Thursday, July 12, 2012

Planning, plotting and preparation.

Just back from a wonderful panel at the ALIA 2012 conference. I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Anita Heiss, Melina Marchetta, Richard Glover and Matthew Reilly, as we fielded questions from the audience on writing discipline, using libraries, eBooks and copyright.

It's always fun listening to other writers talking about how they wrangle out the words: Melina made herself a promise never to turn the TV on during the day, Richard wrestles his partner, the writer Debra Oswald, for the right to take the washing out to the line as an excuse to escape from the computer screen; Anita works from an office (and knowing her and her work schedule, she has a work ethic that would terrify most mortals).

I was intrigued when Matthew Reilly spoke about his process as being less angst -filled and more like "being allowed to eat chocolate ice cream everyday." He had a ball writing. I asked him if he planned a lot in advance, or like Indiana Jones "made it up as he went along." He came down on the side of extensive research and planning in advance.

After the panel he showed me an image on his phone of the "map" of his next book. It was a large piece of paper stuck up on the wall of his study. And it was fascinating.

He warned us that it would be meaningless to us - and it was, it looked like a magical piece of abstract art - but to him it was the landscape of the book. It was the path his characters would travel through this landscape and the events that would happen to them along the way. It spiraled ever inwards.

"How much do you plan?" Is a question that comes up a lot at writers festivals and amongst writers. I like to plan a bit, but I invariably find that things change along the way as I get to know my characters better. I know some writers plan extensively, with detailed chapter by chapter breakdowns before they sit down to write. I heard China MiƩville say he relies on wall charts - vertical axis is character, horizontal axis is time.

I've always been a bit leery of writing too detailed a plan. I've felt that I'd have sort of sucked the life out of the story before I even began. It's bad enough writing a synopsis when you finish.

As I looked at Matthew's fantastically visual map I realised it was an incredible example of planning that nailed the difference between plot and story: story is like a map of a landscape and plot is the way through it. There are numerous ways through a landscape, just as there are a variety of potential plots by which you could tell your story. Matthew's pre-planning is this maxim brought to life. It's a non-verbal image driven trail map. It struck me that this is a brilliant way to plan, because by planning in such a visual way when Matthew sits down to write he switches on the "wordy" side of his brain, so even though the story is well and truly planned and plotted, it still feels fresh.

Thanks for the invitation to come along ALIA. I had a ball and I learned things. A good day.


  1. Great post - I like how you summed up Matthew Reilly's approach, as I too am worried about sucking the life out of my stories by overplanning. I guess the difference is in planning and plotting. You can't overplan but you can overplot?

  2. It's always interesting to see how others "do it." Of course much of this curiosity is based around the mistaken belief that "they" have found a better, faster, simpler, less stressful, more successful way of writing, and if I could only just ......

    All fantasy I'm afraid.

    I think re over-planning, over-plotting if we can keep reminding ourselves what the story is and who the characters are and why they're doing the things they're doing - then worry at what's the best plan/plot to tell it.

    I'm a big fan of Chuck Wendig - his review of Prometheus nailed the failure - when plot becomes dominant over character and story:

  3. This sounds like a very interesting way to 'plan' your plot! I need to try something new. Thanks for this post!