Planning to Write: One Dude’s Approach

At a recent education session of the Grand River Writing Tribe, our merry little band of literary miscreants enjoyed a brief sidebar conversation about planning-vs-pantsing in light of the impending NaNoWriMoPocalypse.

pants. Vt. 1. To write a book without meaningful preparation, letting the story and its major elements evolve as the author drafts them. 2. To “fly by the seat of one’s pants” while writing a work of (usually dubious) literary merit. Colloq.

I’m a planner. I have to be; I tried pantsing it, many years ago, but failed miserably. Suitably chastened by that traumatic ordeal, I’ve honed my planning to the point where I think I’ve got a system down that’s worth sharing.

But first: As a publisher, I can usually tell after the first few pages whether a submitting writer is a planner or a pantser. The biggest tell comes from conflict. Insofar as there ain’t no conflict, hoss, in most pantsed stories. Very many pantsed stories rely on plots that consist of one event after another, with pacing mimicked by the introduction of new events in a linear cadence, until a word-count goal illuminates the finish line and the final manuscript stumbles, sweaty and mildly incoherent, through the denouement victory ribbon. Alas, these new events are not tied to a core conflict linked to the eventual identification and resolution of the protagonist’s frustrated desire. They’re just one damn thing after another until “the end.”

The sublime editors at MiFiWriters honed my sensitivity to conflict as the primary driver of plot. I can still hear Sue Ann’s voice echoing in my head: “What does the main character want, and what’s stopping him from getting it?”

With a question that meaty, how can anyone start with backstory?

Pick Your Purpose

One question must set the stage: Is the story intended for private, creative purposes, or for publication? If the former, then to some degree, the sky’s the limit. Writing for yourself offers myriad opportunities to experiment with forms and techniques. But if you think you’d like to shop the manuscript, stop. Don’t ask yourself what story you want to write but rather, what story you want to sell.

Writing for yourself frees you of the rules of genre conformance, word-length targets and whatnot. Do what you want! Shamelessly incorporate whatever silly, tangential writing prompt lands in your Twitter account that morning. Hone your craft by stretching your limits. But if you’re writing for publication, you must pick a genre, strictly plan for that genre’s conventions, and execute with disciplined precision. Otherwise, no editor or agent will pay you the slightest bit of attention.

Earlier this month, I spoke with USA Today bestselling author Zoe Blake. She writes dark romance, and like any genre writer, she knows that if you’re writing to genre, agents and editors welcome very little deviation from the script — especially by emerging authors. (Her insights into this part of the process made our October Get Pressed! event, which she attended, a much richer conversation.) So if you want to write for publication, follow your genre’s standards with religious fervor.

How I Plan

Every author plans a major work differently, so if you’ve seen one approach, you’ve seen one approach. I encourage you, as you review my approach, to recognize that some parts of it might work for you and some of it might not. I’m not suggesting you should do it my way; I’m merely sharing my well-honed process for the benefit of those pantsers out there who’re lost like a fart in a whirlwind on the subject of novel planning.

Let’s begin, then, with the assumption we’re developing a novel-length work of fiction intended for publication.

