A place for Stupid Questions

Planning vs Winging it.

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    Andrew Bruton

    I have two books on writing.

    ‘On editing’ by Helen Corner-Bryant and ‘Outlining Your Novel’ by K.M. Weiland.

    One owns a publishing company and I don’t know who the other is but they write a lot of ‘how to write’ books.

    How many of you outline your novel before starting?
    How deep do you go?
    Do you find it helps guide your writing?

    If not…why not?

    Do you prefer the surprise of where the story takes you?
    Does it ever (as in my case) leave you with plot issues and trouble finding an ending?

    I’d love to hear what you all think about this as I think about embarking on the full-scale butchery of my current word-farm.


    I outline before I start by knowing the probable ending or at any rate an ending I’m heading for – it could change though hasn’t done so far. And I know what the midpoint or turning point will be – the tightening up when the main character(s) are stuck with what’s happened and have to deal with it in a focused way. This applies to short fiction as well as novels. In my current novel in progress there are three characters whose stories are seen from their own points of view. They each have a midpoint in their own stories. All three stories have to weave together so I had to plan roughly how and when this would happen.

    That’s pretty much it on the planning front, though I did decide geography early on. Where do the three characters live and how does that affect their trajectories? Two live together, which makes life easier, but that relationship has to have its own dynamic or else it would be boring.

    The rest I make up as I go but that does include brief chapter plans and updating them as I firm up the story and check that it’s on course. Some of the timing of meetings and other events has changed as I’ve tightened the draft as a whole. This isn’t a particularly efficient way of doing things but it does prevent me getting bored. It means there is still plenty to think about though several rounds of edits. The aim of the edits is to reach the point where all I’m doing is improving the sentences, phrases and the occasional word.


    I used to begin with a conversation between two characters and spread from there. One book I was ~20K in before I knew who would die, and a further 20K before I knew who did it. Even so it turned out to be someone else.

    Now that those characters have become so familiar and the twists and turns of their lives compelling enough to become a series, they are easy to write, but for each new novel I need to have a new central story, with new characters. Now on the fifth one, and knowing how much lack of planning leads to it literally taking years longer than it ought, I have tried to forward plan and streamline, but my current struggles are showing me I am unable to improve.


    I normally have a character and and end in sight when I start. Apart from that, I don’t do much planning at all – my brain simply doesn’t work like that. I’d love to be more organised, but personally it’s stifling. I am full of admiration for peeps who do the whole character file/in depth plot/post-it scene arrangements etc!

    I do a lot of on-paper working out though – first drafts are always handwritten in a notebook, with extra thoughts/ideas jotted down as they occur but slipped into the right place later. I still have issues along the way, but I’d rather try to resolve them having gotten familiar with my characters/world than trying to think about it all up front!


    I start with the basic premise and the characters, and let the plot unfold as I go. I once learned at a writers’ conference that it makes a lot more sense to outline the whole thing in advance, and I agree with that, but it’s never worked that way for me. I can’t nail the thing down, it wants to take off in another direction once I’m writing it. It’s like the story’s not fooled; it won’t come out unless I’m actually in the process of putting words down.

    Inevitably I hit roadblocks, so I stop and brainstorm where to go next. Before long I always hit upon some idea that excites me, and I run with that.

    Hope this helps. I’m currently up to my neck in one of my own word farms!!!


    I start with a name – a character who rattles a stick along the boundaries of my subconscious. Someone who, when I am not looking, will sneak through a gap in the railings and broadcast snippets of conversation to pique my interest. If this character stalks me when I am walking the dog, or when I’m driving, then I might allow him/her free-write time, in which I sit with a notebook and pencil (always a pencil, never a pen) and splurge words onto the page. (My inner critic invariably has no interest in this stage of proceedings and I can safely leave him in the potting shed with his pelargoniums).

    I consider myself more of a pantser than a plotter, but experience has taught me that I do need to know:
    Who my character is at the start and who I expect him to be at the end.
    What triggered this change?
    Why now?
    Obviously, the how, when and where are important, but I figure if I know more about my character’s motivation etc, I have a better idea of what obstacles I can put in his path and how best to upset his equilibrium.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 10 months ago by Seagreen.

