I’ve met people who frown upon the idea of planning a work of fiction. Now I’ve got nothing against frowns, and everyone’s got a right to wear one, but let me tell you this: you cannot write a good novel without planning it first. Yes, I understand I am laying down a law here, but if you’re good enough to write a novel without having to plan it, you’re too good to be here reading this blog. So there. 99.9% of all writers plan what they’re going to write before they write it. The remaining 0.1% plan during their first drafts and write during their rewrites. So you see, there’s no escaping it.
In fact, there’s no reason to want to escape it. Planning a novel can be a lot of fun because this is where you’re just letting your fingers loose upon the keyboard. You don’t worry about spelling mistakes. You don’t care about getting the grammar right. You don’t stop to see if what you’re writing makes sense. They call this freewriting, and they say everything goes, but beware of taking this too far; sometimes I’ve written stuff which I could make no sense of whatsoever the next day. So I guess that’s the only proviso: make sure your notes are legible enough to stop you from going “What the hell?” when you read them next.
With our date of writing about four weeks away, this is a good time to open up a word document and begin making notes about your novel. You will need three sections for the three main aspects of your story: who, where, what. (This is just a less intimidating way of saying ‘character’, ‘setting’ and ‘plot’.) In your daily ninety-minute writing window, budget thirty minutes for each of the three sections, and aim to write at least a hundred words of notes in each section everyday.
In this section you will write down the name of your primary character and his current predicament. Remember that in the post about conflict we spoke about your characters wanting something and not getting it. Here you will try and define that something. Of course, it’s likely that you will find no answer even after a lot of thinking about this question. If that happens, do what I do. Relax. Why be such a control freak? Write down a narrative piece describing your character’s daily morning routine. If you just close your eyes and allow yourself to visualize the early morning scene of your main character’s bedroom, you may just be on your way to finding out what he wants.
This is your novel’s macro-setting, the general place and time in which your story happens. For instance, the macro-setting of the Sherlock Holmes stories is Victorian England and that of Lord of the Rings is Middle Earth. You need to give some thought right at the beginning to where you want to set your story. You may think that if you choose a contemporary setting, you can safely skip this step. But is that really true? Will your story and your characters be the same in rural Karnataka as they are in downtown Delhi? Even after you’ve decided on the general time and place, it would do you a lot of good to drill down on it as much as you can. Write down specific details of the places you want to write about, and some thoughts on how your setting is going to affect the lives of the people you’re going to create.
This, of course, is the plot. As I’ve said elsewhere on this website, thinking of plot as this mystical, ephemeral thing won’t help matters. Think of plot as a consequence of characters in conflict and you will be all right. At the very least, put a hero and a villain into your story, make them want opposite things, place obstacles in front of both, and you’ve already got a skeleton for a plot. You could add characters and make it more complicated, or you could just keep it at two and go vanilla. But keep in mind that too few characters will also stretch your abilities as a writer. Generally speaking, red team against blue team is the best way to go. Six or seven main characters ought to be just right.
One of the things I want to emphasize in this part of the writing process is that you must have fun. Creativity is a nasty beast, and you cannot table it into neat little sections. Often you will find that you began making notes about character and you’ve unearthed something about setting, or that your hero is hiding a gagged naked girl in his bathroom, or that the quaint little hut your family inhabits sucks a little bit of life out of them night after night, or – or whatever. This is where you and your ideas come out, and if you can, let them out onto the page without judging their quality or their origin. Start your thoughts along any line you want, and write down the images that flow into your mind as honestly and as vividly as you can. Do you smell the chloroform when your hero gets off his bed and kicks opens his bathroom door? Do you hear the thin muffled cough of a little girl? And when he turns on the light, do you see the cross-shaped red cuts littered across her body, her swollen grey-blue left eye, her bleeding lip?
Write it all down, image after image after image. You will like some, you will hate some, you will throw away some, you will be surprised by some, and that’s okay. Under the pretext of planning a novel, all we’re doing really is to train ourselves to let our minds free without the shackles of conscious thought. What we’re also doing, and I think this is crucial, is to practice looking at the stuff that comes out of us and not flinch. As a writer that is one of the biggest lessons to learn – or perhaps I must say unlearn. We must unlearn the habit of feeling shamed by our thoughts. We must unlearn the art of self-deception, and we must embrace honesty. Because in that honesty, in the images that fly within your mind when you sit down at your desk, lies your voice. Let it come out so that you can see it clearly, and after you find it take good care of it. It is what will differentiate you throughout your life, for better or for worse, from all the other writers out there.
That, then, is what you’re trying to do when planning your novel: finding your voice. If someone still frowns at the idea, let them. They’re either the world’s greatest geniuses or they don’t have a clue. Either way, they’re not going to be of much help. You sit down and get on with it.