Do you plan?

I entered into a discussion about planning on another forum, and it turned out to be more controversial than I had thought. So, to what extent do you plan your writing? And, how important do you think planning is?

Depends on the writer. I've read of well-established authors planning everything out before they so much as put pen to paper; flow-charts, character interactions, synopsis of events--and I've heard of authors refusing to plan anything, just riding by the edge of their seats.

I will say, it's often easy to tell when a writer has made extensive planning (see Zelazny versus, say, Asimov--it's clear Asimov knows *precisely* where he's going, where it's just as clear Zelazny has *no clue* where the fuck he's going to be by the next page); I won't say which is better, because I don't know (both authors are among my favorite sci-fi writers).

EDIT: I will add that Asimov seems (to me) more consistently great, while Zelazny is hit or miss--this is probably a product of thorough planning versus seat-of-your-pants style writing.

I agree with Robert above that the situation amongst well-known authors is vary variable and I imagine there are plenty who sit in between the two categories, planning some things, not planning others. For myself, it depends what I'm writing and how I feel about it. I quite enjoy writing without much more than a general idea of what I want to write - it becomes a voyage of discovery and this has certainly been the case with some of my longer project, including my web fiction series, 'Shadow'. In that I only have some character ideas, some set pieces I want to include and the rest is very much dictated by the characters and the world itself - I kind of let 'Shadow' shape itself. The result is entertainment, but not really great literature - which is not to say that such 'winging it' can never produce great literature, or that I would if I planned more.

In contrast, when I write a short story I tend to plan alot more - I usually divide it into parts and work out what needs to happen in each, but even then I allow for it to take a different direction if that proves neccessary, or some other inspiration hits whilst I'm crafting the piece. I usually have an ending in mind, or a specific epilogue for these works and it's very satisfying to put all the pieces together along the way so that final picture is as I had planned it. It doesn't always work out that way, but that's okay, because sometimes it turns out better.

In retrospect, I should add: I don't actually know if Asimov planned. I expect he did, but I could be wrong. His stuff *reads* like he had a plan, but maybe he was just an exceptional proof-reader.

I am more interested in hearing how this topic was controversial! I would think everyone would agree it's an individual process, and what works for one person may not work for others?

I think it's "controversial" because authors like their method, see examples of writing they don't like with someone else's method, and therefore decide the other method is "wrong." I don't know if any of you have noticed, but writers tend to be opinionated. ;-)

I plan but not on paper, at least not initially, though when I do settle on worldbuilding information I make a note of it and save those notes. And I don't completely plan, I have a general framework of what I want to happen and while I'm writing I look for more fun things to pile in. Then after the first draft I look at what I have and decide if it needs more or less.

For example, in Pay Me, Bug! there's a scene in act two where our heroes are trying to escape a hospital that has been locked down by the local government, and in the original version they manage to steal and vehicle and wind up involved in what boils down to a very public car chase. At the end of the day I took that out because I decided it was too much (even though it had probably my favorite line in the entire story). Also, there's a scene where the protagonist and his crew have to put down a mutiny on his ship, and when I first wrote it, it took place while the ship was actually sitting in a spaceport, because I thought it was hilarious to have a mutiny inside in a parked spaceship. At the end of the day, though, I decided it worked much better to have the mutiny take place in orbit around the planet so I rewrote the chapters leading up to and away from it.

In one of the works I'm going to do next, I focused on writing the main story only, and it came out to about 55-60,000 words, but when I went back through it I found places where there needed to be more information and texture on the world, so I'm coming up with side stories that will flesh out the protagonist and his cohorts by having them interact more with society.

Then there's a third project where I have the general idea of each act worked out and I know how it will end, but I don't have anything more than that. This one is more challenging and I'm only eight chapters in on the first draft, because I've reached a point in act one where I'm not quite sure how to progress to get to act two. Ah well. I'll work it out eventually.

I tried outlining fiction a couple of times. For me it's a great way to kill a novel dead before I even get to page one. A handful of ideas and a cryptic scribbled note on the back of a used envelope are the extent of my planning.

When I write, in spite of the fact that it's all put online, it's mostly written for me. So planning it out sucks a great deal of the fun out of it before it even gets written... I mean, I know how it's going to end, then, right? But I try to, at least, know "whodunnit" before I start writing, or have a general sense of what I'm trying to accomplish with the story (I mostly write serialized fiction), but I don't want to know what characters are going to be involved, how or what impact it will necessarily have on their lives.

