There is a debate among writers about planning vs. pantsing. Some are complete pantsers and sit down without an idea in their heads, put fingers to keyboard and crack on. Others plan every aspect of the characters, the setting, the plot points, the points of tension and relaxation before they ever think to put fingers on the keyboard.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. If we are writing a series, then we know our characters and what they will or won’t do in a given situation. I have always been a mixture of the two and, being a crime writer, have to have some idea of the who, what, where and how before I begin to write. Using motoring imagery, I may know the story begins in Birmingham and will end in Norwich, but apart from deciding it has to go through Peterborough, the story could take many different roads.
When I decided I wanted to begin a new historical crime series set in the Wars of the Roses, I decided to change my usual method of feeling my way through the book. I decided to research the different methods of planning books and see if I couldn’t write a better, more balanced book, more quickly.
The number of books on planning/outlining is staggering. Some will give authors distinct points to aim for - say by X%, the inciting event has to have happened and by Y%, your protagonist must be suffering severe setbacks and drawing on his/her character strengths to see a new way forward. Some are less stringent, saying the author needs to plan for this, that and the other to happen in that order to create a tense, conflict-driven story that will keep the reader turning the pages. Mindmaps also came into the mix and brainstorming. Many books have worksheets or companion workbooks.
The research was interesting and thought-provoking and I took weeks making sure I understood what all the authors were saying. Then I began. I knew where the end of the book was. I knew the inciting incident. I knew my characters. I put the plan together based on a 90k book. I had my book map.
How did it pan out? At first, very well. I motored mightily, ending up with 32k words in less than 3 weeks. Now I know for some this is a pathetic number of words for 21 days and for others something they think they could never attain. And then, at 32k, everything went pear-shaped.
Why? Several reasons. I was concentrating on quantity not quality. I felt I was on a treadmill and getting to the desk each morning became a chore and not a pleasure. The story was flowing, sort of, but it wasn’t flowing to my rhythm, but to someone else’s. Someone who knew nothing about my writing process or how I think. And that is because in my writing process, as I am writing and getting involved in the story itself, I always come to several points where I realise ah, if I do this now, it will mean he can do that and then she will be forced to do x, y and z. And that alone, for me, makes the story so much stronger, but I cannot reach that ah point unless I am actually writing the story.
The most surprising thing, though, was that I discovered I already knew where my highs and lows needed to be without someone else telling me. In other words, I was trying to squeeze my size 20 frame into a size 14 dress and it didn’t fit. That last discovery was both comforting and a wake-up call.
I stopped looking at the word count. I started at the beginning and read the book through. And I could see where it needed more work, different scenes, a more creative approach, creative being the operative word. I had been so focussed on get here by this point that I had forgotten the story itself. So I went back and changed it, not massively which was what I feared I would have to do, but enough to break the focus on words alone. Of course, that may change when I come to edit it.
I am now at 50k and the story will get there when it gets there. I understand I have an internal instinct developed over the last dozen books I’ve written to know when I must ramp up the tension and conflict and when I can lie back on it. I have learned to trust myself. For this reason alone, the research was worth it. I am now confident I can write a book. Not in three weeks or four weeks, but in the time the book needs. Because the book is the most important thing and the book has to be right.
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