Plotting and planning the novel

Sky Post-itsPhil: No one tells you when you start writing a book that it’s all going descend into the sort of project management hell that you thought you’d escaped from at work. Surely the process involves our author hero sitting down before a freshly opened notebook, licking the end of the pen and starting to write?

Nope. It seems that everyone is planning these days. There’s this interesting post over at for example. Or perhaps you feel inspired by seeing how Emylia Hall works out her next novel. JK Rowling produced a paper spreadsheet for Harry Potter.

Writing a novel it seems, should be approached as a “project” as much as an artistic endeavor. That’s certainly what Candice and I felt as we sat in the sunshine outside a Stratford-upon-Avon pub a few weeks ago. We knew the story we wanted to tell. We know our characters. We just weren’t happy with the structure.

Since we’ve both worked on proper work projects and have some clue about how all this works, the concept of book as project isn’t alien to us. Maybe if we’d been the sort of arty-farty floaty types who are supposed to do this sort of thing we’d not think this way, but we aren’t, so we do. In fact we both said the phrase, “We need a whiteboard” at the same time.

If you work in an office this sort of kit is readily available but not many have it at home. You can do just as well with Post-It notes and a couple of days later, that’s what we did. I summarised each chapter while Candice wrote notes on each bit of sticky paper. The glass walls of the conservatory were soon covered with our story in yellow paper form.

All this enabled us to track the plot strands. There is a fairly important plot element that appears in the first few pages and then not for about half the book. That’s fixable.

Likewise, the relationship between our two main characters  needs an extra turning point and we are looking where this should take place. As it happens, we’ll be using some plot set-up that used to be clogging up the beginning of the manuscript and is now to be dragged through the book being hinted at along the way and becoming the resolution to a mystery the reader will hopefully be puzzling over as we go.

What we had done is expose ourselves to “the big picture” instead of concentrating on details on the page. By juggling a few Post-Its we have spotted holes in the plot and explored better sequences for some scenes.

Is this an unromantic way of working?

Undoubtedly. If you are writing just for fun then forget whiteboards and spreadsheets. Just start to scribble and enjoy the process. We though, see ourselves as (one day) commercial authors and that’s going to require a different approach. This starts with doing the absolute best we can with the story. After that we’ll work hard on the marketing of our “product”. The payoff will hopefully be that people buy the story and thoroughly enjoy it. A smile on a face, or a good review is our aim.

Basically, what we’ve found is that succesful writers are like swans. On the surface it all looks so easy. Under the water, there’s all sort of stuff going on that you, the reader, don’t need to see.


Filed under Phil, Writing

3 responses to “Plotting and planning the novel

  1. Like most artistic endeavours, it’s what you don’t see that produces the result.
    An artist friend started a painting in the morning in his studio where it was seen by a lady. He finished it by late afternoon, when the morning viewer happened to come past again (his studio was in an art centre in Dedham).
    “Wow, what a great painting, you finished it really quickly but how long did it really take you?”
    “About twenty years” came the reply.

  2. Pingback: A Definition | My Writing Meta

  3. Pingback: Writing Update | Amy's Fantastical Writings and Travels

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