Select Page

Here’s a great post from by pal Harry Marks, discussing the difference between writing a novel by the seat of your pants and plotting it out in-detail before beginning.

Both methods have created amazing results. For example, Marks mentions how J.K. Rowling planned all of her Harry Potter books ahead of time, grids and all (see an example here). On the other side of the table, J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of letting the story and characters in his masterpiece guide their own destiny. The point, here, is that neither method is superior.

How do I do it? I tend to be a bit of an obsessive-compulsive planner. I blame things like timelines and cohesiveness, but I also like to see the ideas grow from a seed. When I write a novel, I follow this simple (in theory, of course) process:

  1. Write a 1-sentence summary of the story I want to write.
  2. Expand that sentence into two. Then a paragraph.
  3. Then each paragraph gets broken into individual sentences, which I massage into paragraphs of their own.
  4. I do this until each paragraph holds the plot summary for each chapter.
  5. Those chapter summaries get pasted into Scrivener (each goes on it’s respective chapter document) and guides my writing as I do.

A couple of benefits that this method provides for me:

  • • Nothing is set in stone. If the story dictates a change, I make the change. I actually think I can stay more flexible, not less, because I have a plan to deviate away from, rather than
  • • The long summary document is perfect for keeping at-hand. For this, like Marks, I tend to have an “active book” note in Evernote that I make corrections and additions to as I write. It syncs across all my devices, so I’ve always got the most up-to-date plot at my fingertips.
  • • It helps me know how long of a race I’m running. When you go for a road trip, it’s nice to know how far you are going to have to drive. It influences how you pack and how much fuel you buy. Knowing ahead of time how many chapters my book is going to have, and knowing how many words per chapter my writing style tends to fall on (me: 3,500-4,000 typically), allows me to guess at a word-length for my books. If I have 20 chapters, my book is going to be around 70,000 words long. Knowing this helps me pace myself and stay focused on finishing the book. Most would-be writers never even finish their books, so I’ll take whatever help I can get!

Personally, I think every novel should be thought through before writing begins. I understand the desire for flexibility, and inspiration does have its place, but no story is a good story without a good ending. To know of the story is worth writing, I think an author should have a full grasp of how the story might end. Will foggy details become more clear as you write more and more of the book? Sure. But your readers want a cohesive story that makes sense and leads them somewhere, and that’s where planning comes in.