Do You Need to Plot Out a Novel Before You Start Writing It?
To plot out or not to plot out a novel with a manuscript outline has been on my mind this week because I’ve just returned to writing a new book after taking a break to sketch out the remaining chapters. This is the way I’ve always worked.
Image: Chris via Flickr
I get an idea for a book, and I think about it for a long time. Maybe months. I’m usually writing something else — finishing up the prior book — when the idea first starts to grow. I let it emerge willy-nilly without plucking out the weeds; just jotting down notes as they come to me, even if the notes start contradicting each other. (She’s a dancer. No! She’s an astronaut. She’s a dancing astronaut. She’s a teacher. She’s jobless.)
Sometimes I name the characters during this time. Sometimes I give them a temporary placeholder name knowing that I’ll change it when I know more about the book as a whole. Sometimes I pick the setting. Most of the time, I don’t. I’m just sort of dating the idea. It isn’t that serious yet.
And then it comes time to write the book. And I make the book a promise that we’re going to go steady. We’re certainly not engaged, but we’re not going to see anyone else for the time being. We’re going to enter into a monogamous writing relationship.
So I sit down and start writing. I write a first chapter and a second chapter. I get to the third chapter and take stock. Is this book interesting? Is it the sort of thing I’d want to read? Do I have the energy to finish it? Do I think it will go anywhere once I finish it? (Meaning: will it be published.)
Sometimes I realize that while it was a nice idea, and I really loved it while we were together, we’re better off as friends. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy my time with it, but I need to stop dating that book in order to try a different book relationship. No hard feelings.
Sometimes I realize that this book relationship is really developing, and I could see myself taking it to the next level: book marriage. I could see myself wedded to this book; taking care of this book day-in-and-day-out. But I keep that information to myself and give the book another three chapters or so to prove itself. Books are a saucy minx: they flirt with you and make you believe that they’re going to be there for the long-haul and then end up cheating on you if you don’t choose carefully. So I give the book another few chapters before I make a final decision.
And then one day, I get down on one knee and tell my book that I’m not doing a yoga pose: this is it. I’m proposing.
On that day, I set aside the book for about a week and plot out the rest of the chapters. I pull together all the notes I’ve taken and compile them into one outline. I move plot points around so I have a better arc. Novels move in four parts: stasis, catalyst, climax, and stasis. And all those little plot points also move in four miniature versions of those parts. I need to introduce them and set them moving and resolve them and create the new normal, for each individual plot point. You don’t want it rushed. You have to think about pacing.
I write and write until I have a chapter by chapter outline containing an overview of the scenes and bits of conversational text. My outline tends to be 15 – 20 pages long, single spaced. The one for the new book is 18 pages long. It starts out with a character list where I can dump facts about the characters as they come up. And a few overarching points I feel I need to remember as I sit down to write each day. And then after that, it’s a breakdown, chapter-by-chapter, of what I need to write.
I do it this way because I think it helps me to not get too committed to a project before I see if we work well together, AND it later enables me to walk away from the novel for days at a time and return knowing exactly what I need to write. Outlining the book isn’t planning the wedding: it’s planning the marriage.
I know there are people who can’t write this way. They either need to plot out the whole book before they’ve written a word (Plotters), or they need to just write by the seat of their pants (Pantsers). But this hybrid method works for me. Maybe give it a try if you find your novel is falling apart after a few chapters. It may not be YOU, the writer. It may be your novel. Because… you know… not every novel you date will become your life partner.
(Life partner is based, of course, on the life of the book. A writer marries many books in her lifetime. A book only gets one writer.)