  1. Identify external constraints on the final work product. If you’re writing for a contest that features a word-count range or a mandatory subject or theme, those parameters control everything else that follows. In the absence of any word-count constraint, investigate average counts for your genre. Research from a few years ago suggests that the “average” debut author’s work clocked in at roughly 85,000 words. Put differently: That 55,000-word NaNo novel won’t cut it unless your genre generally supports that small of a manuscript.
  2. Catalogue the attributes to be interwoven into the story. At this stage, I don’t know what I want to write, but I’m starting to get ideas about what I want to write about. For example, in one piece, I wanted to work on character development, so I decided that a primary character needed to be bisexual. In another novel, I set the story in Grand Rapids. In yet another, I explored the concept of regret at various stages in a person’s life. In a recent prototype novel, I wanted the protagonist and antagonist to have wildly divergent childhood experiences that shaped their response to the story’s core conflict. I usually collect, over a period of three to six months, a list of a dozen or so completely unrelated aspects or subplot themes that — later in the process — coalesce into something resembling a fully formed story idea.
  3. Settle on a person, story archetype, genre and targeted word count. Think of an archetype as a meta-story, or a story scaffolding. Lists of archetypes vary; a common one, developed by Christopher Booker, lists seven: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Author Ronald Tobias lists 20 “master plots” that go even deeper into the archetypical weeds. Identify the right genre for the work. A single genre, mind you; hybridizing a story into several genres — a process called fusion — is a kiss of death for metadata and is likely to render your story unmarketable. For the purpose of this step, we’ll consider literary fiction to be a genre in its own right. This is the spot, too, where you’ll pick a voice for the narrative (e.g., first person or third subjective distant or whatever).
  4. Generate a thesis statement of not more than three sentences. This part is tricksy. You’re summarizing the story as if it were a short paragraph in your cover letter, but you’re doing it before you’ve developed any characters, plot or conflict. That’s okay. At this step, you’re still working through a high-level concept. It’s a high-level stab that you’ll revise over time. Address the basics of genre, archetype and market differentiators while remaining sensitive to the external constraints you’ve identified and the attributes you intend to include. For example:
    • Magellan Ascendant is an 85,000-word classic science-fiction quest in which a 300-year-old colony ship from Earth arrives at its destination only to discover that humans have long-since colonized it. The crew of the Magellan must make sense of their new circumstances while forging new alliances with their now-exhausted homeworld and keeping peace among a crew still on edge from tensions that predate their launch. 
  5. Wait two weeks. Let the thesis statement percolate a while. Come back to it in a fortnight with fresh eyes.
  6. Re-evaluate the thesis statement. Tweak the statement and your various required attributes as you like. Then ask yourself: Is it done? Are you happy with it? If you’ve made changes you deem to be significant to the structure or the content of the statement, wrap up your work and return to Step 5. If you’re satisfied that your changes were minor, proceed to Step 7.
  7. Wait two more weeks. Even when you’re satisfied with your high-level concept, you’ll find value in waiting another fortnight before beginning the next, crucial phase of planning.
  8. Sketch a mind map of the characters. You don’t yet know the plot or the people, so start with the people in light of your thesis statement. I like to work with a whiteboard — a physical whiteboard with dry-erase markers. Then I start mind-mapping. A character starts in the center. I don’t know who it is, yet. Then I draw circles around it for other primary characters. Then I start to give the circles names and roles. And then they get lines connecting them in some way, with the nature of the relationship documented on the line. By the time I’m done, I still don’t know what the plot is, but I have a high-level sense of who the characters are and what conflicts simmer among them — in effect, the state of the universe before the words “Chapter One” grace the manuscript. The finished work product from this step in the process includes:
    • Brief bio — No more than a sentence or two for each character, often just a name, occupation, age, body type, personality quirk, etc. Remember, no one’s impressed with complex names that are spelled in goofy fashion and defy the laws of English phonics. No one.
    • Role in the narrative — What does this character do for the story? A main character? Secondary? Does the character warrant a POV perspective?
    • Relationships — How is each character related to every other character? What’s the relevant historical backstory for the relationship?
    • Motivation — What’s the character’s main (and perhaps one or two secondary) goals or motives within the narrative?
    • Conflict — How do these motivations and relationships engender conflict? Do several conflicts arise? A preliminary whiteboard sketch, without the bio/motivation/conflicts explicit, looks like this:
  9. Solidify the period and setting. Identify when and where the story takes place. If you’re inventing a fictional world, jot some basic notes (you’ll flesh them out later) about the mechanics of the universe, including rules of magic, social relationships, levels of technology, etc. If you’re writing contemporary or literary fiction that’s not tied to an explicit place, pick a place anyway just for your own purposes.
  10. Sketch the plot arc. Stick with your genre’s norms. Readers generally expect a three-act story with the first act setting the stage, the second act increasing the tension and the third act leading to resolution. I’ve found that starting the arc with conflict — i.e., starting with what the main character wants, then unfolding how he or she overcomes the obstacles to achieve it — makes the “events” part of the process significantly easier to work through. So with a sense of period, setting, characters, relationships, motivations and overall thesis, I return to my trusty whiteboard to sketch a plot arc:
  11. Create relevant computer files. Now it’s time to use the computer in earnest. I generally write in plain text with AsciiDoc using Visual Studio Code and my own private GitLab CE repository. Most folks will likely use Microsoft Word or Scrivener unless they’re doing something technical like a math textbook or a computer-science manual. Regardless of your tools, a few base files will likely prove handy:
    • 01_chapter-title.adoc to nn_chapter-title.adoc — I allocate one text file per chapter, naming it with a standard logic of a two-digit chapter number offset by an underscore with a hyphenated chapter-title slug. The contents of each chapter go into each file. (A slug is a journalism term; it’s a one-to-three-word abbreviation of a longer title, hyphenated. For example, if Chapter 3 were titled “The Messenger Speaks at Midnight,” a slug might be something like messenger or midnight or messenger-midnight and the resulting filename might be 03_messenger.adoc.)
    • notes.adoc — I create a single text file with reference material, including character sketches, scene sketches and facts about the universe.
    • control.adoc — This file holds the project’s table of contents (annotated at a scene level, in the next step) as well as a manual record of word counts and to-do items.
    • references.bib — (optional) a list for the references. Usually, it’s a placeholder in my non-fiction writing for shortcode ties to a JabRef citation library.
    • spine.adoc — in AsciiDoc, a spine file knits all the chapter files together into a single unit for exporting to different formats including DocBook. The spine includes all the metadata about the story, including metadata you’d need to self-publish the work as an e-book. (AsciiDoc supports natural conversion to HTML, DocBook XML and EPUB 3).
  12. Translate the plot/conflict arc into an annotated chapter-and-scene structure. With the files in place, it’s now time to go into control.adoc (or, if you’re using Scrivener, the Binder/Outliner tools) to set up the chapter-and-scene structure of the novel. My goal in this step is to plot to the scene level, with a paragraph describing what happens in the scene as well as context like who the POV character is, how long the scene is, what’s the status of the scene, etc. Keeping the synopsis at about 1/35th of the scene length (e.g., a 2,000-word scene should have a 57-word synopsis) means you can aggregate the scene synopses into a unified traditional novel synopsis without incurring extra development work. #ProTip
    • Because scenes are generally self-contained units of narrative, I’ve taken to dividing my project target word count (e.g., 85,000 words) into 10 to 15 chapters of roughly 5,500 to 8,500 words, with two to four scenes per chapter. Keeping scenes relatively compact yet balanced, length-wise, helps to not only keep the action going, but also to facilitate productivity. It’s easier to write a planned 2,000-word scene in a day than to just “sit down and write.” Put differently: Plan the novel’s structure not just to facilitate your content but also to match your unique style of writing.
    • In addition to a scene synopsis, I’ll take notes in this file about plot points that must or must not occur in that scene, and enter a placeholder for follow-up tasks that I should address “later” but which I shouldn’t lose track of. When I write, control.adoc is always open in a panel next to the chapter file.
  13. Develop relevant contextual notes about characters and settings. Just as the plot/conflict file found its expression in control.adoc, your various character, setting and universe sketches should find a home in notes.adoc — or, if you’re in Scrivener, as cards in the Research folder of your project. I generally put in some bare-bones basics here (mostly around characters), then I augment the during the writing process so I don’t contradict myself later. For example, I might include a paragraph of description and history about an important character, and then in Chapter 5 when the character references that she’s afraid of spiders, I’ll add a bullet to her character sketch that stipulates that she’s afraid of spiders, so that in Chapter 9 I don’t misremember her arachnophobia as agoraphobia.
  14. Wait two more weeks. Don’t start writing as soon as your prep is done. Give all this literary goodness ample time to percolate ‘twixt your earholes.
  15. Revise. Look at all your notes: Check your files, re-examine pictures of your whiteboard, whatever. Think about the project in its entirety. Does the conflict make sense? The plot? Are the characters compelling? Do you meet genre norms? Most importantly: Are you excited to write this book? Answer no to any of these questions, revise then return to Step 14.