I'd rather for that to come organically.

Yes, it can make it harder, but it's also, if you'll forgive, funner.

Years ago I planned out a three-novel series with exhaustive precision and details. Hundreds of pages of outlines and ideas, plots and character descriptions, etc, etc, etc. And all of those hundreds of pages of outline remain nothing more than outline... it's like my brain was satisfied that the story was out of my head, and there was nothing left to do. When I go back and read those outlines, for me, that's the story. It tells me what happened... why bother filling in the narrative when I know everything already? I could hand you my outline and you would be sufficiently informed as to go "oh, so they got the ring to the fiery mountain... nice." (okay, so there's no fiery mountain, but you catch my drift)

@ M.C.A. Hogarth - it got a little controversial because of me (I think). I made a sweeping statement - something to the effect of "all good writers plan" so ahhh, I was a little shut down by this. I now understand that it is not true, that in fact, as everyone here has demonstrated, we all have different approaches. My approach involves quite a lot of planning, I need to have a pretty good understanding of what I will write before I write it ... see, I can't help wondering if MadHacktress had written that "planned out ... three-novel series with exhaustive precision and detail" (see post above) whether it would have been brilliant because of its brilliant planning. Just a thought.

I imagine that if she didn't enjoiy writing it, it would not be a great read either. I sympathise alot with her position as, again, I also write primarily for my own enjoyment - of course I want others to enjoy it too, but if I'm not enjoying what I'm writing, then it's usually not much good and sometimes knowing how it's all going to work out spoils that fun. I've also tried planning out a novel before and just like with Aderyn, once the planning was done I wasn't all that interested in writing the story any more. For another writer that would have been the first step to something more accomplished, perhaps, but for me it was just the nails in the coffin.

My answer is "yes and no."

With "No Man an Island" I meticulously planned certain things -- certain characters are archetypes, so I created their personalities with traits that would demonstrate some of their archtypal features but let them still be "real people" in their roles. I gave them symbolic names, and that took research. Symbols and events and certain props and settings also have symbolic meaning, so all of that had to be worked out ahead of time.

But while events can be planned, and even some character traits, I find that I can't really plan dialogue or characterization. Entire conversations and actions will occur because a character starts "speaking" or "doing" things I hadn't planned, and the story shifts because of it -- but it's a natural outgrowth of who they are and what they've been through.

I liked that organic element in my writing, wherever it came from, so with "The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin" I had a much looser structure. I had a point A and a point Z and a lot of freedom on how to get from one to the other. I'm constantly tying things back in, but my characters are constantly surprising me. The villain, Zebediah, inserted himself into the story (he had been meant for a different one in the back of my head) and took over the plot. Right now one of the narrators, Dahlia, pretty much shocks me everytime she makes a decision.

I plan, but only within certain limits.

I think through:

1. the initial situation

2. the ending (to a degree)

3. the general outline of the story

4. many of the major characters

I don't plan:

1. each individual scene and its outcome (though I know why each scene is there and where it's supposed to go. It's just that given characters and situation, some scenes can't go where I initially intended)

2. for each character (some have grown more important than expected)

Generally, I have an outline that I continually revise, often adding details when I know how something came out.

I tend to let the story grow organically from character choices as much as plot, and so some sections don't happen as I expected them to. Often, I suspect, they're better for it as it often takes a little reflection to understand what choice a character might make.

I don't know if you've ever heard the saying, "No plan survives contact with the enemy?" I prefer not to waste my time planning specific parts that won't ever get written, and concentrate on a more general outline.

I plan some, but not tons. I have notes scribbled down for future events, mostly for the sake of foreshadowing or keeping myself straight, but as a general rule, I don't do a ton of planning. The story (and the characters) take me where they want to go.

I'm learning a bit more about story structure. I used to be a complete pantser and the one story I had a full outline for died on the vine because I got bored.

That said, the learning about story structure is helping me by planning plot points (I'm doing this on my current WIP, not my linked story here). On this one, I planned my hook (ie opening), inciting incident, pinch point, and climax. I also have an idea of about how many words I want between each of those points. I think it's helping me keep things on track as I go. I'm also creating a list of 10 things for my characters to do/happens in my story that my goal is to keep at 10 things (at least until I get into the resolution).

