On Writing – The Right Amount of Planning

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

I have certain planning/outlining traditions I like running through before really digging in for drafting a manuscript. I’ll usually draft a 15 to 20 page test of my premise, tone and setup for my plot to get a sense of the narrative space and voice my characters and plot will be existing in. Once I have that, I’ll edit and reread a half dozen times, share it among some friends, get feedback, and read it a half dozen more times.

My next step is usually an outline and character map. The former is exactly as simple as it sounds, the latter is a bit more fun. I set up a spreadsheet of roughly seven important/main characters, and I then ask certain questions of or about them pertinent to the story.

My prior project, Beneath the Wood, was set at a posh New England prep school. The questions I asked informed my characters within that context: what clubs are they in? What sport do they play? What dorm do they live in? What college are they going to? Intended Major? Actual Major? What socio-economic background are they? Etc. I’ll usually throw in a couple off the wall questions: favorite meal at the school cafeteria? Thoughts on morning assembly?

My current project, Five Talents, is very different. It’s set in Los Angeles. Most of the characters are recent college grads or in their thirties and forties. It’s about journalists, other LA denizens, and demons. So the questions I asked were: What’s their least favorite thing about LA? Favorite place to eat? Favorite way to spend a Friday night? Where would they take an out of towner? What is their feeling on the concept of eternity? What do they consider beauty?

My outlines aren’t as detailed as this blog might lead a person to think. I really hit on only the 3 to 5 “major moments” that move through the different acts of the story. Within that, I’ll have some secondary goals/events that need to happen for table setting and character placement, but between those milestones, I let the characters find their own ways there.

To an extent this is actually an endorsement of playing loose and fast with planning for a book. Certainly know your plot, your conflict, your heroes and villains and the resolution, but look at it as a mountain peak in the distance you’re hiking to with your cast. Let them choose their paths, let the landscape reveal itself to you as you walk with them. Explore different characters crossing paths in different ways in different places and times. Just know the checkpoints and the ultimate destination and allow yourself to be surprised along the way.

This leads to an overabundance of material usually. My rough draft for Beneath the Wood weighed in at 360 pages/225,000 words, but in that drafting certain characters I thought would have been cameos revealed themselves to have real potential. Characters that would have been passing sights on the path to the peak ended up joining the journey and I enjoyed developing them from set piece to recurring member of the main set. By the time I finished BtW, I had it down to 240/140,000.

I’m looking forward to the same journey with Five Talents. I have a cast of 3 devils, 3 humans, and a “something” that defies easy definition and I’m already enjoying that journey to the peak with them. Already characters are revealing themselves and the journey is a steady and comfortable one.

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