When you’re done with Step 15, you’re ready to write.

My flow works for me. It won’t work for everyone. But I hope you’ve found something to take away that will help you grow your craft.

Developing Ethically Coherent Characters

A good story usually demands a strong plot, and a strong plot is advanced through the skillful use of conflict.

Conflict, of course, starts with characters who think and act in specific ways; their patterns of behavior set the contours of how conflicts begin, progress and resolve over the narrative arc of the story.

Five introductory points about ethical consistency:

  1. At heart, ethics relates to the process by which people make value-laden choices. When there’s no choice, or no values at stake, then the question isn’t an ethical one. For example, personal preferences (e.g., “I like cashews more than brazil nuts”) aren’t a source of moral dispute.
  2. People aren’t always consistent, but they do tend to naturally fall into one of the broad ethical paradigms. No one does the right thing all the time, and always for the exact same reason; characters like Galadedrid Damodred in The Wheel of Time simply do not exist in the real world, so their presence in literary worlds proves especially jarring. Likewise, no one does the wrong thing all the time.
  3. When pressed, people can do the “right” thing for the “wrong” reason — with wrong merely suggesting a conformance to a different (i.e., non-dominant) moral paradigm.
  4. When pressed further, people can act against their moral principles. It doesn’t happen often, however. People who frequently make bad moral choices are inadvertently telegraphing that their ethical framework isn’t as straightforward as they claim.
  5. People rarely reset their default ethical worldview. Such a change can happen, but it’s not often enough in the real world to use it as a plot device. Usually these changes follow from significant trauma or long-running psychological stress.

