How do Established Authors Plan their Books?
by Myles McLeod, BAFTA winning screenwriter, author and poet
What is the correct way to write a book?
Should you plan it out in extraordinary detail? Or just sit down and start typing?
Let’s look at a few well-known authors and examine their preferred approaches.
Test out each approach yourself to find which one feels most useful to you.
The Fully Structured Approach
Here’s William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, describing his very structured way of working in 1959:
“I plan a novel from the beginning right to the end. Before I write anything in detail I see it in the air as a kind of … shape. And then the detail begins to fill in and I work it out until … almost the last flick of an eyelid. And then I write through…”
This method is also expounded by James Patterson (who’s sold 300 million books so perhaps he’s onto something). He goes into in a lot of detail about his methods on the Masterclass.com website but you’ll need to subscribe to hear what he has to say. Whatever his specific methods, his lesson summary emphasises:
“James’ secret weapon is a comprehensive outline.”
Spending time on the outline allows Patterson to write the book faster. He’s not stopping to work out important details, because he’s already done the legwork. His books tend to be thrillers which need a logical yet surprising plot with lots of reversals and an unexpected yet satisfying ending. So perhaps this way of working is particularly suited to thrillers.
This way of working also chimes with my personal experience as a TV writer (I’ve written over 100 screenplays for TV). Screenplays go through a series of key stages. A premise for an 11 minute animation might start life as a two sentence pitch. Once commissioned it turns into an outline of perhaps one to three pages depending on the producer’s requirements. Then a step outline with scene headings and yet more detail. By this stage it is about six pages. Finally it’s time to write a first draft script which will be about 14 pages. The detailed work on the outline means writing the script is made much simpler. In fact, it means you can enjoy adding embellishments and focus much more on writing great dialogue. The narrative is already organised for you.
This method works well for TV. The writer may be only one of several working on a show all trying to write distinct stories that somehow fit together as a coherent whole. The fully structured approach ensures that the script evolves in a way consistent with the needs and expectations of everyone involved.
There’s no doubt that this approach works and stops you from falling into unforeseen plot potholes (and even plot holes). But is it the only approach?
The Instinctive Approach
In 2003 author Ray Bradbury wrote a new introduction to his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451. He reveals:
“I have followed the advice of my good friend Federico Fellini who, when asked about his work, said, ‘Don’t tell me what I’m doing, I don’t want to know.’ The grand thing is to plunge ahead and see what your passion can reveal.”
Written on a hired typewriter in the 1950s, he goes on to reveal that:
“This early version took exactly nine days…”
Bradbury is not the only writer to prefer an instinctive approach. I used to live near Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black (and many other titles) and met her on a couple of occasions (we also share an agent and a love of Border Terrier dogs). She writes:
“What I was sure of then, and am doubly so now, is the kind of writer I am: an entirely instinctive one. I never plan ahead but work from day to day, hour to hour, page to page. I never know more about what comes next than the thoughts I may keep in my head when I finish for the day.
There is rarely much in writing to guide me when I start a book — perhaps half a page of notes with names, a suggestion of scenes, plus an atmosphere, a place, a mood. I never do more than one draft though of course I correct and tidy up.”
The Woman In Black
Another candidate for this approach must surely be Jack Kerouac as Luc Sante notes in the New York Times:
“In 1951, Jack Kerouac feverishly pounded out the first draft of ‘On the Road’ in three weeks on a single huge roll of paper. This believe-it-or-not item earns a place on the heroic roster of spontaneous literary combustions…”
On the Road
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the exhilarating novel that defined the Beat Generation and is a 2012 major motion…
The first draft of On the Road was essentially a memoir so Kerouac was drawing on his own memory in contrast to Hill or Bradbury, but his approach to getting the story out was the same.
The celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg also agrees, quoted here from BBC Radio 4’s Open Book:
“Don’t go looking for the rules, don’t go looking for the formula. Just get up in the morning, go to a room, close the door, pick up a pen and make a mark on the paper and see where it leads. Follow your nose. Don’t be tempted by structures that someone else has thought of.”
Open Book with Allan Ahlberg - Books and Authors
Listen to this episode from Books and Authors on Spotify. Mariella Frostrup talks to children's author Allan Ahlberg
I have tried this approach myself and have had different experiences. I first started writing fiction when I was about 16 years-old. I would launch into an idea and write and write and then at some point I would lose my way and the whole thing would peter out to nothing.
