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On Planning (or, how to avoid writerly pain and suffering)

Sister Sal posed a question about planning last week, and I actually sat down to think about it. At heart, I believe in Goldilocks planning – you can do too much or too little. Do too much, and ailments can include drowning in detail, shoehorning, or pre-writing fatigue. Too little and stories meander, are inconsistent, are poorly structured or are never finished. (At least for me). So achieving the right balance is something I’ve consciously worked on, often borrowing from what I’ve read other writers do. So, here goes.

My planning face. Planning can be loathsome, but writing without planning is worse.

My process for short stories and longer works is really different. And writing and editing are totally different too (not going to touch editing here). I’ll talk about short stories first.

**Note – I mention quite a few stories in this post – some of them are published, the others are mostly in submission processes at the current time.

Short stories. Usually the idea for a short story is small enough that planning is done internally rather than on paper. I find that if I can’t conceive the story in my head, the idea is probably too big for a short and I’m going to end up writing (accidentally) a novella or a novel. If I find myself wanting to pull out paper to get something “straight”, it’s too big. The cusp for too-bigness seems to be around 9-10,000 words, which is good because that’s about the cusp for what’s considered a short story too. For example, ‘The Ship’s Doctor’ (which was 9,000 odd words) I had the concept idea in my head, but once I wrote to first transition, I had to get paper out to just plot out the rest of the events. I will say, however, that that story was structured like a novel (fully formed B/M/E) and most short stories, in contrast, summarise or imply big chunks of that structure.

Ok, so back to planning. Usually I need three things: the situation, the problem and some idea of when/where the resolution will occur (not necessarily how). The situation is broadly the character in their environment (a combo of character/context I guess). Problem and resolution are the two sides of conflict – moving from uncertainty about something to certainty. For example, with ‘The Message’, I knew the story followed Siah, a minor character from an earlier manuscript, in the same post-apocalyptic world, and that he was a near-outcast with a dangerous secret that could get him killed, or, kill everyone around him. The problem was being given a message that he doesn’t want to deliver, and the uncertainty as to why. I knew the story would resolve when Siah reaches the enemy Hold and meets someone else with the same secret. But when I sat down to write, I didn’t really have the in-between bits – I had two metaphorical towers: one the situation/problem, the other the resolution. I wrote to build a bridge between the two, and the exciting evolution of the set-up to enable the ending came with the writing. Similarly for ‘Parvaz’ – I knew the situation was a Roc with a broken wing transformed to human form in the thrall of a Djinn; the problem – he is tempted to kill a woman who comes to his shop, which could expose him; the resolution – he will get some freedom, but the ultimate freedom (flight) will always be out of reach.

I should also say that sometimes the elements (situation/problem/resolution) are not fully formed when I start writing and may get tweaked. But … If I get to the end of the first page without getting some clarity, invariably I get lost and end up with a heap more work (pain and suffering). For example, with ‘Tartarus’, I had the situation/problem easy: ex-honourable military man now in prison and given the chance to fight for release (and a memory wipe), sent to a very alien planet with an unusual squad who could get him killed first. But I didn’t have the resolution. And so I found myself writing and writing, and I got to 9000 words and thought, I better wrap this up. And it sucked. In the end, I had to completely overhaul it once I knew what the resolution was. I purged masses and ended up with a 6200 word story that actually hung together. That resolution part I find is actually critical to drive the conflict when writing (because you have to manoeuvre to get the ending set up), otherwise I’m just feeling around trying to see where the conflict is and it doesn’t work.

So, to Novels/Novellas. Completely different process for me. The idea is bigger and more complex, so it can’t be done in my head and I know it shouldn’t be done as I go because that will only lead to inconsistency and frustration (pain and suffering). But I think the important point for me is that, with the exception of characters, I don’t plan substance, I plan scaffold. I don’t want to know ahead of writing a scene the details of exactly how something happens, I just want to know the boundaries – what needs to happen and any limits. This is an ugly analogy – but I think of it like the shape of the cake tin. When I do get to writing, the actual words are batter that fills the tin. They are the flavour and texture, but without that tin even beautiful prose has no shape; it just goes everywhere and no one gets a cake (or, tasty story).

