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The planning stage - Guest blog part 2

Posted on 31st March 2012

The eagerly awaited second part of Richard Sheehan's blog is now here, looking at the planning stage of the writing process. Over to Richard...

This is an intriguing part of the process. It's incredibly easy to fall into the trap of either planning too much or too little. Those who plan too much can find themselves two years down the line with lots of notes and spreadsheets and outlines and yet no novel. Those who plan too little sometimes find themselves steaming into the novel, getting several chapters in and then getting lost in an accumulation of implausible characters, indecipherable plot-lines, and with no progress made towards the eventual conclusion.

I've found that, in planning a novel, there are two main schools of thought.

  • The organic novel.
  • The planned novel.
The organic novel is where the writer begins with a vague idea of what they want to write and lets the 'muse' direct them. Of course, organic is a bit of a misnomer. There is an element of planning involved in every completed novel even if the writer started out with the intention of avoiding it as much as possible. As an example, with my first novel I knew how I wanted it to start and I knew how it would end. I also had a reasonable idea of how I wanted to get there, but other than that I pretty much made it up as I went along, using markers for the plot points I wanted to include.

The term 'planned novel' can mean anything from having a little more planning than the above - perhaps sketching a synopsis in a notebook - to the author having meticulously plotted every chapter, scene and character before even beginning their mighty tome. Some consider this removes the spontaneity in the writing, while others swear that it's the only way to do it. It doesn't really matter. If it works for you, then go for it. For my second novel I'd planned on using minimal planning again - based on following my previously successful formula - but it quickly became apparent that it would need considerably more planning than my first if I didn't want it to end up becoming a complete mess.

Of course, you can always mix the two. Plan parts and wing it for other sections. Really, it's whatever works for you.

How to plan

Now, this is the part which is sometimes glossed over: The actual methods that writers use.

There are, of course, a number of ways to plan. Many writers use methods such as outlining, storyboards and timelines. How you use any of these methods quite often depends on what tools are available to you. Those listed below are tools that I've used or have come across in my work. It's worth experimenting with these and others you might find to see whether you will find them useful.

If you use Microsoft Word, there are tools that you can use that come packaged with the Office application set.

1 - The outlining function - Word comes with a powerful outlining function that is ideal for planning your novel. It has collapsible/expandable subsections so that you can have as much or as little detail as you'd like.

2 - Excel (or in fact any spreadsheet, for users of other apps) is an excellent tool with regards to planning.

3 - MS Project - By its very nature, project management software is ideal.

4 - MS OneNote - An application that comes with MS Office, which can be used as a notebook to collate information and research.

As a Mac user, I use Scrivener for all my writing. It has built-in tools that can help with all writing tasks.

1 - Outliner. As in Word, this can be used to plan the chapters of the novel in as much or as little detail as you'd like.

2 - Corkboard. This works like a real-life corkboard. Each section of the novel is shown as an index card and can be moved around, edited, etc.

3 - Binder. The binder is the heart of the novel-writing process for me. It's a little like having Windows explorer within the application. You can arrange anything in your novel in any way you need.

4 - Meta-data can be used in Scrivener to create a timeline.

Also, Aeon Timeline is an application currently in beta of which I've heard a lot of good things.

Of course, there are also time-proven manual methods you can use.

1 - Index cards - These can include synopses of chapters or scenes and can be arranged and re-arranged to suit your needs.

2 - Post-it notes - These can be used in a similar way to index cards.

3 - Character charts or personality surveys - These are often used in the form of character interviews or questionnaires.

This is only a brief list and already it can be seen that there are a number of very varied tools available for writers to use when planning their novel. I've included some links below where you can find further details of these. If you look around on the internet you'll probably be able to find many more. It's a very worthwhile exercise to experiment with as many tools as you can. My own opinion on these writing tools is: if they work, use them.


Timelines in Scrivener
Aeon Timeline
Using Index cards I
Using Index cards II

Written by Kate Haigh.