Inspiration, Perspiration & Organisation

I’m planning the new novel, but the big question for me is ‘how much should I plan?’

Should I start writing with only a rough idea of a destination in mind and allow lots of space for inspiration to come to me during the writing process, or do I plan everything to the nth degree in order to be sure of having a solidly-plotted story?

With Interplanetary Homesick Blues, I embraced the former approach. It was my first fiction novel and I had no idea whether I was going to be able to see it through. Because of this, I didn’t spend hours and hours planning every moment before I started writing. Instead, I decided to just plunge in and see how it went with the idea of sorting out the details later (in other words, polish up my wet slimy oyster after the fact). I didn’t go in totally blind though: I had my basic concept (alien immigrants living illegally in London), my main character (aquatic alien with a background in law enforcement), four key alien species, an event to kick off the story (an alien is ordered to murder a human) and a vague idea that there was a conspiracy to do with alien technology – but that was about it.

In hindsight, this was probably a mistake. The reason the book took me four years to write is that I didn’t just write it once. I had to rewrite the whole thing several times due to the story changing shape as I wrote it. For example, I originally had a big romance between the main protagonists, but that ended up being a distraction from the main emotional journey my characters needed to go on (and I only figured out that journey around draft four). Also, my first draft had several other killings that required investigation, but all that plot detail just made everything bloated and slow.

The biggest problem I had, however, was that the nature of the actual conspiracy underlying the whole story was in total flux. My main villain was originally a human, the motivations of the antagonists kept switching and the whole last act took place in a totally different country! There were massive logic gaps in my original ideas and it took a huge amount of work after the original draft was down to get it all straight.

Writing the book in this way was exhausting, and frustrating. I had to edit and re-edit and re-edit until I unearthed a version of the story that made sense and took my characters on a good journey. I’m satisfied now, but I don’t really want to go through all that again!

The opposite extreme would be to try and do all the thinking before I sit down and start writing. I could create pages and pages of notes about everything that will happen, and figure out every beat and nuance that will shape the final book. Charles Dickens (my sort-of/not-really namesake) went for this approach. Everything was plotted out in detail before he started writing, which was necessary as his books were published in serial form so he wasn’t able to go back and make massive changes when he realised he made a mistake.

I don’t know if I want to do this either. I do want to leave some room to change direction slightly as things occur to me during the writing process. Plus, my characters do begin to take on lives of their own as I write, and I need to give them the ability to change and develop.

I think I’ll go for somewhere between the two. I definitely need to plan more than I did the first time , so I’ll plan enough to make sure I know all the key underpinnings of the plot, and all the key incidents that will shape the narrative. I’ll also figure out the emotional journeys I want to take my characters on, and figure out where that intersects with the events in the story.

Hopefully all that planning will take some of the stress out of getting started, but it will still leave enough room for that delicate green shoot of inspiration to take root and flourish.

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