About Plotting and Planning

Last week I ran a three-hour MA class on plotting at City University. Apart from being one of the scariest things I have ever said yes to (and I admit this as a constant yes-person), planning the session coincided with a small sea-change in my working process.

If you have even glanced at some of my previous posts, you will have gleaned that, in NaNoWriMo parlance, I am a pantser, not a plotter. This means that I start out with an idea and write an incredibly messy and unwieldy first draft – essentially a process of discovery, where I find out about my setting, characters and story.

However, while it can be enormously exciting, this process is quite lengthy – I have to do at least another draft before anyone sees it. So, while the quick-and-dirty first draft (or, as I like to call it Draft Zero) takes only a couple of months, the picking apart and re-ordering of what I have produced can take anything up to a year.

I am currently working on my fourth novel. I am contracted to produce one novel a year. And I did have a whole year to produce each of my first two novels, CUCKOO and EVERY VOW YOU BREAK. Indeed, as has been noted by other writers, you have your whole life to date to produce your first novel. And you can happily work on your second without too much distraction while waiting for your first to go through the publication process.

However, there did seem to be a month or so’s slippage on the year’s deadline between first and second, and then, with TARNISHED, which is out in March, everything got pushed back even further so that, whereas with CUCKOO I was dealing with the copy edits (the final stage – allegedly – of author involvement in editing) in July, a full eight months before publication, I got my hands on the  TARNISHED copy edits in December, just three months before it comes out.

Some of this was not to do with me. My publishers now know how much time I’m likely to need to turn things round – I am a fast mover, apparently, so they don’t have to worry too much. Leah, my editor, has been busy with a lot more authors to deal with (I was an early acquisition for her). She has also been busy heading up the launch of the fantastic new Headline imprint Tinder Press.

But some of it is down to me.  I have been delivering each new book later into the year than the previous because, with each new publication, I have more (extremely enjoyable) work to do with publicity. There are features, blog articles and short stories to be written, bookshops and festivals to visit, teaching gigs, other people’s books to read, exciting outings to interesting places to talk business. It’s all terribly exciting, but it means that the day when I do nothing but work on my novel is a rare treat.

So I started novel #4 in November 2012. I’m supposed to deliver by late May 2013. Even if I do manage to wangle a couple of extra weeks (hint, hint), that is not a long time to write a whole novel. So, since the story of #4 landed on me pretty fully formed, I have decided to do a bit of plotting rather than pantsing.

I had a look at David Hewson’s great e-book Writing a Novel with Scrivener, and realised that, so long as you remain flexible and responsive to what your writing process throws up, plotting can be every bit as satisfying, fluid and creative as pantsing.

So, while novel #4 is emerging a little more slowly than the previous three – I have to put in a good couple more hours to reach my daily word count target of 2000 – I know that I am working smarter. Because I know where I am going, I am fairly confident (well, at least hopeful) that the finished draft will need tweaking rather than overhauling. So I still should hit my deadline.

And I’m surprised how much I am enjoying the process: it’s a little like having an Ordnance Survey map of a wild, mountain walk – you can see your progress, but there are still many diversions open to you, and the reality of experiencing the terrain is completely different to what you might expect from the two-dimensional rendering on the page.

With this all in mind, I had plenty to talk about to that MA class. And, since, when it comes to teaching, I am anything but a pantser (I over-prepare like nobody’s business), I think I just about survived the session with my reputation intact.

Proper grown up, though, teaching MA students…


2 thoughts on “About Plotting and Planning

  1. I’d never take a country walk without a map, but conversely I’d never want to write a novel knowing where I’m going.
    Durrell said he liked to plant a few stakes in the sand. That’s about as far as I’m prepared to go too.
    But now I’ve started writing an online serialised novella. I can’t go back and make changes – scary!

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