Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

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Pantsing v. Planning

blueprintWhen I was first getting serious about writing, somewhere between the ages of eleven and twenty-one (who can really pin down when they became serious about writing?), I was a definite pantster. I had one project and I flung myself into it with the careless abandon of a finger painting kindergartner. I let the story take me where it would. Characters sprang up out of nowhere. Story lines I never would have imagined branched off and grew. My one book grew into two, then three, and then four, finally fleshing out into a hefty five book series, each book clocking in at between 120- and 130k.

It. Was. Glorious.

And sloppy. And exhausting. And required so many drafts that I eventually stopped counting them after eleven or so. I mean, there’s no shame in taking 10+ years to draft a single project, but it’s hard to move other projects forward as well. And as a writer, I definitely hope to be more than a one-hit wonder.

These days, now that I’m an old lady and I’ve got things like jobs and kids to suck up my time, I tend to plan things out quite a bit more. I typically don’t start writing until I know the full cast, an unholy amount of setting, and at least eighty percent of the entire outline in detail. My books and characters still surprise me sometimes, leaving the path and running whooping and laughing down a flower-bedecked hillside instead. But generally, I know where things are going before I even type Chapter One.

I have sequentially planted my butt firmly on both sides of this fence, but I still can’t tell you which is better, pantsing or planning. (Hint: The better one is whichever one works best for you just then.) But just for the fun of it, let’s break these babies down a bit more.

Pantsing is typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-for-all where all you start with is an interesting premise and the determination to see it through to its unknown end. Planning is more in the vein of spreadsheets, flowcharts, and index cards; however they get it down, planners like to know what beast they’re working with and how to wrangle it- all before they step in the arena.

So what are the merits and demerits of these two schools of thought? I asked a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on this, and here’s what our think-tank was able to come up with:

  Advantages Disadvantages
Pantsing Room for surprises

Get right to the fun of writing

More organic characters and relationships

Allows for more exploration of a theme or topic without plot restrictions

Requires extra time in editing and cleanup

Wonky flow, pacing, and direction

Chaotic storylines

Bloated first drafts

More prone to ‘getting stuck’ mid-draft

Planning Gives sense of the story’s direction

Enough organization to remember what I’m doing

Less prone to writers block

Cleaner first drafts

Faster first drafts

Allows higher degree of story complexity without getting messy

Requires extra time spent in prep work

Can sap some of the fun and enthusiasm from a project

Sometimes creates rigid situations that serve the plot rather than agree with the character development

These are, of course, generalities. And like most things in life, these two poles rest on either end of a continuum, rather than being either a 1 or a 0. To reflect the murky middle ground, the term “plantster” has started cropping up around the internet as well, to represent those of us who like to hang out in the mix.

continuum

I mentioned earlier that I like to start a project with a mere eighty percent of my plot planned out. Because of this, and quite a few other gaps I leave open at a project’s advent, I don’t really think of myself as a true planner. I’m more of a preparation-leaning plantster. I like to have a really strong structure in place at the start of a project, and most of the major plot points planned out. But I also like to leave myself a little wiggle room for exploration, and an unscripted ending. I like leaving the ending unplanned because it usually takes me up until that point in the story to come up with an ending that a) fits the story naturally and b) isn’t coming at the reader with all the subtle surprise of a regularly scheduled freight train. Because of this, I do tend to have to go back and rework a bit of the earlier story (adding foreshadowing, tweaking storylines that end up being important, dropping the ones that aren’t, etc), but I’m fine with an extra draft or two.

Just so long as it doesn’t end up being closer to twenty drafts.

So whether you plan, pants, or something in between, keep doing what works best for you! The best routines are the ones that work, and don’t let anyone (or any table) tell you otherwise. Happy writing!

(And a special thank you to the dozen or so folks on social media who pitched in to help me articulate all the plusses and minuses of planning and pantsing- you guys are awesome!)

