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I love it when a plan comes together

Unfortunately, I actually hate making a plan. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that planning is my least favourite part of writing: sitting and staring at a blank piece of paper is one of the most soul destroying activities I've ever done. Getting the initial idea is a piece of cake - I just sit back and wait for inspiration to strike. I have a notebook bursting to the seams with ideas for future novels. Wherever I go and whatever I am doing, there is potential for a story idea to take shape in my brain. Researching the background is fun for someone who loves acquiring new knowledge. Actually sitting down to write the thing is also relatively stress-free - once I get going, the words seem to flow fairly freely. The bit in between, however?

I've yet to discover which kind of plan works best for me and in many ways I'm much more of a 'pantser' than a 'plotter' but I can't completely wing my writing. Whenever I've tried, I usually end up running out of steam by about 30,000 words, which is not particularly helpful when you're aiming for 70-100,000! E.L. Stein believes a detailed plan is the way forward, 'If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline,' while Stephen King disagrees. 'Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.'

Over the years I've tried both detailed plans and vague ideas about where the narrative will end up and ultimately, have ended up somewhere in the middle. I'll start writing with a general notion of where I want to get to, but then as ideas come to me, I'll note them down until, seemingly of their own accord, they formulate a plan for me to follow, at least until the end of the chapter.

I usually only work on one book at a time, but this year, because of doing the MA, I find myself having to simultaneously juggle two novels, a 15,000 word dissertation of creative writing and a host of short stories. The short stories tend to take care of themselves, but one novel juggles two timelines, the other is the third in a planned series of seven, so not only am I trying to work on that, but at the back of my mind I'm also thinking about where the series as a whole is going, which further complicates matters and the dissertation is five short stories that are separate but drawn together by the final one. Not an easy undertaking whilst also juggling all the reading required for the course, research for each story, family life, work and remaining sane!

My new 'to do' and 'to read' noticeboard. Intended to prevent the risk of drowning my family under a sea of post it notes to myself!

Consequently, this weekend I have given in and accepted that I need to have some kind of formal plan in place. I still don't know what works best for me, so I'm trying out different methods, as each long piece is at a different stage of development. I made a noticeboard for each project (and no, this is not procrastination, this was 'vital' so that I could customise each board to suit the topic/emotions/feelings etc associated with each project!) and my husband obligingly hung them above my desk for me. I've also tidied the study and reorganised the bookshelves so that come Wednesday, when everyone else in the family is back at work/school, the car has been MOT'd and life returns to normal (by which I mean, I can sit at home drinking coffee, eating toast and writing all day) I will have no excuse not to actually get on with some work!

The planning the research stage

These are some ideas about where I can go to find more information about the kinds of people my characters are. This can be anything at all - medical journals, newspaper articles, non-fiction works, other fictional books that tackle similar issues, people I could speak to (both professional and within my own friendship groups). Absolutely anywhere I might find information that will help me to understand my characters, what motivates them and why they are going to behave in the way they will.

The ideas stage

This is a series of isolated ideas that hopefully will coalesce into some kind of structured plan for the book. At the moment, they are simply ideas for scenes, possible connections between characters, notes about important plot points etc etc. These are backed up in a notebook with research about some of the people/ideas and more development of the ideas, but this gives me something to work with to start trying to draw together all the disparate elements.

The structural stage

This is the novel I've already written approximately 30,000 words of. This is a basic timeline of events in the lives of the main characters. It gives little to no indication of what happens in the narrative, but as this half of the novel covers a period of approximately 15 years, having a timline like this allows me to keep track of when things happen, so that my chronology doesn't get muddled. The purple post it notes are external events of significance. These may or may not feature in the final narrative, but they are things that might have had an impact on the characters. This is backed up by extensive character notes on likes, dislikes, appearance, family, history etc etc.

Ultimately, I don't think that this stage of writing is ever going to be something that I enjoy doing, really I just want to get on with the story - I want to know what's going to happen just as much as the reader does and even when I know where we will all eventually end up, often the characters have a different idea to me about how they are going to get there and going along for the ride with them can be an exciting experience!

However, if it gives me the excuse to create pretty noticeboards for the study, I'm not going to say no and I do recognise the value of a good plan, especially when it all comes together!

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