Guest post: Writing your novel – how important is a detailed plan? by Rachel Abbott

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of novel planning is brought to you by psychological thriller novelist Rachel Abbott.

Writing your novel – how important is a detailed plan?

To plan, or not to plan? This is a contentious issue, I know. I have read several articles in which authors have said that for them, a plan is completely the wrong thing to do. They want to just go with the flow, and see where the story takes them. Fair enough – we all have our own ways of writing, and I would never claim to be an expert. I can only speak from my own experience of writing, and reading novels some novels in which it is apparent that there was no plan at all!

Much of the planning decision depends on two main issues:

  • how complex is the plot?
  • how good are you at holding lots of information in your head?

I love the freedom of being able to write without a plan, but in order to do that, I have to know every single detail of how the story fits together. In other words I need to write a plan in order to be able to write without one!

When I wrote Only the Innocent, I had an incredibly detailed plan. I had character profiles for everybody that contained a huge number of facts about their lives, and I had two timelines. One was a timeline of events, the other was a timeline of ‘secrets and clues’, stating when they were first mooted, and when they were revealed. The planning phase took as long, if not longer, than the actual writing (and the editing even longer – but that’s a different story!).

I created a sort of flowchart, showing what happened to each character before and during the action in the story, and I had a layout and images of all the key locations.

And then I started to write. By then, these characters were so firmly fixed in my head that I rarely had to refer back to my notes. I could see the house where Laura lived with her husband Hugo, and I knew exactly what was going to happen to her. So whilst maybe I didn’t actually write to a plan, it was the planning that had fixed every aspect of the story in my head, and continued to provide a check list for those times when I couldn’t remember precisely what month somebody got married or went to university.

Whether you write a plan or not, there are some mistakes in books that are unforgivable, and would be easily overcome by having a check list as a minimum. Without quoting a specific book, I was sent one to review recently. The author wrote well, and I found the characters interesting. It was chick lit (which I love when I want a break from thrillers) and not too complex on the plotting front. The main couple in the story were clearly having some problems. He was a control freak (and doomed to be dumped without a doubt). They were engaged in an activity – let’s say it was tennis. In the space of just ten pages we learned that the girl was concerned that her man had never seen her play tennis, and she hoped he would be impressed with her ability. We also learned that she had met him eighteen months previously. Then we learned that when he had last played tennis with her two years ago, he had been annoyed by how good she was (she beat him). I realise I don’t need to point out the flaws in this – but if she had just had a timeline showing when they met it would be obvious that this was nonsense. There were even discrepancies within a single day – they enjoyed an afternoon’s tennis and then they were having lunch. All of this is so easy to avoid.

What goes in the plan?

Everybody will inevitably have their own way of planning. Some people use post-its, some write out sheet after sheet of notes. I used a piece of software for my PC called Storylines for Only the Innocent. I loved the way I could write cards for individual characters and shuffle them around and the whole order of the story would change. But now that I’ve moved onto a Mac, I have bought Scrivener which is quite sophisticated, and up to now I love it. It doesn’t quite do everything I want, but it’s pretty close.

I am now in the planning phase of my next novel, and this is what I have in Scrivener at the moment:

Character profiles – these include the following sections:

  • photo (just an idea of how they might look, using images that I have found on the web)
  • name, gender, sexuality, age, date of birth
  • job
  • physical appearance
  • personality
  • likes and dislikes
  • greatest strength and greatest weakness
  • basic goal – what their goal is within the story
  • desires
  • past traumas
  • character secret
  • additional notes

Relationships

I think it is essential that the behaviour of one character in relation to another is consistent, and for this reason I create a grid of my characters. In this grid, I identify exactly what each of the characters thinks of each of the other characters. So if Ellie adores Max but thinks Charles is a pompous idiot, it is written down and I can make sure that my characters are consistent in their behaviour. When I am writing, I often refer to this if I am not sure how one character should respond to another.

Places

I have a page for each location, together with any images that I can find that show how the place looks – I currently have a stunning atrium dining room as a major focal point!

The notes to accompany the images might also include the season, sights, sounds, smells and unique features.

Research

All the research documents that I use are held within the planning software – either embedded or links. If I was planning in Word, I would add all of these as appendices.

Timeline

I employ two different methods of creating a timeline. The first of these uses a spreadsheet package. I create a row for each character and the timeline moves along the top of the sheet. First of all, I produce a timeline of their backstory – from when they were born to the current date. This shows the year (as a minimum) of all the major events in their life. Then I produce a timeline of the events within the story. I can write in the dates in which individual scenes occur, and I can play around with this so that it makes sense. It shows who is in each scene, and the date and time that it takes place. It also ensures that one person isn’t in two places at the same time.  I then transfer the scenes into my writing software, and I create a field for the date and time (if the software allows) or a note if I am just using a word processing package.