Mid-Race Regrets

My father-in-law is an amazing athlete. I am… somewhat less amazing. But I’ve actually felt like I’ve been pretty good about exercising this summer. (You know, until I exploded my leg at least.) I was bike commuting to work every day. I practiced rugby twice a week. I even did a few crunches once in a while! Not too shabby!

Earlier this summer, Hubby and I were gearing up for our annual Midnight Sun Run with Dad, and I was dumb enough to express confidence in my abilities this year. My sweet darling laughed in my face and reminded me that I hadn’t done any long distance running since, oh, the last time we did the Sun Run. You know, two years ago.

“But I’m fit!” I protested. “I do all the things!”

Apparently not all the right things. He didn’t argue that I was in possibly the best shape of my life. He merely argued that I was working all the wrong muscles. That I didn’t have the stamina. That I’d start off at a quick trot and then be sucking wind and puking by the end.

Bah! I thought. I’ll show him!

Why does he always have to be right? Why can’t I be the right one once in a while?

I don’t know if it’s just because I have an incurable case of lit brain, but I find that there are many correlations between my writing life and my everything-else life.

This last month, in case you didn’t notice from the discernable uptick of stupidity and laziness around here, was a NaNo month. *waves tiny flag* And I had every confidence that I was gonna throat punch that puny word goal into the Stone Age. Because, come on, I’d been working on writing stuff every day this entire year with like three exceptions. Like three! How can you be more ready than that?

But it occurred to me right around Week Two that the writing I had been doing wasn’t necessarily good draft-like-crazy-for-a-month prep sort of writing. A lot of the writing I had been doing was things like taking setting notes, or drafting out blog posts, or editing second or third drafts, or popping out a piece of flash fiction. The truth was, I hadn’t drafted a new full-length novel since last November.

Much like my running race, I felt that lack of training pretty badly toward the end. I mean, I still throat punched the word goal, although maybe not quite to the Stone Age, but it required a lot more oomph that I thought it was going to.

I’m not saying that I regret those other styles of writing projects I’ve been working on this year. I don’t. After all, if I never paused in my drafting frenzy, I’d a) have nothing but a bunch of embarrassing first drafts sitting around, b) not have won short story contests or placed other shorts for publication, and c) have gone stark raving mad from the whirlwind of writing so much, so quickly, for so long.

But I think next time, I’ll set aside my other projects just a little sooner and work myself back up to fighting form. After all, during Camp sessions, I have the option of scaling back my daily word goals; I don’t have that choice in November. And as much as I struggled to write an average of 900 words a day last month, 1700 would be exceedingly difficult.

So what can I do to make sure that I’m ready for writing come this fall? Well, for starters, I’ve reinstituted writing daily- new words, not just editing old ones. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction, or all from the same project, but it does have to be new. Currently, I’m only requiring 500 a day of myself, but I’ll start to up that more as we get closer to November. (I know not everyone goes in for a daily wordcount. Some folks like to put in a certain amount of time, or energy, or however they gauge themselves. I just find that counting words works best for me. You do you.)

Another thing I want to do is to put in more preparation in the form of outlining. I think one of the things that made the end of the month so difficult was that I really jumped into the project with little more than an idea for an opening scenario. I had absolutely zilch planned out for anything past like chapter four. I used to write like this all the time, but I’ve found in my old age that the speed and the quality of my drafts go up considerably when I have a solid framework laid out beforehand. (If you want to argue that with me, I’m currently drafting a post comparing and contrasting pantsing and planning and would love your input! Shoot me an email or hit me up in the comments!)

Finally, I need to start setting aside more time for writing again. I’ve given myself about half the writing time that I had before and, although I’ve worked at using that time more efficiently, I still need more time to hit those higher goals.

So that’s my big plan! If my sixty-something father-in-law can straight up curb stomp me in every single race we’ve ever run together (while smiling and holding a conversation no less), I can put in the time and the training to get good at writing again. Hi-ya! *high kicks off a bench*

*breaks leg*