Planning Your Novel—Guest Post by Mike Fleming

by Mike Fleming, @hiveword

TrailI enjoy mountain biking. It’s simultaneously exciting and great exercise. When I’m not worrying about breaking bones or dying it’s actually very peaceful and I get a lot of great ideas. While the trail in the image is not very picturesque it’s in my backyard so I ride it often. If you’ll notice, though, the trail just seems to drop off. Does it keep on going or is it a three foot drop off? 50 feet? Are there a bunch of rocks there? A nest of ticks? (I hate ticks!)

Cliffhangers are great for readers but for writers? Not so much.

Fortunately, on this trail I know where I’m going and what to expect when I get there. So, I know that I can pedal my bike as fast as I want and just fly along this section without worry. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s the same way with writing. Knowing where you’re going makes the whole process more efficient. More productive. Plus, you’ll spend much less time doing rework and untangling messes you’ve gotten yourself into.

Don’t believe me? How about James Patterson? He releases up to nine books a year. How does he do it? Organization and outlining the story first is what allows him to pump out novels quickly. (Well, having co-writers certainly helps, too.) Outlining is an efficient way to capture and revise a story at a time when changes are less costly in terms of time and rework.

Many writers worry that outlining takes the art out of writing. I’ve never understood that. Specifying the story in the form of an outline or bullet points is itself a creative process. Then, the real art, perhaps, is actually writing the story using the framework provided by the outline. There’s still a lot of room for the muse to shine during both phases.

How about some concrete examples? P. Bradley Robb outlined (ha!) the reasons why writers should outline their stories first:

1. Establish clear motives

2. Separate major plot from minor plot

3. Spot plot inconsistencies before they pop up

4. Enhance foreshadowing

5. Keep your story on track

In the article he elaborates on each point but you can see at a glance that there are some obvious benefits to planning your story.

Why not try outlining your next project to see if it works for you? There are many different ways to do it:

1. A traditional outline (Look, Roman numerals!)

2. Index cards

3. Spreadsheets

4. Custom novel writing software

Really, there’s no wrong way — it’s up to your personal preferences and what works for you. The first three are common and well-understood but all four have their strengths and weaknesses.

As the creator of my own novel writing software, Hiveword, I’m particularly partial to applications tailored to the purpose. With Hiveword, for example, you don’t deal with an outline in the traditional sense but rather work with the components of a novel. You deal with scenes, characters, settings, and plotlines — concepts that translate directly to writing a novel. For each scene you’d write a few sentences or a larger summary to describe the scene. Then when you’re done you effectively have an abridged story from which to build. Plus, you know where and when everything is at a glance.

Unlike a spreadsheet, however, Hiveword understands what you’re trying to do and can thus present your work in a sensible way and make it both easy to manipulate and visualize. Add a character to a scene with a click. Sort your scenes by drag and drop. See how your subplots weave in and out of your story. Have a look at the screenshots and you’ll see what I mean.

If you’ve never planned your story before perhaps now is the time to give it a try with whichever approach you think would work best. I’d love to hear from you about how it worked out or tips and tricks you use for planning your novel.DCLBike

Happy trails!

Mike Fleming is the creator of the Writers Knowledge Base and Hiveword which is his online novelwriting software. He blogs about technology and writers and tweets at @Hiveword.

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15 thoughts on “Planning Your Novel—Guest Post by Mike Fleming

  1. I not only outline, at least in a spare way, but I have a special small notebook where I write down every chapter, the POV used, and what has happened in the plot. This way, I can make sure that the “weaving” of the plots are pleasing and uniform. I’m sure Hive does the same thing, but I’m not convinced I want one more reason to always, always, always be using my computer screen. Still, I’ll check it out!

  2. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Mike.

    Mike – There is no doubt about it; planning makes any novel go more smoothly. I think it’s a balance though. I always plan and outline when I’m writing. I use those tools to keep my writing focussed as you say. But at the same time, I think the greatest stories also include some things the author hadn’t planned for so it also helps to be flexible.