So, I get an idea. And it might be a setting, it might be a character, it might be a few things. I get the index cards out. I use the cards for two things – characters and scenes. So, one card per character, one scene idea per card (and keep the two separate). So, now, with what I already know I’ll put down some things about the characters (and I usually only do this for the major characters, otherwise it gets unwieldy). I only write bare details too – the stuff that has formed that person as they are in the story (this is scaffold, or cake tin stuff). So, if their parents died young, I put that down. Had a friend betray them? Yes. But I don’t give a crap what their favourite breakfast is, or really what they look like (except where that affects their life) … all that detail is part of the batter.

At this stage, I’ll start writing ideas for scenes, one per card. Not in order, just ideas for things that could happen. I *try* to express them so they capture what conflict/uncertainty the scene serves (so, ‘Daniella discovers the truth about Jamie’s father’, rather than ‘Daniella works in the clinic’) and I only ever write a single line. It’s not the time for details. Cake tin only. It’s an iterative process – you think of scene ideas, sometimes that generates character ideas, or arc ideas. I will often keep a separate piece of paper for brief notes about the arc – where the story will eventually end up and what the mid-point crisis might be, and the ‘darkest hour’ (second transition). But often these things evolve from the scene planning – I don’t have to get there first. When I’m getting a good stack of scene ideas (about 40 maybe), I sit on the floor and start putting them into three areas – beginning, middle, end. And then again, within those, I move them around to a rough order. And more ideas will come, so I write them down and fill gaps with them, and move them around.

Our last writerly retreat – three of us working with index cards on the floor. Am I using a dressing gown belt and scarf to separate beginning/middle/end? Yes I am.

I stop this process once the arc seems bedded, that is, when there’s a good number of scene cards (60+), and the initial problem (first trans), mid-point crisis, darkest hour (second trans) and resolution point are present. Then I move to the actual writing, and macro-planning moves to micro-planning. I will only ever plan details for 3-6 scenes in advance (perhaps setting, who’s present, and broadly what will occur. That’s as far as it goes). This is because the writing of the story generates little details, nuances, and connectedness (objects, sentiments or themes) that you need to be able to carry through.

Too much rigid planning in advance can stop that process because it tends to make me want to ignore those ‘consequences of the storytelling’ details, which are actually what makes the story good. For example, The Q Line was a constant shoehorn effort to make it into a story it wasn’t, and it sucked. The Butterfly Blade was written with the process above (not on index cards, but the same idea) and it was actually more enjoyable to write. Same with Razor’s Ridge. Plus, the process allows me to write very fast and very clean because I always know the path ahead. Not what I’m going to see, but the path at least. I can also be incredibly precise about how much I can write in a timeframe.

So then with a few details down, I write the scenes – and often, things occur in the writing that planning brain couldn’t generate. New characters can crop up, unexpected conflicts, etc., which all seem to come organically from how the story is being told. Then, I can go back to the scene cards and tweak them with those details in mind if required. I write from beginning to end. I do not skip scenes, ever. The first draft is complete (but not the last).

Of course, all this doesn’t avoid editing. But it does make it easier. And some projects seem to form more easily than others. The Butterfly Blade, ‘The Ship’s Doctor’, ‘Jack’, ‘Deep Deck 9’, ‘Parvaz’ and ‘The Two Boys’ were written nearly fully formed – very little changed in them structurally in subsequent edits. Then again, Razor’s Ridge, ‘The Message’, and ‘The Seven-forty from Paraburdoo’ had big structural changes despite planning. Painful edits. But that’s just different stories I guess, and I’ll be interested to see in another 5 years if I’m still using the same process.