How do you go about planning a novel? It’s a question an old friend and former colleague of mine asked me recently. He told me it’s been a vexed process for him has this planning stage, and I wonder if that’s perhaps because he’s become inclined to over-think the process. You should think about it of course, but not so much that it paralyses you.
Updike, wise old sage of American letters, suggested that, when writing a novel, you should have a good idea of where you are going to end up. You owe that much to the reader he said. I like that, because it suggests simultaneously that you do have responsibilities when writing, but that you shouldn’t let them become so crippling that you don’t get anything done.
There are many ways to plan a novel though two get talked about most, I suppose we could call them ‘all’ or ‘nothing‘. There are the ‘Planners‘, who work it all out in advance and the ‘Pantsers’ who do it by the seat of their pants.
Both ways of working out what you’re going to put in your book seem a little alien to me as my truth is more organic – a mix of planning and intuition – an evolving process which gets you both where you want to go and where you surprisingly end up. As far as planning goes. I believe you can over-think it – I also believe you can not think about it enough.
I don’t believe you can plan a book until you know what it is – you need to feel your way into it, it seems to me. This involves writing parts of it, before knowing where you are going. A few scenes, a few ideas.
Sooner or later though you realise you are on a journey with no map, and it’s never a bad idea to know which direction you are heading in. So at that stage, it might be a good idea to do some cartography – when you have the general gist of the thing, the essence of it, in your mind.
What does it feel like to have that impression in your mind, or in the pages of your notebook? I once heard that two particular groups of nerd share a curious specialist word which means a lot to them. If you are a plane-spotter or a twitcher, (a bird-watcher), then you might use the word ‘giss,’ pronounced, unfortunately, ‘jiz’. This refers to the way you can glimpse a particular aeroplane or bird in flight out of the corner of your eye for a quarter of a second, and still have a clear idea of what it is. You have got its giss. Some people say the word giss is an acronym which stands for ‘General Impression, Size and Shape.’
That’s what I like to have in my mind before I start planning my novel – the giss.
Once you have it then plan away I say.
I like to do chapter by chapter, scene by scene. As Saint John of Updike said I like to know where I’m eventually going to end up, but that doesn’t mean I do the whole thing, soup to nuts, in one go. So I like to plan for a few chapters in front of me, while at the same time being clear about my final destination.
I like to call this my ‘Underpant Gnomes’ approach to novel planning.
The Underpant Gnomes, as I’m sure you know, appeared in an early edition of South Park. They stole all the kids’ underpants under cover of darkness and, when Cartman and the gang followed them to their underground lair, they found a big Underpant Gnomes manifesto written on the wall. It read:
Phase one – collect underpants
Phase two – ?
Phase three – profit
You really do have to work out the middle ‘?’ section at some point though – otherwise you just end up with a big, useless, pile of underpants.
Some people do drawings and plans and stuff while planning their novel – and I am one of those people. If you saw these at the end, they might seem like some genius piece of pre-planning. In fact they often happen mid-way through, to focus things, clear things up, explain them, realign them.
Here’s something else which might help – I know it helps me: Your whole first draft is planning. If it’s not good – you can make it good. Ernest Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’ your job is to make it not shit.
And that, my friends, is my basic approach to novel planning. I start with the underpants, aim for the profit and fill in the route between the two several steps ahead of myself as I go. By the end of course I could show you a full plan for the whole thing and make it look like I did it in advance. But in fact, I did it before, during and after.
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.