  3. I’m just starting to experiment with outlines. I’ve always got an extremely limited idea in my head when I start a story, but I love the twists and turns that show up as I write. I’ll see how I feel about outlines after my experiment! :)

  4. Thanks for posting today, Mike! I’ve gotten so that I do more planning than I used to for my novels, mostly to save time. I need to know exactly what I’m writing the next day.

    I’ve used Hiveword and think it’s a great way to organize thoughts…and *re*organize thoughts when stories and characters change direction. :)

  5. The man behind the Writer’s Knowledge Base!

    I’ve always used an outline. I guess you would call it traditional although I don’t use Roman numerals. I also create a timeline, which helped with my five book series. Had to stay on top of what my characters were doing.

  6. Great post. I’ve always thought that outlining helps to reduce the number of revision passes. The story is fairly solid for me after the first draft so I spend my revision time doing more polishing and tweaking than rewriting.

  7. My story would wander off and never return if I didn’t make an outline first.
    And I hate ticks.

  8. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting me today! I know you’re mostly a pantser but re-read your second sentence. w00t! Plus, thanks for the kind words.

    Jody – Believe me, I understand the perils of that darned computer screen. My eyes hate me! Sounds like you have a good system that works.

    L. Diane – That’s me! Problem is, using Roman numerals is half the fun, I think. (Mental note: Add them to Hiveword. ;-) ) I’ve been thinking about timelines. I kind of talked about that in my latest post Reverse Engineering Your Novel
    but I’m curious (if you don’t mind sharing) what you put on yours.

    Margot – I agree. Serendipity can be a great thing while a minimal framework can keep one on track at the same time. Some folks I’ve talked to like to go into great detail so “how much” can be very personal. I really liked this post by Larry Brooks. Nine mere sentences-worth of framework. ;-)

    Jemi – Good luck with your experiment. The nice thing about outlines is they can be changed. If you create a twist after outlining you can re-check the outline upstream AND downstream to make sure everything still hangs together properly. Might cut down on rework…

    Alex – Amen. Let me tell you, I get some ticks back there! ;-)

    P.A. – “The story is fairly solid for me after the first draft…” < -- Awesome! Everyone – Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  9. I like to use note cards for scenes/chapters, that way when I have an idea for something, I have it down as a concrete thing, and can place it wherever I think it needs to go on the plot.

    Other than that, not using Roman numerals- sorry. I feel that by the time I’ve done all this work, the whole book could have been written. I’ve never used an outline. I like to fly by the seat of my pants! I have two books I’m working on simultaniously the mystery (you know about), and my fifth novel in the Sabrina Strong Series. I keep notebooks, and notes in documents to help me think things out.

  10. Oooh, I’ll have to check out Hiveword! I’m big on plotting ahead of time, and I’m a huge fan of index cards. Totally old school, but I love the way I can move cards around as I’m writing the story.

  11. Great timing. I’m writing my first novel, so I obviously I want it to be as perfect as possible. I’m what they call a ‘pantser’ in this industry. I tend to write without an outline, allowing my characters to tell me where I should go. As a result, I have a great story, but…it’s also the reason I’ve been editing and re-writing, and re-writing (well you get the point) for MONTHS now.

    I have other books I’ve started as well, so I’ll work on those once I start submitting this one for publication. I’m considering MAYBE trying the outline idea, so I don’t wind up taking FOREVER editing and re-writing again.

  12. Lorelei – That sounds good. Did you see the link I put in the comment to Margot above? You might like that.

    Gina – Glad you found it useful!

    Julie – Great! Let me know what you think (good or bad). You might particularly like the scene sorter with its filtering capability. It’ll highlight the scenes that have Bob in them, for example.

  13. Dawn – I don’t know, Dawn, sure sounds you’re ready to try some planning to me! ;-) Good luck publishing your book!

  14. Hi Elizabeth – great guest in Mike .. and I love his thoughts here – those planning points and ideas – so we can keep a track of things …

    I may well be back to use sometime .. cheers to you both .. Hilary

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