Novel Writing Technique – Are You A Planner Or A Dreamer?

The DreamerIt’s one of the most fundamental discussions in all of novel writing – do you plot out your scenes, sketch your characters, and weave your subplots before actually sitting down to write the book? Or do you catch onto an inspiring moment in the story, sit down and see where it leads?

The answer for me became pretty obvious pretty quickly. I’m a dreamer who doesn’t have any time for wasted words. So I’m a planner. Sort of.

Of course, to judge from my early life I’ve been a dreamer since I got on this planet. I still love to just put my fingers to the keys and see what happens. One of my great revelations about the act of writing is how it gives voice to a part of my brain that normally has no voice – and that strange and unusual things can come from me that I never even knew were up there. That is the power of the dreamer, and of the dreaming path of writing. Take an inspiration, any inspiration, whether it be a fascinating character or an exciting conflict or a luscious setting, and put your fingers on the keys and get out of the way. With only the smallest amount of encouragement your dreaming half will eagerly take over and you literally will not know what is going to happen next until it shows up on your screen. There is no feeling like waiting with bated breath, perched on a moment of high drama, to find out what you yourself will write next. That is the very center of writing’s magic.

But dreaming’s very strength engenders a problem. Dreaming is in the moment. Dreaming cares not for the future. And that is no way to get a novel done in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

The planner starts with the same thing, an inspiration. He may even indulge in some freewheeling writing to enlarge on the theme, flesh things out a bit, set the inspiration so it doesn’t go flying off somewhere. But before long he starts answering some questions: what scenes are suggested by this inspiration? What characters are needed for these scenes? What are their drives, hopes, and fears? What subplots and additional conflicts do these bring to mind?

It is through questions and explorations that the planner builds a novel. By the time the planner is ready to actually write the scenes, he will have a good idea of what scenes are needed, in what order, and who will be in them and what they will be doing. He will have a good sense of his characters and be ready to step fully into them to bring each scene to life right from the start. Then he starts at page 1 and goes right through to The End.

Said like that, planning sounds dry and pedantic. Plodding. But the planner gets to dream, too. The planner accesses his right brain in the development of character, the discovery of plot, and in the actual writing. He always stays open to the unexpected new direction and the revelatory plot twist, or even the arrival of a totally new character. They just have to serve the work already in progress.

I came to writing late. I can’t afford to waste time. I swiftly discovered that the path of the dreamer involves a lot of characters, scenes, and entire plot lines that get left out of the final drafts. They may get used somewhere later, and they are always a pleasure to write, but the plain truth is they did not support or illuminate the novel. And that kind of wastage I just cannot afford.

So – for now, at least – I am a planner. I’m enthralled by the planning process used by Elizabeth George, which I’ll talk about another time. I still enjoy the wide open possibility of the dreamer, and I still look forward to the times when I can let my imagination go. But to further the story, to make sure that my work serves its intended purpose, I do my dreaming within the confines of a well-constructed plan.

Published in: on June 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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Making Time To Write – The Deep Decision


How do you make the time to write? Every aspiring writer wants to know this most fundamental of secrets. For many years I wanted to know. It wasn’t until I finally decided to be a writer that I discovered the ancient answer.

The secret was the decision itself. But not just deciding that okay, today I will actually put my hands on the keyboard. I’d made that decision a hundred, a thousand times before. I have the file cabinets full of half-written pages to prove it. No, the magic happened when I paired that decision with some decent fuel. Something with a solid kick-in-the-pants boost, and a good slow burn. For me, that fuel was desperation.

Oh, not the garret-dwelling, half-starved, wild eyed, skeletal writer clinging to his Underwood as if to a spiritual liferaft kind of desperation; more like the kind of desperation that comes when you see a life’s ambition drifting unreachably away. My desperation was born on the day when I realized, at a deep level, that if I wanted to be a writer in this lifetime then I’d damn well better get to it.

You don’t have to be up against some kind of wall, like me, in order to find the time to write. What you need is to make the decision to be a writer at a deep enough level so that it sticks. You know what I mean? We all have the fleeting thought from time to time that we should make a character, get that plot line down, write out that superb scene we just dreamed up. But then the fleeting thoughts of a good movie, or an ice cream, or the day job, push that first thought clean out of our head. A deep decision is one that survives the passing whims. It’s one that carries weight. It’s one that we make time for, because it is that important.

So I made writing important by paying attention to my desperation. I lit the fuse on my own personal TNT and drove the decision down deep. But I had a day job. I had – and have – rent to pay, food to buy, a family to love and support and chauffeur. How the hell was I supposed to make the time to write amidst an already full life?

Just like every other writer started out by doing, of course. I’ve listened to many writers talk about their path (Here, among other places), and most of them had exactly this same problem. Some of them solved it by getting up early – not for me, thanks. Some by staying up late – that could work for me. Others did it in their off hours, their weekends. All of them made time. They just did it, because it was just that important to them. Their own deep decision had been made.

As of this blog post I have two novels in the can, one short story written, and I’m soon to start my third novel. I personally found the time by engineering a work schedule with a Spring and Fall break (about a month each side), and by choosing writing over movies, sleeping in, and socializing more often than not. But that’s just the mechanics of my own path, and the mechanics will be different for everyone. The thing in common for every writer, I think, is that deep decision. For me, that decision was born out of, and pounded in with, desperation. It went in far enough that my urge to write now supercedes my fleeting thoughts.

And that’s pretty much the secret of it all. In case you wanted to ask.

Published in: on May 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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