Planning Shlanning and other things I said before writing a book series…

We’ve all got our routines. Breakfast routine, exercise routine, maybe even a pre-dinner gin and tonic routine. Especially in these uncertain times, it’s a healthy thing to have a few of those little rituals to bring structure and let’s face it, a teensy bit of certainty, to everyday life.

Saying that, with writing I’ve always been a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ person. When I began a creative project, I wouldn’t do a lot of planning. I’d write by ‘feel’.

The thought of pre-planning a story or book always seemed a bit boring to me. How do you let your creativity loose if everything’s already planned? How do you let your characters drive the story? Don’t you lose opportunities to change and adapt as you go if you’ve got it all sorted before you even start?

Writing a series has changed my perspective on this. Big time.

With book one already written as a standalone with a happy-for-now ending, I faced the prospect of writing and editing four more books. I’d written a draft of a book far into the future, so had an idea of where I was heading but that wasn’t enough. There was no way I was going to get away with diving into it all without a bit of planning.

I did try to wing it at first.

I wrote book two – just like I did book one – by following my nose. I decided the basics, of course: the setting and main characters were pretty much the same, and I wanted my main character to have lost some of his mojo and be working through a transformation arc to get it back. But as far as other characters, sub plots, the larger political landscape etc. Well, I really wasn’t clear.

Bad decision. Book two has been torturous. I’ve edited, I’ve done a beat sheet (See the amazing book Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris to find out about the benefits of these little beauties). I’ve rewritten, restructured, moved whole chapters around… and it’s no use. It’s just not working.

Why? With book two being a feeder into a much bigger, all-encompassing story arc across three more books, I simply hadn’t thought things through enough to wing it like that.

It was as if I’d started building a large concert hall by deciding on the colour of the carpet. Only there simply wasn’t going to be any carpet if I didn’t put down a solid foundation, work out the engineering and build a strong, steel structure to begin with.

So, I decided to let book two sit in the corner for a while and begin book three in the series. And this time I was going to try a different approach. Time to put aside the ‘pantser’ in me and become a planner. Time to forget about carpet designs and get the diggers in.

How about a bit of structure?

I started with structure. A bit of research and way too much time on writing sites later, I discovered the three-act structure. Based on screenplay writing for movies, it made perfect sense to me. Turning points, building action, all-in moments. I loved it. I drafted up a per book and series structure outline to give me a bird’s eye view.

Thinking about characters across a series

Second step, character arcs. I took a fantastic online course offered free during lockdown and went through a couple of interesting exercises to develop characters. Some of it was old hat, but other aspects really piqued my interest and helped me look at old characters in different ways and choose new characters that would challenge the status quo and offer conflict not just within a book but reaching out across the series. More about developing characters across a series in another blog coming soon!

Third step deserves its title in bold:

Overall series structure, planning and collection of details

Boom! Keeping track of all the world building details – new creatures, plants, rules of magic, political ups and downs etc – can be huge within one book, but when you have to keep things consistent over an entire series, you really need a system. For now, let’s just say I have many, many documents keeping tabs on what’s happening across the five books. You might like to use Pinterest or Notes or some other app to keep track of everything. Perhaps even suss it out old-school on paper, post it notes or a whiteboard. Either way, plan you must.

Planning can be good for your creativity

So now, before I begin each book I spend weeks planning, structuring, writing a basic synopsis and researching. It might add time to the process and I might not always strictly stick to the plan, but I like the routine because it gives me the building blocks I need to write with more confidence. It gives me a little more certainty.

The interesting thing about all this forward thinking is that instead of suffocating my creativity, it’s given it a booster. It turns out having good structure and some scaffolding helps the building process progress faster, still leaving room for adaption and additions along the way. My concert hall awaits!

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