Plot points

Within each scene, several plot points will be revealed. These may just be hints “Ellie knew what Max was about to say, and gave him a sharp kick under the table.” Well Ellie might know what Max was going to say – but we don’t. I need to note this so that I can make sure that whatever blunder he was going to make is revealed at the appropriate point. Although a lot of these are pre-planned, I find that when I’m writing, things just spring into my head and so I need to keep a note. I usually keep these notes in a notebook, to be honest, because it is much easier to tick off each secret as it is revealed, and far simpler to check as I read through during the edit process.

Point of view

When I finished version one of Only the Innocent, I sent it off to be read by another author. It was a paid service, and she came back with a whole host of suggestions. One of these was in relation to point of view. She said that I was sometimes falling into the old ‘head hopping’ trap – ie looking at a scene from one person’s point of view, and then skipping to another. She gave me a tip, and that was to write at the top of each chapter (or scene within a chapter) whose point of view I was using so that I could never forget. I now make this part of the planning and not just the writing – so that I can make sure that if I am using several points of view within the book, there is some consistency.

This is just my way of planning. I would never claim that this is the right way, and I am open to any tips and suggestions. It wouldn’t work for everybody, but I have spent most of my working life with computers, and I need the equivalent of a flowchart to give me reassurance that there are no loose ends. I have been investigating flow chart programmes, but at the moment there is nothing with all the functionality that I would need (as far as I am aware).

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, and good luck with your writing!

Sounds good to me. Thank you, Rachel!

Rachel Abbott is the author of bestselling thriller Only the Innocent available for all ebook formats. Visit her website for more details, or go to Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

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9 thoughts on “Guest post: Writing your novel – how important is a detailed plan? by Rachel Abbott

  1. Patricia Gligor says:

    Rachel,
    Great post! I especially love the point you made when you asked the two questions:how complex is the plot? and how good are you at holding information in your head?
    When I first conceived the idea for “Mixed Messages,” I began to jot down notes which eventually became my chapter-by-chapter outline and “Character and Chronology” list. I wouldn’t dream of sitting down to write without those tools.
    The answer to your first question is: fairly complex and the answer to your second question: not good enough! I wouldn’t want one of my characters to have green eyes in one chapter (or novel in my series) and blue eyes in another!
    HI Morgen!

    Like

  2. Rachel Abbott says:

    Hi Patricia
    I’m glad you liked the post – I love some of the tools that are available to help as well. I don’t know about you, but I have scenes from the book going through my head all the time – and not necessarily in a logical order. So I jot them down as I think of them, and then use one of the tools available to make a note which I can slot in as and when it seems appropriate in the story.

    Nothing worse than a character than changes dramatically as a story progresses!

    Like

  3. Nicky Wells says:

    Hey Rachel and Morgen, what a wonderful post. I’m definintely a planner. Always have been, but now have to be as a matter of course rather than choice. With two young boys and a household to run, I have to snatch any moment for writing that I can. And that won’t be successful unless I have a masterplan so that I can quite literally dip in and out as I need to.

    I work quite similar to you, really, Rachel. I tend to create a handwritten, one-page flowchart with the major events. Then I use an enormously large sheet of paper (off one of the children’s rolls for their easel) to blow the flowchart out in great detail. I populate sections and chapters with coloured post it notes that, yes, you guessed it: I can move around, a bit like a jigsaw, if inspiration dictates. When I’m happy with that visual aid, I stick it on the wall. Funky wall paper in our house! Then I transfer everything of that enormous, colourful outline into a one page mini-synopsis for each chapter or key event. This also outlines locations, travel details, character details, links into character profiles, refers back or forth to other sections of the book, etc. In the event, that is my master blueprint, the golden guide that enables me to write in small chunks, wherever, whenever.

    Do I stick to the plan? In broad strokes, yes. In every detail, no. Y’all know how the story takes on a life of its own, characters evolve and introduce ideas that you haven’t thought of. But that’s easy to tackle with a ‘red thread’ that runs through it all.

    So with that… onwards to novel number 3! Lovely to hear from you Rachel, come back soon! XX

    Like

  4. acflory says:

    Ah Rachel you truly are a gem! I know this is going to sound a little odd but I’ve always thought that I was a pantster through and through. Yet reading your post caused a ‘road to Damascus’ moment when I realised that all of the timelines I’ve worked on and all the research and notes I’ve taken were…in essence an outline. Except that I tend to do everything backwards. Nonetheless the principle is the same and I really have to thank you for showing me the obvious 😀

    Like

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