Getting Started 3: Just start writing or develop a planned outline? Plan or Plunge?

The following blog appeared on my author website on 3 April and is re-posted here.

So, you’re ready to start writing. What do you do now?

Well, there are a couple of different schools of thought on how to proceed. You can do either of two things:

  1. Just jump right in. Sit down at your keyboard, or your desk, or whatever, and start writing, letting your creativity take you in whatever direction it wants, or following that kernel of an idea that’s been floating around in your head for some time.
  2. Start by doing a bit of planning, some storyboarding perhaps, or working up some notes on plot ideas or some characters you thought might work so that you have a stable platform with a number of these elements in place and ready for you to call upon before you start writing your story.

People sometimes refer to Option 1 as ‘plunging’, or ‘pantsing’ [i.e. just flying by the seat of your pants, so to speak]. Option 2 is sometimes referred to as ‘planning’ or ‘plotting’.

There is a lot of advice out there on which of these two is the best way to go.

Some will tell you that, especially for fantasy authors, planning is essential. How can you develop a coherent plot without a plan? How can the world your story is set in have any credibility if it hasn’t been adequately thought through? How can your characters seem real if you haven’t put some planning into aspects such as: what their character traits are, what are their flaws or their belief systems, what do they look like?

All of these are valid considerations.

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On the other side of the coin, many will tell you that planning is all very well, but this is a creative process, and you need to let your creativity flow. You need to give it free rein so that you can be at your best and can produce the very best material.

Also very valid!

The answer, in my view, hinges on two considerations:

  1. We are all different. And so, there is no one rule that applies. Some writers can’t get going without having done a fair bit of planning first. For those, the amount of planning varies. Some need at least a rough outline of where they would like their story to ultimately go before they start. For others, the planning phase can be quite extensive. After all, there is a whole fantasy world they have to build in which their story can then take place.
  2. What matters most, however, is what works best for you. Don’t try and force yourself to be creative with a blank piece of paper in front of you if that won’t work for you. On the other hand, if you work best just getting words down and then letting the planning and shaping follow, that’s fine too. Follow your instincts. Or try both approaches until you work out what works best for you. Don’t force yourself into a way of operating that doesn’t suit you. That, more than anything else, will stifle your creativity.
  3. Light bulb moment: the two approaches — plunging or planning — don’t have to be mutually exclusive! I consider myself a ‘planner’. And yet, when I think back to my first novel, although I certainly mapped out a basic structure for my story before I started, that structure, that plan, was neither comprehensive nor rigid. For me, I needed to have the basic idea of how the story would work before I could start, but, like most writers, once I got started, it began to go off in directions I hadn’t anticipated. The characters began to come alive, and I soon found that they had a mind of their own. That, in turn, began to impact on the direction the storyline took. The final story was different from what I had thought it would be

In short, my message is: don’t get hung up on whether to be a planner or a plunger. Follow your instincts and do what works best for you.

That having been said, for me, all good stories need a bit of planning. If you allow the plot to wander all over the place, then its readability can suffer. And if you have a couple of sub-plots going at the same time, it helps to have a sense of how all those threads are going to come together. Some people can do that as they go. I’m not one of those. I need to map it out a bit, even if the map later gets rewritten or revised!

You also might want to keep in mind the overall arc of your story. If you’re aiming for a novel of, let’s say, 90,000 to 100,000 words [this is just an example, novel-length can vary considerably], and you write 20,000 words for your opening chapter, you might have a problem, or at very least some wasted effort. Granted, its easier to cut material out than to add more later [an arguable statement, I know], but you do need to beware of taking too many side paths or, worse still, dead ends.

The fantasy genre has an added complexity that a story set in the modern world doesn’t. It’s called ‘world-building’. If you are going to set your story in a mythical world of some kind, then there are a lot of things you are going to have to decide, like: what is its physical structure and environment, what about its social and political structure, its religion[s], climate, vegetation, cultures, and so on. What sort of people live there? Are there elves, or centaurs, or talking lions, or flying wizards, or dwarves, or dragons, or all of the above? Is magic an element in this world and, if so, what sort of magic? How does it work and who can use it?

You have to make some decisions here. You could spend a lifetime just doing your world-building. At the other end of the scale, you could devise or build these elements as the story goes along. For most of us, the answer will lie somewhere along that spectrum.

Beware, however! Don’t fall into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never get around to writing your story.

One other potential trap of having no plan whatsoever is that you might end up with an impossible ending. Don’t paint yourself into a corner so that, in the end, the only way your chief protagonist can get out of whatever situation they have ended up in is to do something so unbelievable it undermines the credibility of all of the excellent work that went before it.

It’s because of issues like these that, if you read everything there is out there about which way to go, you’ll find the majority of ‘experts’ will advise you to plan or ‘outline’ first. Even though I’m a ‘planner’ myself, I think this is bad advice!

Certainly, consider all of the issues I have outlined above about potential traps of not having a plan. But, ultimately, I believe that your writing process should match the way you think.

Put more simply, ‘planners’ also tend to be ‘list’ people. They tend to be the sort of people who love To Do lists [that’s me!!!], for example. Does that mean everyone should love lists? Does that mean people who don’t have To Do lists will never get things done? The answer is a resounding ‘No’.

So let me reiterate. Don’t do what anyone else tells you to — including me! Do what works best for you. If you don’t know what that is yet, start writing and you’ll find out along the way. Enjoy the journey!

NEXT WEEK: More about world-building

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I have recently published a new fantasy series, Chronicles of the Ilaroi, over two volumes. Both books are now available in both Kindle and Paperback formats – Book 1: As Fire is to Gold and Book 2: When All the Leaves Have Fallen. Click here if you want to go to my Author Page on Amazon.