Do fiction authors fully plan their story before entering the first keystrokes of chapter one? In other words, do they have a clear ‘storyboard’ mapped out chapter by chapter before they allow their creative juices to start flowing?
I’m sure many of them do, but I like to think that many more allow themselves the freedom to be taken where the story leads. I’m firmly in the camp of those who fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to writing. And I make no excuses for it.
Yes, there has to be some kind of pre-planning and pre-plotting, but don’t let anybody out there kid you into believing there’s an overall formula for writing novels. The plain fact is that there isn’t one. Authors are individuals and will do it twenty-ways-from-Sunday differently than the guy next door. It’s good to learn from all the preferred methodologies but there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all model to help the budding author. SEE MORE AT:

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Excellent, Jack!  You'll enjoy this!  And that will mean a better book.

I'm currently in the second draft of my first novel. Mine started with a plot that I'd sketched out on a piece of A4 paper in longhand. After that, I wrote a few key points on a Word document and then got started. 

Last week, I completed my first draft. I knew there were some sketchy bits and that I had to insert a lot more to make the premise stand up. I started the second draft and rewrote quite a bit, then started scribbling questions on paper as I did so -- how would the killer have done that? I don't want this bit to be obvious but it needs to be referred to in passing so that later on, when it becomes mentioned, it's not just out of the blue - how? etc. It seemed such a task and I feared that I would end up with a ream of scribbled-on, twisted notepaper with coffee stains all over them, clogging up the dining table. 

A few more chapters along, remembering an interview in The Paris Review with James Ellroy I realized that the point had arrived at which I needed some kind of outline, so I decided to look at each subsequent chapter and write one. So I set to work, writing the chapter number, summarizing key points that happen in one colour, what I want to happen in another colour, and how to do it (e.g. "insert another chapter here from the perspective of Character X") in a third colour. 

This is working for me -- for now. But I arrived at this organically. I had to get out all my ideas and follow the plot, just to get it all out. It was only then that I could structure it more.

When I write a second novel with the same detective characters, which I plan to do (one great thing about writing is the sheer number of ideas that crop up for other stories while you're writing this one!), I might well follow Ellroy's example. 

I don't follow the structure slavishly, though -- my imagination works overtime while I tap away at the laptop and I can work in other elements as they arise. It's a bit like the chord changes in a jazz piece -- they are there as a guide but the soloist can improvise over them with any combination of notes he or she sees fit, provided it's within the scale/mode from which each chord is formed.

In my huge experience of one book, I got to around page 200 and then much like John I found that I had a mess, and a struggle to get out of it.  I went back to the start and build up a chapter plan (somewhere between 2 paragraphs and a page per chapter), along with a character list.  It helped me hugely until the last two or three chapters when I realised that the original plan for the climax of the story no longer made sense.  On the plus side, the ending more or less wrote itself based on the way the storyline and the characters had developed.

I am now working on a second book, and have 2 or 3 other decent ideas, all of which have been roughly planned.  A friend of mine suggested Scrivenor as a tool - It does cost ~$40, but you do get a 28 day free trial, so you can try before you buy.  I have been using it for the last 6 weeks or so, and it really works for me.  

Matthew, I've heard good things about Scrivener. Those who use it swear by it.

I am a planner. like you did, I typically create a scene by scene outline, usually about a page long, detailing scene setting, who's in the scene, what happens start, middle then end, and jot down important notes (things I need to know or need to convey to the reader concerning that scene) This give me a thirty-five to forty-five page outline for a typical full length novel.

This is time consuming, but makes the actual writing of the scene go pretty quickly and prevents a lot of that re-writing "mess" others have talked about.

Now, with that said, understand, the outline morphs as I go along and about a third of the way through the writing, then again about two thirds of the way through I have to stop writing and adjust the outline to the new direction the story has taken as I write and come up with new ideas or discover the order of how things must go.

Working this way, I can usually get through a manuscript in only three or four drafts.


I'm wondering what aspects of Scrivener are helping in your writing process. I have the software, and use it for general writing, but I've never written a novel with it.

- Bob


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