To Plan or Not To Plan?

A month into Novel 2, and my new life as a full-time author, surrounded by scraps of scenes in notebooks and on the laptop, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s time to start planning.

‘To plan or not to plan’ is a hot topic among my writing friends. The only consensus seems to be there is no consensus. Some people plan (and for plan I read ‘plot’) meticulously, A to Z, scene by scene, and know when they begin exactly where their book is going; others (like me) take a rather more ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ approach and write fragments, in the hope that at some point a pattern will emerge and allow for some stitching together of the fragments into that elusive beast, a plot.

Maybe it depends what genre you’re writing in. I’m not really a ‘plot-driven’ author; I tend to get the characters in my head first, and yes, there’ll be An Idea, or The Thing That Happens To The Character(s) That Causes Other Stuff To Happen (often referred to in self-help writing books, somewhat more pithily, as ‘the inciting incident’), but that’s about it for me, plot-wise. I just let the characters take over and trust that the rest will appear. Stephen King likens it to excavating a fossil, and for me, that’s the biggest joy of writing: when stuff just starts to happen, or the characters start to behave as though they’re independent of me. John Irving, of whom I’m a massive fan, says he always starts a book with the last line, and writes backwards for a while. I find endings about a million times harder to write than openings, so not sure that would work for me – I’d be here, one month into Novel 2, still staring at the blank screen.

This brings me to what I see as the major advantage of the ‘less planned’ approach – you never (well, almost never) get writer’s block. Stuck on chapter two? Write chapter ten! Then, write towards it. It’s a messy way to work, but it helps me.

Having said that, some planning is of course essential. The one (very simple) tip that I found useful when writing Precocious was this: write the numbers 1 to 20 down the side of a page, then fill in roughly the things that might happen in your story, when. There’ll be lots of gaps, but that’s OK. I’ve started doing this for Novel 2 and it’s helping, although I’ve set myself the challenge of 4 different narrative points of view, so have a feeling that what currently exists as a list might end up as something more like a spreadsheet (yawn).

Now, whilst I admit I’m not great at micro-managing the word count, when it comes to planning on a bigger scale, I’m a (relatively) recent and enthusiastic convert.

In June 2012, I woke up on my 36th birthday to this epiphany: ‘I don’t want to be 40 and still be where I am now’. Not literally, physically, of course – I was living in a rented house which, 3 months into the lease, the landlord had announced he was selling out from under me (nice) – so I knew that was unlikely anyway.

What I realised was that my life was not quite what I wanted it to be; I’d recently divorced, and often upheavals in one area of your life cause you to look more critically at the rest. I was disillusioned with a career that paid well but didn’t really offer me any intellectual stimulation or emotional satisfaction. On the other hand, I was terrified of making a leap out of the ‘known’, secure world (company car, private healthcare, share scheme), not least because I was painfully aware I had a small person to support. Any life-changing decisions I made would change his life, too, so were more than doubly important.

At just the right time, a lovely friend (and mentor, I might even say idol, on account of her having escaped the shackles of corporate life herself some years previously) came to see me and helped me to formulate my vague wishes and dreams into what became known as The Four-Year Plan.

I started by listing all possible scenarios, the first of which was ‘stay exactly as you are’, along with all their pros and cons. There were lots of pros to staying as I was – not least the money and security I’ve already mentioned – but the cons were pretty hefty and serious. My scenario 2 was ‘be a full-time writer’: the pros were many and lovely, but the cons were sobering and probably too obvious for me to need to repeat them here. I never genuinely thought scenario 2 would happen, but I needed to put it on paper as a possibility. Scenarios 3 and 4 were more vague and involved possible alternative careers – I wanted to do something to help people, I wanted to get back into education/learning – so I decided to look at options like further ed teaching, setting up my own training business, and so on.

The lovely friend I mentioned helped me to break down The Plan into years, and the first year into months, with action steps. It was quite far into that first year that I stumbled across (courtesy of a magazine interview with a woman who was both an author and a therapist) my potential new life. I would re-train as a psychotherapeutic counsellor (it was possible to do this at weekends, so I could continue bringing in the beans from my day job). I could work for myself, with flexible hours that would allow me to spend more time with my son and more time writing, and I could help people. Bingo!

Two and a half years on and I’m further along and nearer to my goals than I thought I would be back in June 2012. I’m in my second year of counseling training, my first book is coming out later this year and I’m effectively being paid to write the second one. The ‘scenario 2’ that I thought was a pipe dream is perilously close to reality (I say ‘perilously’ because, as with anything wonderful that happens in life – falling in love, having children – it comes with the almost ever-present sense of anxiety that it could at any moment be snatched away. Yes, I know I’m a bit neurotic, but thanks to my studies I’m learning to deal with that!).

A Goal is critical. A Plan (to get to the Goal) is very, very important (alternatively, you could just send your wishes out into the universe, but then you’d be Noel Edmonds). A plan, a plot, a scene-by-scene map, is nice to have but not essential. In writing, as in life, sometimes it’s fun to play it by ear.

So I have The Plan (for life), but I don’t have the plan (for the book). Yet. I’ll just keep scribbling and hope that one reveals itself.

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