Why Plan Your Novel?

Monday, June 13, 2011
All of you pantsers out there have probably asked this question, "Why should I waste time planning my novel?" You may have even stated, "I could never spend all that time on outlining my novel or doing character studies. I just write what comes to me." This is a fine and dandy way to write a novel. Poll 100 successful novelists, and a large majority of them will state they write by the seat of their pants.

But one thing I've discovered lately while teaching the writing the middle grade novel class for WOW! is that doing a little pre-writing really does help your novel. It, at least, makes the turmoil of getting your first draft down on paper a little easier.  Student after student has written to me and said that they enjoyed the weeks of pre-writing, they felt they knew their characters and plot better, and they actually had new ideas for subplots. 

What type of pre-writing did we do? It's nothing groundbreaking. We spent a week discussing our favorite middle grade novels and why they are our favorites. During this week, students wrote a summary of their novels like it would appear on the back of a book jacket. This exercise made writers focus on who and what their story was about. 

Next, we did a character study on the main character and an important minor character. I let students choose what type of character study to do, as I feel some writers need to answer questions to build a character like, "What's her favorite food?" or "What's a happy childhood memory?" Other writers build characters better if they can write about them in paragraphs with prompts such as, "What are your character's hobbies?" or "Who is in your character's family?"

Finally, the middle grade writers in my class made a list of problems or issues a child the same age as their main character could have. We shared these lists with each other, and then students created an external problem, an internal problem, and subplots. Once all these pre-writing activities were completed, writers started chapter one. 

So, why plan a novel? I wasn't convinced that it was a good idea before I started teaching this class. But now, I believe it makes a novel easier to write. I believe we'll have less backtracking later on. I believe we'll know our characters inside and out.
But what do you think? And do you have any methods that work best for you?

Margo L. Dill teaches the online class, "Writing the Middle-Grade Novel" for WOW! Women On Writing, which starts Monday, July 25 and lasts for six weeks. To see the syllabus and sign up, please visit the WOW! classroom page. Margo's first middle-grade novel will be published by White Mane Kids. To find out more, visit Margo's website, www.margodill.com. 

photo by Pink Sherbert www.flickr.com


JW_Firth said...

Hi, yes, seat-of-the-pants writing is good fun and can get a better result than something carefully planned. I think you do need a general idea of what is going to happen and to plan characters carefully, though.

Margo Dill said...

I think you are right--even seat-of-the-pants writing has a general direction it is going, even if it is not officially written down.

Maybe the answer is that if you have a plan and the characters decide to go in a different direction, you should let them. :)

Erin E. Nunnally said...

I think a lot of writers (particularly new writers) confuse free writing with drafting, and there's such an important distinction there. It's so wonderful to be able to just let go and get your ideas down on paper, but I agree with you that doing some more formal pre-writing does help a story take shape. I love to take my crazy free writing and go back and highlight things and take notes on that. It really helps me get started and makes it much easier for a draft to take shape! And I am a big fan of character sketches as well. There are so many details about a character that can influence how they make decisions and unless the writer is aware of those, characters can turn out a bit inconsistent!

iamdyingtowrite said...

I do seat-of-the-pants writing for journaling and such. For short stories and even my novel (in progress) I use a storyboard. I love the visual impact it gives my planning and have even taught workshops on using the storyboard technique. www.1wingheART.com

Heather said...

[Hangs head in shame]...Hi, my name is Heather and I am a pantser. I love the freedom seat-of-the-pants writing allows my characters to take me and the story. I use minor "structure" techniques like bubbling and the one-word-trickle-down-pyramid. But that's it. I think I might be allergic to outlines. Just sayin'.

Rick Drescher said...

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I use the 'seat of the pants' approach when I do a short story. Now that I am working on a novel I'm thinking I should outline it. I have thought about setting up a white board an putting down all of the things I want to have in the story. That way they are there in front of me without having to search for them. Thanks for this.

Margo Dill said...

I don't think you need a formal outline, per say. I just think it's important to do some serious thinking and maybe even note taking before you start writing or at least seriously writing. There's all different methods, just pick one and get busy. :) The most important thing is ABC (apply butt to chair!)

Unknown said...

I don't do outlines - I like the freedom of seat-of-pants. I'm halfway through my first novel, though, and I'm thinking that I definitely need to prepare more before I start writing. Pre-writing seems more in-line with what I'd like to do.

LuAnn Schindler said...

I don't like to outline on paper. Always have an outline in my head, though. I do think planning for characters is an important step. You can't always create a character on the spot. How do you give that person depth? Planning. Calculating.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, I couldn't write without having a general idea of where the story is going and who the characters in it are. In the spirit of "write what you know", I first have to figure out what is the story, and only then can I write it. So I HAVE to outline!

However, to counter the usual pantser's argument that I must therefore be rigidly blind to inspiration, the outline is always a vague collection of plot points, character and world descriptions, with varying level of detail. Sometimes a scene comes to me and I write it out, other times it's a series of bullet points, and sometimes I just write "and then a miracle happens" to indicate where I will need to figure something out later. In a way, my "pants-ing" is done during this outlining process. When I get the story about halfway outlined, I've also pretty much figured out where it all is supposed to end up. Then I start writing.

The other thing that drives me to do an outline is that I CANNOT STAND to do major revisions. It just kills me to have to throw out a substantial portion of my story because only after I wrote it did I realize the path it's on has no way out. Writing is just too damn hard to have to throw half of it out. The outline allows me to figure out if the main story has a solid frame. I don't mind adding and removing subplots as necessary, but there's no way I'm going to detail out scene after scene if I don't know that the story plot is solid.

After all the advice I've seen and read, it's clear that every writer has their own method. Each of us have to discover what methods work for us. Because no amount of preaching from a pantser will ever convince me that it is a method that could work for me, the reverse is undoubtedly true as well.

Margo Dill said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. You do have to do what works for you and different things will work for different people. But I think in general, it is always good to try a new method now and again to spice things up. You never know what could make your writing even better!


Lyndia Titus said...

Every woman understands the hardships that they must undergo when dealing with the effects of their menstruation. But I, however, learned the hard way while walking to class one day. I discovered that I was having emotional difficulties coping with the everyday norms, for example: if someone talked to me in a certain tone; I would cry uncontrollably. After that mishap, I decided to get over my fears and consult with a Gynecologist. The Gynecologist diagnosed me with P.P.M.D, which clarified a lot of my hormonal outbursts. The only method that would help me control my emotions was to write down any creative thoughts that came to mind, and this is how “I Got Kicked Out Heaven Because Of My P.M.S” came about.


Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top