Planners and pantsers: outlining my novel

When I was a teacher I used to plan like mad. I would create whole unit plans that would cover 4 or 5 weeks of work, then break that down into a weekly overview and would develop detailed plans for each individual lesson. Planning really helped me work out what I wanted to include in my classes, as well as what I needed to include to reach particular teaching and learning objectives; it helped me stay on track when it was so easy to deviate or get distracted. I am a HUGE fan of planning, but I learnt really early on that the ability to throw the plan out of the window when needed is of equal importance to planning.

strategy planWhen I was still acquiring my teaching degree, during my teaching rounds, I took a class of primary students for drama. I absolutely love drama and was really excited about imparting this passion to these students. I followed my plan to the letter and failed to respond to the needs of the class…in that lesson I felt like I had killed drama and I was devastated. A valuable lesson for me to learn. Years later, teaching secondary boys, I quickly learnt that part of the fun of teaching comes from responding to the needs of the students. I remember teaching Shakespeare to year 10 boys only really interested in football, girls and music. When I took the time to discover a little about these boys, great things were achieved: two boys wrote and performed Shakespeare as a gangster rap; one talented musician put a soliloquy to music and performed it for the class, translating into chords in a way that he felt best conveyed the emotion of the speech; another two videoed a TV sport report based on the play we were studying. In the end, what they chose to do wasn’t important, but the fact that they engaged with the writing was.

So why am I telling you about my teaching experiences? Because I want to highlight the importance of planning and the equal importance of letting your plans go. Don’t be afraid to plan. Don’t be afraid to throw the plan away.

the-artistIn my short story writing, I rarely plan beyond a few vague ideas, but in writing a novel I have found a need to give planning a go because I was writing scenes out of order and didn’t have any idea of how to get where I was going. I knew there were things I needed to foreshadow throughout the novel, but having no idea of the order of the scenes I was writing meant I didn’t know when and where to put clues or if I was giving too much away too soon. I know I could fix this all up in the re-writing phases, but I figure if I can reduce the work on that end through a bit of planning, then all the better.

Never be afraid to try something new. If you are a ‘pantser’ and never plan your writing – give it a go. If you are a planner and have a particular way of planning – good for you – but don’t forget to try new methods.

Some methods of planning:

  • Dot pointed scene ideas: gives you an idea of direction and particular points you want to reach, of the chronology of the story; short and sweet, very brief, good if you are worried you will spend too much time on planning or afraid planning will impede your creativity.
  • Hard copy cards: good if you are like me (visual) and want to see things all together, to physically shuffle scenes around – use coloured cards. You can pin them up in an orderly fashion on a noticeboard or use the cards to create a massive mind map as some kind of new artwork on your lounge room walls! This allows you to focus on theme or character rather than following a linear story method. You can add pictures too (which actor would you cast in the roles of your characters?)
  • Detailed electronic planning in Word, Excel, or similar program. Including character profiles, scenes, chapters, etc.
  • Outlining programs – of which there are many. yWriter – free to download at Spacejock Software. I have no idea how this program works, but I think I’m going to try it out.

So why not give planning a go, but remember: don’t hold onto your plan so tightly that you stifle creativity.

Photo credit: Strategy plan

Photo credit: Artist tools

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