Outsell James Patterson

Should I plan my novel?

The question asked and answered a billion times. Everyone has thrown in their three pence on this, telling you what to do. You don’t need any more advice. Luckily, that’s not what I’m about.

I don’t care about you; I’m here to talk about me.

The Then:  Thrill of the Plan

In my two decades of writing, I have always loved chucking together a plan. In the past, I used to plan out whole series from start to end. Not all books but TV shows, too. I’d write a synopsis for each episode over what would have been years and years of TV.

I even, and I can only admit this because Mark Ayre is not my real name, wrote the synopsis for ten years of a soap. Worse, I had long lists of characters; who was currently in the soap, who left, who came back. I kept track of ages, marital status, children, and so on. It went to about 100 pages in the end and ran weekly, so I wrote about 500 episodes.

Sad, right?

But whatever, I love doing it. I get a thrill from making up stories that aren’t sullied or ruined by, you know, actually writing them. Because there is a pure joy in the creative process before writing and editing come alone to batter it to death.

The Problem with Planning

So planning is great, but there’s always a downside. My new novel, for example, Poor Choices, is outstanding. But by the time I reach edit 6, two years in, I’ve read each chapter at least 20 times, it doesn’t even read like a book anymore. It’s like homework, and that’s no fun.

So my problem with planning was that it brought forward the unenjoyment. As any writer will tell you finishing a first draft can be bloody difficult. And, with editing to follow, you want that entry point to be as easy as possible.

My opinion is you’re best off getting through it as fast as possible. Getting it down. Getting it done. Even working full time, I’ll lay down 5,000 words a day on a weekday and twice that on a Sunday (I don’t work Saturday’s alright? Leave off). I aim to get any first draft done in four weeks and often complete it in half that.

The problem is, planning stagnates this process. The real beauty of a first draft is having a general idea and flying through it. You sit down, you type, you let the words flow. It’s exciting, and it drags you with it because you aren’t sure how it’s going to go.

Can the finished product be a mess?

Fuck yes.

Is that a bad thing?


The Reverse

It can be. It would be OK if you were a full-time writer, but there is a significant time commitment to fixing first drafts. That’s any first draft, but it goes double or triple for the unplanned ones. So while you may sacrifice the thrill of that first draft, you’ll save yourself some time at the business end.

With Poor Choices, I tried to plan in a few different ways, with no luck. In the end, it went off on a tangent from my index cards anyway, and that’s another thing. Sometimes you will plan, and you’ll sit down to write, and the story will grab you and drag you away. You’ll kick and scream and try to pull back to the plan, but it won’t let you. That’s the way writing works. That’s part of what’s great about it, and also part of what sucks. With Poor Choices, I went a mile from my plans, and it was crap anyway. I had to rewrite the whole thing pretty much from scratch.

That takes time. Time I could have saved with a more efficient plan. Or not.

The Now: The Sensible approach

So, what side have I come down on? The side of I want to give planning a try so long as I’m working full time. My latest project has several threads to draw together. I want a proper, reliable roadmap to follow as I go into it. Will I stick to it? No chance. But I it should give me a stronger first draft to work with, and save me a hell of a lot of time in the long run.

The Rub

In the end, planning isn’t my favourite way to write. It slows the first draft and takes some of the thrill of it. But, balancing a full-time job and writing, it’s the most practical way to do it.

And hey, could be this works so well I’ll want to plan everything from now on.

I’ll let you know.

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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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