It's not a tight plan, for me if you think of it as a road trip by learning about story structure, what cities I plan to pass through and what freeways I need to go on, but I don't plan every where I'm going to stop to eat along the way or where every rest stop is or even all the little side roads I might detour on. As long as I have a good sense of direction or a good idea of the arc I want my story to follow I should be all right.

What I have to plan is theme. The part that can surprise me is events, the 'story' as it unfolds, and I might have only a loose idea of how things are going to unfold- or have that totally disrupted by events, and be fine with that.

It's theme and character growth that I have to plan and nail down, because I see that stuff as the underlying things. I'm reminded of Douglas Coupland again- whether he plans or not, he's able to create profound effects out of seemingly meaningless events, and when you know what's happening you can work out how un-random the underlying themes are.

I don't think you can do that stuff by accident, and I think it loses effectiveness when you're not conscious of it. I got better at consciously pursuing it in subsequent books... it's like how the theme of LOTR is not 'good beats evil', or 'Sauron gets pwned', much less the events along the way. The theme is more like "Good people unflinchingly endure travail that will harm them"- Frodo claiming the ring for himself at the Crack of Doom isn't a sudden repudiation of the theme, it's the fullest expression of just how badly he's been harmed by the magnitude of his task.

In that sense, planning is not an itinerary of each little place you'll be, it's the GPS that lets you embark on detours without at all getting lost :)

@jinxtigr If that post had a Like I would click on it :)

While I can see the importance of a developing theme in a given work, I've never seen it as important enough to define or stress--if your story's theme can be boiled down to a single sentence, I actually think there might be something wrong.

There's an old zen koan I'm immensely fond of; a zen master is asked by a student what is the moral of a koan he has just given. The zen master responds: If the koan had a moral, the moral would be the koan. But it does not, so the koan is the moral.

Personally, When I plan I make detailed character backgrounds, setting details and a very very basic story arc. I've tried planning everything out in exacting detail, but I get bored very quickly with that.

I like to let the story develop on it's own. It doesn't work for everybody, but it's my process. The only problem I have with that is that the characters sometimes grow a mind of their own.

I will occasionally have a hard time getting the story back on track, but usually it turns out to be better for it in the end.

Generally I find myself planning mid-project most of the time. I'll start out with a fuzzy notion about the story or characters and if I end up writing it long enough I'll get to the point where I have to take a step back and plot things out. That's when extra documents start popping up in my writing folder with titles like "pertinfo" and "timeline" and "worldbuilding"... oh "worldbuilding.doc" how I detest you! Actually, not really. I found myself having fun making up cultural history for a fictional world and browsing Google images for landscape, architectural, and fashion inspiration. Really, Google is amazing. I think to myself, "I want the architecture to be, hmmmm, Arabian looking" and a little while later I've got actual not-half-bad descriptive passages based on images I've found on the web which will translate nicely into actual settings for my novel. Yay! Travel websites are a godsend.

I also find that with long term projects it helps to jot down basic information like character birthdates, so that I don't screw my continuity up. I wrote an entire chapter and said several time that a character was 15 years old, before going back, checking my already established timeline and realizing that he is actually 16. (Note to self, when you have years pass in a story, all your characters get older, not just the main character. Who'd have thunk it?) This is more keeping track of what I've already done than planning ahead, but it merges a bit because when I first stepped back to figure out characters' relative ages it helped me forecast what people would be capable of doing in the future.

As for the overall plot, I sometimes start out with some characters and a vague premise and just let myself be surprised from there, and other times I'd had an actual end plan. Funny thing about that, though, is that the ending has never remained the same. Once I start writing the story my ideas for the plot change many times before I get to the end. I have to let the story live and breathe and function for a while before I can determine the most fitting/satisfying ending. This is why hard-edged pre-planning or outlining will never work for me. When I run into plot problems or writer's block, I'll just muse on my blog or to myself privately about what is or isn't working about the way the story is going. It helps me sort my thoughts out.

Perhaps if you cannot boil your theme down to a single sentence, you also won't want or need to plan. On reflection, it's pretty funny- I struggle like hell to come up with the 'elevator pitch' for my books, but could easily do it in theme terms, every time. It would be skipping most of the actual events to do that, but maybe that's the point. Even the more obscure Kings of Rainmoor- you could say that one is "This guy thinks he will never be human" and all the events dance around that and the denoument's tied to it. It's a pretty weird theme, but explains a lot. The sequel changed to "...but he will still belong, eventually", still rather oddly expressed :)