Now, almost thirty years later, I find that this same approach can be really fun and freeing. I’ve written poems this way. I bought an old typewriter (i.e. no distractions like emails and the internet) and would open it up first thing in the morning and just start typing without any idea of what I was going to write. Some of the results were awful. Some were surprisingly good. One was Singalongabingbong later published in Caterpillar magazine.
So what changed over those years? The reality is I’ve spent a long time learning about character, story structure, pace. So, when I sit down to be instinctive, I’m also bringing those skills to the table too. These days it’s instinct plus experience.
The Mixed Approach
Author of The Dark Materials, Philip Pullman seems to advocate something in between the methods above. You have an idea for the beginning, middle and end, but you don’t crystallise it into something as rigid as a plan…
Profile - The World of Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman explores Oxford, where he was a student in the 1960s. (2001)
“I’ve noticed in my career as writer that when I make a plan for a story it doesn’t work. It goes dead on me. I don’t want to write it. I’m not interested anymore.
I start out from the beginning with a sort of vague idea of what the story is going to be about. And a sort of vague idea of where it’s going to go and how it’s going to end. And then I just start writing and see what happens.
…though he still rails against a fully structured approach.
There’s a value in not planning. There’s a value in letting things happen. There’s value in writing to see what comes out.
[Having] a bloody plan … and sticking to that like a limpet. That’s dreadful.”
What works for you?
I suspect the way you like to write is largely dependent on your individual personality. Try the different methods. What FEELS most satisfying? What produces the best work?
Some of us are going to love that fully structured approach. There’s a supreme logic to it. When you’ve put all of that work into a highly organised plan, you’re going to sail through writing the book.
Some of us are going to find that approach boring. When it comes to screenplays I’m happy with that structured approach, but with books I prefer something more like Pullman’s method.
I start with a general idea of a beginning, middle and end. But I don’t want to know exactly what’s going to happen. It takes the excitement out of the writing. Instead the process of writing becomes discovery. I always feel that if I’m bored writing something, the reader is going to be bored reading it. And that is the death of a story.
If I don’t plan the writing too much and allow unexpected ideas to appear as I write, then it’s much more interesting for me (and therefore the reader too). Sometimes I’ll think about what might happen in the next few pages while lying in bed at night, or driving in the car, or walking the dog. But that’s the extent of the planning and it might change once I sit down to write.
But what happens if you take this mixed approach or an instinctive one and then it all breaks down? Do you abandon the whole project?
Perhaps there’s one more approach?
The Switch Approach
I suspect that for most people a pure instinctive approach is often going to lead to a story dead end at least once. I found this with a novel I started a few years back before I had much writing experience. I started to reach the crisis point of the story and found I was getting confused.
I had relied on my instinct to get me so far. But there are certain parts of a story that require more scaffolding and engineering to keep them functioning. When all the narrative threads start to weave together to form a crisis and a climax you really need to be in control of the story. And I wasn’t.
I found the only way to proceed was to go back and read what I had written and make a plan for the end of the book. I was able to look at all the material I’d created (mostly from an instinctive approach) and then plan a coherent ending.
So, even if you identify as an instinctive writer, don’t dismiss the merits of using a more structured approach when you find yourself in difficulty. And be open to the idea that different types of writing (e.g. screenplays versus novel writing) might work better with a different approach.
Time to Write
I hope you find this article useful. If you do, please do share it.
My first children’s book is coming out June 2020 with Guppy Books, entitled Knight Sir Louis and the Dreadful Damsel. It’s a two book deal, so I will be writing the second in the series for release in 2021. You can keep an eye for competitions and updates on the Knight Sir Louis Facebook page.
KNIGHT SIR LOUIS: THE DAMSEL OF DISTRESSE
Guppy Books is a newly-created publisher of books for children of all ages.
I have four other non-fiction books published. Two are books to help with creativity, co-written with my BAFTA winning illustrator-director brother Greg McLeod. They are Create Your Own Universe and a Book of Brilliant Ideas. They are available in a number of languages including English, Russian, Portuguese, French, German, Turkish, Czech, Mandarin…
Create Your Own Universe
A Book of Brilliant Ideas : Greg McLeod : 9781910552063
The other two reflect my love of animals (I have a degree in Zoology) and were co-written with my sister Fenella Smith (who also runs a successful homewares business) and illustrated by my brother.
Breeds a Canine Compendium / Cats a Feline Compendium
Breeds : Fenella Smith : 9780224098847
Cats book. Read reviews from world's largest community for readers. Cats is the ideal comic companion for those who…
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