We all know the saying, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”. But in writing, there are as many views on this as there are writers – successful or otherwise. Some claim that an outline hampers the flow of the writing and is tantamount to trying to turn a novel into a mathematical equation; while others are equally adamant that navigating the plot, character development and themes of a novel without a plan is like trying to cross a continent without a map.
Well, there’s a lot more to writing a novel than just planning out a few chapters, and Lewis & Clark (or since I’m in Canada, Sir Alexander Mackenzie) will tell you it’s perfectly possible to cross a continent without a map, so I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.
I’ve planned both my nano novels, but in both cases I found myself wandering off the plan at various points. And that’s when it gets interesting. Following the characters and events that arise in the story can provide some of the best material, but it can also take you down dead-ends and tiresome tangents. Personally, I believe in going with the flow – cutting out the chaff is for editing – and if it’s the way the characters want to behave, it’s probably a more reasonable storyline than the one you had planned anyway. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you have two choices: 1) Stop, go back to the turning and take a different path (then cut out the bit that went wrong later) or 2) follow the dead-end, then work your way back to the plot through a new and interesting connector.
For example, let’s say you’ve planned a simple love story. Girl meets Boy. Girl falls in love with Boy. Boy falls in Love with Girl. The End. That’s your plan. Then, somewhere in chapter 4, Girl meets Boy2. Boy2 wasn’t even in the plan, but here he is and now that you’ve started writing,he seems like exactly the sort of guy Girl would like. So, follow the path the characters choose. Girl and Boy2 fall in love. Then, if things work out, it’s fine, stick with it. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you can either cut everything since Chapter 4 and cut Boy2 out completely, or have Girl have a massive row with Boy2 and fall into Boy’s arms, bringing you neatly back onto your plan.
All of which is a tangent of my own, to say that having a plan doesn’t mean being a slave to it, but it does help to make sure the story is balanced (Spending 15 chapters on Girl and just having Boy wander in for the epilogue might upset your readers), has a plot at all (What if you just rambled about Girl and never mentioned Boy at all? Not much of a romance!), and helps to alleviate the dreaded writer’s block (Because you always know what’s coming next).
So having declared myself to be a fan of planning and then going with the flow, I’m going to run a series of posts on just that subject. They’ll be interspersed with other posts, but keep an eye out if you’re interested. Even if you’ve never planned before and prefer to be a pioneer, you might find something that works for you. Even Mackenzie followed a river!