, forgotten) where one post is the beginning and one post the end (even if only an intention and not a fixed point); and the pieces of paper pegged along the line are events or actions or an attitude change in a character that I head for but don’t necessarily, in the end, write.

    The other thing that sometimes works is just to ask myself the central question, as in ‘What is the connection between x & y?’ and then stop thinking about the piece and go for a walk … it worked on Tuesday!

  5. Karen says:

    I loved Simon’s recent remark at Stuck in a Book that one’s plan B is God’s plan A. That probably says it all!
    Is it then possible to discern some kind of (hitherto hidden) grand plan when a novel or other piece of work is finished?

  6. Angela Young says:

    Karen: I missed Simon’s plan B and plan A, but it’s great – and so often true. It reminds me also of the plan joke I gave to one of the storytellers in Speaking of Love:

    How do you make God laugh?
    Tell him your plans.

    But seriously, I think you’re right … I think that even the most desultory planning procedure for a novel will eventually emerge in a real, but hidden, plan that works. But that plan’s presence should only be discernible in the finished work by the fact that the novel makes ‘sense’, not in its bare bones.

    My problem is that I have always had a terrible fear that plans will kill a novel’s beauty … but my colleague’s suggestion, to think of the plan as if it were the wire that supports the beautiful plant, encourages me enormously and gives me confidence in my ability to plan without the plan showing in the end.

  7. Lee says:

    Like that quote!

    I think I’m somewhere in between: plan a very vague narrative arc, daydream my way through a couple of key scenes and the ending, then write; use the first draft(s) as an outline and plan massively from there.

  8. Angela Young says:

    Lee: I like the sound of your way … and I think the most important thing is that we each find a way that works.

    Mine is bound to change, but then the best plans should be flexible … .

  9. oxford-reader says:

    I could never plan my essays when at Uni, because it always seemed to kill any inspiration that I had. My novel, on the other hand is planned out – although only vaguely. I know where I want to go, but not necessarily the route I’m going to take to get there. This has proved useful, as I suddenly came up with an idea for a parallel story, which derives much from the first part, so planning wouldn’t have been of much use anyway!

    I love that John Fowles quote – it expresses so much of what I believe writing to be.

  10. Angela Young says:

    That’s quite spooky, Oxford Reader, in a good way.

    My second novel also has a parallel story – although I (almost) always knew it would.

    There’s a vogue for such novels at the moment isn’t there? Daphne, Random Acts of Heroic Love, The Glassblower of Murano … . May you and I not have missed the bus (or boat).