Wednesday Warble: The necessary evil that is ‘planning’

joshua winning sentinel blog postEvery Wednesday (or whenever he feels like it), Sentinel author Joshua Winning will be checking in to variously vent, whine and blab about a topic that’s playing havoc with his tiny little mind .

This week: planning

If you’re a writer, there are probably a couple of words that cause you to curl up into the foetal position, chow down on ridiculous amounts of chocolate, or simply weep uncontrollably. A couple of those words could be: deadline, word count, routine…

I have another one: planning. As I let the latest draft of Ruins, book two in The Sentinel Trilogy, rest before I take a weed whacker to it (more about that here), I’m about to start planning the third and final book in the trilogy. But as I consider wrestling those ideas that have been bubbling away in my brain into some sort of structure, it suddenly feels like trying to herd cats.

Chapter outlines, character profiles, plot beats… I know the planning makes sense. Teachers plan lessons; marathon runners plan stamina-building workouts; bus drivers plan routes to their destination (though, lucky beggars, they now have Sat Nav to help them out).

So how can we make book planning that little bit less painful? My main rule is: don’t pressure yourself into planning everything. Your first plan doesn’t have to be a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, it can simply be a single document containing sentences that mark up story beats and scene ideas. Just splurge everything down without worrying about its place in the overall story. The important thing is to get all the big stuff out of your head and onto the page.

(I should probably add that you can either do this on the computer or by hand. Whichever works best.)

Even the greatest planners can’t anticipate certain unexpected plot twists that leap out in the middle of writing. So give yourself a break. Plan as much as you can, but don’t let that plan become a yoke around your neck.

That’s a lesson I’ve learnt on The Sentinel Trilogy. I wrote a plan for the whole trilogy while I was working on Sentinel, the first book. But over the years, that outline has changed dramatically. The important stuff is all still there – the mythology, the villains, the emotional arcs of the characters. But some of the specifics are up for grabs.

In order to get a more rounded view of the process of planning, I decided to call on some of my lovely author buddies to see what their processes are. Do you really need to plan your novel? Here’s what they had to say…

Troy Gardner – No one’s ever accused me of over planning. Of course an author should have some idea of where the story is heading, but I’ve found whenever I try to plot out an entire narrative, it’s difficult to see the connecting tissues and the writing drifts away from “the plan”. It’s better to allow the characters to dictate their own destinies than for me to shoehorn them into earlier ideas. And if that leads to a disjointed narrative, that’s just what second and third drafts are made for. Or seventh.

Harper Fox – There’s probably as many answers to that as there are individual authors, but for me with a long novel – definitely. I learned my lesson last time I tried pantsing it with nothing more to hold me on the high wire but a hopeless love of my protags. But character dynamic wasn’t enough to bear me across the abyss and in fact that novel crashed, costing me almost three months’ work – not the kind of loss I can sustain as a professional writer. Ouch.


So this time it’s out with the good old storyboard, in my case seven sheets of A4 elegantly sellotaped together. Left-hand side for Protag#1 and all his stuff (motivation, defining characteristics, needs, hopes, fears) and right-hand side for Protag#2 and all his. (As I observed to a friend recently, if I want to go in for ménage romance, I’m gonna have to learn origami.) Then through a series of arrow-connected bubbles, all the interweaving incidents that draw these two guys together in the story. My books aren’t linear. Ideally their endings are implicit in their beginning, and this kind of layout helps me visualise how that will work. The process takes me about a fortnight and it hurts because I feel I should be devoting that time to output, wordcount, actual finished product on the page. But, as I’ve learned the hard way, it’s time well invested!

David Estes – Writing a book has to be fun, otherwise your story will likely fall flat. Therefore, planning your book has to be fun, too. There’s not one approach that fits everyone. You have to figure out what works for you. For some that might be a detailed story map and outline, for others it might be a couple dozen bullet points about key plot points and character traits (that’s my method). You could be the type to want to discuss significant parts of your book with a friend or significant other (me, me, me!), or prefer to think about your characters in the peaceful sanctuary of your own mind (me, too!). If you’re not having fun during the planning stage, then change you approach until you are having fun. Trust me, your readers will notice the difference. (There’s more great advice from David on his website here.)

Many thanks to Troy, Harper and David for taking the time to share their thoughts with us. Now I’m off to think about planning. Or maybe curl into the foetal position and chow down on 70% dark chocolate…

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