How to plan a book – paper and scissors required

As a ghostwriter I am at somewhat of an advantage when it comes to planning the books I write. By the time I get to this stage, I will have already conducted a lengthy interview with the named author who will have outlined the story he or she would like me to write. All I then need to do is to go away and write the book. Easy, right?

Actually, this is not true at all. I still meticulously plan each book and stick to that plan throughout the process. That is, unless the author in question suddenly reveals a new, and extraordinary, angle to the story. Invariably this happens around a third of the way into the process, during the third or fourth interview.

‘Did I tell you about the time I spent in jail…?’

Fresh revelations notwithstanding, I do always value the planning process.

And so to my revelation on planning. I always take a pair of scissors to the book I am writing. For real. It is a technique I was taught by my father who is also a writer, although he writes TV scripts, rather than books, but it works well for both. The idea is to write down on a sheet of paper one sentence summaries of all the key elements of the story. There can be a dozen of them, or forty or more. Write each one as a stand-alone line, with space in between. Next, in true Blue Peter style, use your scissors to cut between each line. You will be left with a pile of strips of paper with one sentence on each.

Now it is time to plan and I love this bit. I spread the strips out on the floor of my office and start to get them into order. I place the sentence that I believe will make the best opening at the top of a ‘column’ on the floor and find one that will flow from that and place it beneath it, and so on. Often, if you have cut out dozens of strips, you will see a natural grouping. Clump them together into a group which will form a chapter and place it in the correct place in the main story column. You could also do a mini version of this column exercise to work out the best flow for the chapter.

Your first attempt will not produce the perfect end result. In fact, you may well be moving bits of paper around for a good while. That’s fine. I guarantee that, as you do it, you will see the structure of the story begin to take shape. Subplots that you initially thought had no link whatsoever will suddenly make sense together. A part of the story you may have thought was a slam dunk for an opener won’t work there at all.

Now, obviously, you could easily do all of this on your PC. The cut and paste option is designed to help you do just this, after all. It is entirely your choice. Personally, I find it much easier to be able to touch the paper and physically move it around. It helps me to be more creative. I do understand that you may have a different point of view on this though, so I will leave it up to you.

Once you are happy with the structure and flow: start writing. While I am a huge advocate for planning, do not over plan. I know there are divergent opinions on this and many people passionately advocate meticulously writing each character profile, with their motivations, goals and their journey in the novel. Even minor characters will get their own detailed synopsis. The planner will also set out a detailed overview of key settings where the action takes place, describing the flora, fauna and weather. Others may even want a precise day-by-day timeline. My view is it is possible to over-plan. It’s far better to sit down, let the characters grow in your imagination and ‘tell you’ how they’d react, or what they’d do next in the circumstances.

If you over-plot, there is a danger that your story becomes a series of facts and scenes. Too much time is expended on explaining anything that can possibly be explained to readers. In this case, the book will lose its gift of colour and mystery about what might happen next. It risks losing the reader because one of the reasons people buy into books is because there is an element of discovery, an opportunity for them to analyse the characters, and solve some of the issues in their own imagination. If you have carefully done all of that for them, where is the fun in that? Reading becomes a chore rather than a blissful escape.

Planning always has a place and I would certainly never begin writing without a good structure in place. However, once I have one and am happy with it, I start the writing process and uncover the rest as I write. It makes for a more creative and ultimately more rewarding outcome and, I believe, an infinitely more readable book too.