    The starting point for every book has been different for me and my process has changed as well. I used to plan very little but now I do try and start with the main thrust of the plot clear in my head otherwise I risk wandering too far down interesting paths that lead nowhere. But I need the actual process of writing words and sentences to stimulate all the other ideas so after a period of trying to plan sensibly I still launch myself into a first draft and see where it will take me!

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 10 months ago by JaneShuff.

    In every case I have started with a main character, a beginning, and end and a rough idea of how to get to the end.

    However, my characters have a way of bossing me around.

    In one novel the guy gets the girl, but as I wrote it became clear that the girl was wrong for him and I then had to write a sequel getting him out of that fix (eventually the two were amalgamated because volume 2 was too reliant on volume 1 to be a stand alone). During the process a character who originally had only one throwaway line became vitally important and will be heavily involved in any sequels.

    In another the girl and boy ended up together despite the odds and it took more than one reader to tell me this was nuts and the girl needed someone else. I’m currently tweaking that ready for a submission round.

    In one languishing mid-way I know exactly what happens and my characters are being compliant. Since the work is currently in the doldrums I’m not sure if it’s a good thing.

    In another I have outlined but only written the first chapter for, the story is fully formed but there’s enough wriggle room for the characters to express themselves so it will be interesting to see how that pans out.


    This is about as not stupid a question as I can think of. In essence it’s ‘how do you write’. The supposed divide (classically) is between pantsers and plotters. Plotters, apparently, plan every detail, before they begin. Every chapter and plot point is set out. If a chapter should end with a challenging hook, then it’s there in the plan. Once the plan is complete, the writing can begin – and not before.

    I have seen suggested techniques which start with a single sentence describing the story overall and then jump into a process of adding and splitting until the story is completely outlined. Other techniques attempt to locate every challenge and require a sequence of events that must define a challenge before it can be complete.

    Pantsers, so called because they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, plan nothing. They start with (maybe) a rough idea and (perhaps) a character and then let the muse guide them. Every sentence is a surprise and at the end, the pantser sits back and regards the 120K words with an exclamation of, ‘Well, who would have imagined that?’.

    Most people who write have bits of both to lesser of greater extents. I’m on the pantser side of the scale with a sneaking feeling that I should plan more. Actually, this sneaking feeling is more like a desperate need at the moment. Several people have described the problem of pantser methods leading down interesting, but misguided paths. I’m afraid that my methods, more and more, are leading me down dull and irrelevant dead-ends.

    Andrew Bruton

    Thank ‘insert deity here’ you have wrestled with the same issues I’m facing. It’s wonderful to feel that others have toyed with the various types of writing and that I can see some of my own struggles being described in almost the same way I view them.

    I love the ‘plantsing’ because it goes some way to alleviate my fears that I’m caught between two awesome pillars of truth whereas now I feel I’m able to enjoy both pillars and not risk falling off either of them. I am becoming more and more aware of the need to re-write my entire novel and I’m even starting to become less frightened of the idea of shelving it completely. The only reason I’m not too keen on shelving it is that it may serve as an excellent vehicle for playing with plot, character, show, tell, hide, warble, waffle and regurgitate.

    Having listened to Philippa East’s webinar recently (and having read her book now – nice nod to the Den in the back I see) I can see her journey a little more clearly and how my own lexical garbage compares in many different ways. I can see the value of the structure in the novel and that will be the subject of my next forum question I think.

    I am absolutely loving how honest and open and generous you all are with your thoughts on this. It is keeping me motivated and I’m enthused to try out new things and take some risks with what had become a sacred text (the unfinished half-draft of my directionless dark comedy about male depression) but is now a play-thing I can use for my own amusement and which, one day, may lead to something that I can safely polish without it smelling as if I have trodden in something.

    I am grateful to Philippa not only for her webinar but for mentioning the Den. I am delighted to be a few paces further along my journey than a few weeks ago. Thank you all.

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