In theory when it comes to drafting novels, there are two types of writers. The first is the sort that sits down generally at the beginning of the story and writes the story straight through, no particular plan, just flying by the seat of his or her pants. This is why they are sometimes referred to as “pantsers.” This sounds amazing to me—the ability to write a novel almost like you would read one.
I however, so far, have found that I write really rather boring drafts that way. These drafts meander through the first morning of the protagonist’s day, stopping through mundane activities to describe in detail conversations and breakfast sausages, like a James Joyce novel without any hidden symbolism or artistry.
To avoid getting stuck in a purgatory of boring breakfast descriptions, I fall firmly into the theoretical second camp of writers: the planners. I outline and jump around and generally write out of order. I work on backstory, or trace symbols of locked doors and tree houses through the plot instead of being stuck writing moment by moment descriptions of opening scenes.
I have paper notebooks filled with web-outlines and flow charts and diagrams and paragraphs about every section of my work in progress. People outline in myriads of ways, and I love to see how people organize their ideas. I wanted to share five techniques that I have been using to work out some of my own planning.
Five Techniques for Planners
1.) Notes on Great Novels. For some reason when I read perfectly accurate and wise advice about novel structure and character development, I have a hard time using it. “Characters must struggle.” It’s too open and vague for me to apply. But when I sit and outline my favorite novels by charting the character development and tracking the plot pacing, then I can draw my own conclusions about what makes characters and plots work. (Often they are almost word for word what other people have told me, but now I can think of Ron Weasley struggling with poverty and jealousy and then diving to retrieve the sword underwater: characters need to struggle and overcome those struggles.)
2.) Draw pictures. Whether I’m trying to map out a space, or just keep myself from checking Facebook by doodling through an anxious attack of “I don’t know what to write next!”, drawing for me is a really helpful tool. When in doubt, I usually draw a tree and it gives my brain enough to think about that sometimes my subconscious works out the problem for me. Or it helps me visualize a space, such as a map of a village, a plan of a castle, or a tree house.
3.) Write scripts. I have a small fear of dialogue tags. The “he said” parts of dialogue. There are a lot of good-practice rules about keeping them simple, not using adverbs too often, and when to leave them out altogether. Questions about how to write dialogue tags can side track me when I think about a scene. So I have found that if I just write it like a script with colons in front of people’s names that I can concentrate on what they are saying. If a character does something important enough outside of talking, I’ll put in a scene direction. Later I can go back and transform the script to standard dialogue, but I have found this to be extremely helpful in writing little exchanges between characters.
4.) Chapter Summaries in Scrivener. I love to use notebooks to write. They are portable, don’t freeze up or lose Wi-Fi signals, and help me minimize distractions. But in the end, I have to eventually do some writing on the computer. To help me keep organized, I use the word processing program Scrivener. It lets you break up large projects into small ones, and I try to keep working descriptions of my chapters there even as I still plan out some details with pen and paper.
5.) Write a synopsis letter to friend. This is my latest discovery. I found that even though I had all my chapter summaries up on Scrivener that starting to actually work through the chapters scene by scene was leading me to some pretty boring descriptions of breakfast again when I didn’t know everything that was going to happen. Instead I am writing a “synopsis letter.” I imagine that I am writing a letter to my friend Heidi about my book. I have several friends who would fit this category, but Heidi is a friend that I feel really safe around, who is creative and encouraging. I imagine that she has all afternoon and wants to hear about my book. So I am writing a straight forward account of everything I have worked out (and this is key!) in order of how it actually happens. The letter has gotten rather lengthy (like 50 pages). But every time I get stuck I imagine Heidi saying, “That sounds amazing, what happens next?”
I actually think that the two sorts of writers – pantsers and planners- aren’t really all that different, since often those fast draft pantsers have to go back and reorganize their drafts using some of the very sorts of tools that planners use before they write. It’s really, at the end of the day, about writing what you know to find out about what you don’t know. It’s about keeping the work playful and loose, and not succumbing to the anxious procrastination that keeps you from writing.
How do you tackle long projects—books or otherwise? Are you a pantser or a planner?
*Note* This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means if you were to buy a book, I’d get a tiny commission at no cost to you. Thanks for supporting Stories & Thyme!*
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