Planner or Panster?
To plan or not to plan is the question for many fiction writers. I’m typically a planner, always for novel-length stories. I have written short stories without the aid of any planning documents, but I’d never consider tackling longer work without some upfront planning. It’s about more than just keeping the story straight in my head. With a good plan, I can write the story considerably faster. I’ll even go so far as to plan out my editing process to ensure I don’t miss the forest for the trees.
The Concept: The View from 50,000 feet
I lucked out when I first gained the stick-to-itiveness to tackle writing a novel. I applied and gained entry to the Puget Sound Writers’ Guild. At the time, the guild was fortunate to have a long-time resident writer. This gentleman indoctrinated members into a rigorous novel planning routine. Over the years, I adapted the guild’s teachings to meet my needs.
I start with what the guild calls a concept, a one-pager detailing the significant characters, the crucial plot points, and significant subplots. To get this all down logically onto a page or so is difficult if you do it right. By that, I mean you could hand the document to a fellow fiction writer who could evaluate the overall plot, approve or disapprove of the climax, and identify the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, etc. It’s not easy, but I find it worthwhile. When the entire manuscript is finished and ready for submission, the concept can be tweaked to double as a synopsis. The synopsis I sent to my publisher for my second novel, The Blood of Faeries, was an edited version of my concept.
Writing the concept is challenging. It usually takes me four or five drafts to develop a reasonable one. It has often been edited down from ten to twenty pages of narrative prose, notes, and ramblings. By the end of the process, I have an understanding of the plot and the characters’ motivations from the beginning to end.
As I’m wrestling with the concept/synopsis, I’m also working on the characters. I keep a character inventory of all the named characters and brief biographical sketches. I’ll expand the brief sketch into a full-on character profile for the more important characters. For the protagonist, this profile might be ten pages or more.
The Outline: The Plot and More Point by Point
Next, I start on the outline, detailing the plot chapter by chapter. To begin with, I expand the concept, fleshing out the plot and subplots. The one-page document quickly explodes into something anywhere from twenty to fifty pages of narrative. Next, I chop those twenty to fifty pages or more up by chapter.
Now I have my outline, right? Not yet! At this point, I probably have anywhere from sixty to eighty chapters, which I know are way too many. The books in my YA fantasy series, The Allison Lee Chronicles, run approximately forty chapters. So I begin editing the outline, combining or deleting chapters until I have between forty to fifty chapters left. As I continue through the planning process and on to the rough draft, I consolidate or eliminate chapters that don’t cut the mustard.
I’m still not done with the outline. So far, I’ve only explored the plot, but not the emotional state of the characters. Typically, I meticulously describe the emotional state of the protagonist chapter by chapter. If I’m writing something with multiple points of view, I’ll note the narrator’s emotional state for each chapter. Once this is done, I have a pretty detailed understanding of the story and the characters from beginning to end. I feel like I can write the rough draft in my sleep, but I have two more essential steps in refining the outline before I do that.
For each chapter, I briefly describe the physical location, time of day, weather, etc. Anything that will make writing description and imparting the story with a sense of movement through time easier. Lastly, I’ll slap the outline onto the editorial butcher block to further consolidate and cut the fat.
The Rough Draft
You’re probably wondering how long it takes me to get the rough draft with all the upfront planning. If life doesn’t get in the way, the planning process will take me about a month to a month and a half. Not that long, in my opinion, because I know the story so well by the time I start writing the rough draft, I can quickly get words to paper.
Often, I’ll bang out chapter after chapter without referring to my planning documents even once. But if I ever wonder what should happen next, I can always refer to the outline to jog my memory and continue banging away with barely a hiccup. The outline also helps if I have to set aside the rough draft for some reason. Then, when I pick it up again, I can refer to the outline to get my bearings.
When I’m rolling, I’ll produce about three chapters a week, which I think is pretty good, given work and family commitments. This means I have a draft ready for editing in three months, more or less.
I enjoy the editing process. It’s when the story comes alive. It is, however, a complex process and one I used to find incredibly arduous. The key to making the editing process less difficult is to avoid doing too many things at once.
Here’s how I tackle editing:
- I read through the draft, looking for chapters to eliminate, consolidate, or rewrite. I’ll note any big-picture issues I need to address—plot holes, characterization problems, etc.
- I eliminate unneeded chapters.
- I consolidate chapters.
- I rewrite weak chapters.
- I do a second read-through to ensure I’m happy with what I’ve done.
- I’ll start addressing any big-picture issues chapter consolidations and rewrites haven’t already addressed.
- Finally, I’ll get down to the sentence-level copy editing. I’ll keep plugging away at this until I’m happy with the flow and have eliminated as many typos as possible.
This process will take me anywhere from three to four months. By tackling the big picture problems first, I hoover up many of the minor issues. By the time I’m looking for and correcting typos, I’m only working with the chapters that will be in the manuscript I submit to my publisher.
I often read about writers decrying writer’s block or needing to be in the mood to write. Every time I read something like this, I wonder if more upfront planning would mitigate these issues. By planning upfront, I’m not trying to do everything at once. I’m not trying to craft the perfect sentence, track the plot, and stay true to my characters every time I put my fingers to the keyboard. I think this makes it easier to write the rough draft quickly without falling into the morass of writer’s block. Mood doesn’t even factor into it for me. It helps that I enjoy writing, but I don’t need to feel especially inspired to write. I just need to sit down and follow a plan.
My biggest issue is having enough time to write. Job, family, life in general all get in the way. Having a plan makes it easier to get back in the swing of things after the unexpected disrupts my writing routine. This equates to writing the novel faster.
I don’t follow my planning documents slavishly. Instead, I treat them as a roadmap. I know my starting point, destination, and the major landmarks along the way. The great thing about maps is while they lay out the journey, they allow for plenty of detours.
About the Author
Dan Rice pens the young adult urban fantasy series The Allison Lee Chronicles in the wee hours of the morning. The series kicks off with his award-winning debut, Dragons Walk Among Us, which Kirkus Reviews calls, “An inspirational and socially relevant fantasy.”
To discover more about Dan’s writing and keep tabs on his upcoming releases, visit his website: https://danscifi.com and join his newsletter.
Very interesting, Dan. Thank you for sharing your process and for the great tips!
Glad you found it intersting!
Insightful approach to write a novel from conception to final draft.