The most common “broad moral paradigms” include:

  • Egoism. In a nutshell: Egoists do what redounds to the greatest good for the self.
  • Deontology. Duty-based ethics (i.e., Kantianism) suggests that the morally correct behavior is that which meets a generalizable duty or universal moral rule. For example, people can agree to the maxim that “It’s never okay to lie” and therefore we have a duty to avoid lying. We must do our duty, no matter the consequence.
  • Consequentialism. Consequentialism subdivides into many different groups. Utilitarians, for example, divide into “act utilitarians” (actions are judged) and “rule utilitarians” (the rules surrounding the actions are judged). Regardless of their tribe, however, consequentialists generally agree that the morally correct behavior is that which generates the greatest good or the least suffering, for the greatest number of people. Duty isn’t usually a major consideration.
  • Natural Law Theory. The natural law suggests that innate patterns in human nature — discoverable through study of universal human behavior — should govern. Popular in the Middle Ages, this approach isn’t as common anymore.
  • Divine Command Theory. The morally correct behavior is that which is willed by the supreme supernatural being(s). In other words: Do what God says.
  • Virtue Theory. The virtues rely on the development of character and follow from the ethical teachings of Aristotle. A virtue theorist balances various virtues (e.g., temperance, fortitude, bravery) to arrive at a recommended course of action. The vices (sloth, envy, etc.) should be eradicated to grow in character and thus in virtue. In a sense, the ethically correct behavior is that which the virtuous person undertakes.
  • Care Ethics. A modern innovation, care ethics seeks to preserve the relationships among those affected by an ethically difficult situation. The outcome is sometimes less relevant than maintaining amity. A special consideration is extended to people disadvantaged by the dispute.

Important non-theories include:

  • Contractarianism. The idea with contractarians is that our only moral duties are those we explicitly negotiate with others. However, this line of thinking is just a variant of selective deontology (as in, I only have a duty to those for whom I agree to incur a duty).
  • Rights Theory. Someone who emphasis rights above all other considerations is just aping a form of deontology (i.e., giving pride-of-place to the maxim that “people ought to respect the rights of others”). Depending on the justification, it’s also a variant of rule utilitarianism.
  • Honor Theory. Approaches that emphasize honor — you see it often in urban hip-hop culture that emphasizes respect — tend to loosely follow a care-ethics framework.
  • Ethical Nihilism. If you believe that there’s no such thing as morality, or that ethics can’t be universally applicable, then you’re a nihilist. But at heart, you’re really an egoist because you’re suggesting that whatever you do is, ipso facto, morally justified.
  • Hedonism. The whole “live and let live in peace and harmony, dude” mindset follows from a variant of consequentialism with a bit of egoist seasoning.
  • The Lex Talionis. The idea of “an eye for an eye” is sometimes incorrectly assumed to be a function of the natural law. In fact, natural law focuses on traits universal among humans; it’s not a surrogate for survival-of-the-fittest fetishism.

A few other points warrant mention.

First, ethical paradigms don’t relate well to the DSM-V. For example, an ethicist might classify as a “super-enlightened egoist” someone diagnosed by a psychologist as a sociopath. Many assertions of mental illness along the lines of sociopathic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder can distill into a form of ethical egoism that the psychologist simply refuses to accept as being a legitimate moral worldview. There’s long been a tension between the ethicist and the psychologist.

Second, many people mix their metaphors. They’ll follow the duty-bound approach of a Kantian for most things, but resort to consequentialist thinking when they want a free pass that Kant won’t offer. Or they’ll follow their scripture in their personal life but follow a care-ethic approach in their professional life. Again, consistency isn’t common, nor is it necessarily a desirable trait. But to the degree that people are inconsistent, they’re often consistently inconsistent.

In practice, adherents of each of these schools might come (correctly! and legitimately!) to different conclusions given the same case study. Consider the following hypothetical:

Bob arrives at work at 8 a.m. He sees his co-worker, Sally, arrive at 9 a.m. — but he discovers that she wrote 8 a.m. on her timesheet. After a bit of peeking, he concludes that she’s been faking her time card for several months, bilking her employer out of hundreds of hours of wages. Bob considers what he should do with his knowledge of Sally’s behavior.

In this situation, people can legitimately arrive at different conclusions.

Egoism What’s in it for me? Bob fundamentally doesn’t care about what Sally’s doing. He briefly considers whether to extort a payment to keep quiet or to fake his own timecards; either way, he’s not terribly invested in Sally’s theft as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Deontology What’s my duty? Bob has a duty of loyalty to his employer, so he doesn’t hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Consequentialism What’s the best outcome? Theft of wages from an employer increases the work for others and reduces the labor budget available to others. As such, Sally’s theft is (on balance) detrimental to the company and to other employees, so Bob reports her conduct to their boss.
Natural Law What would we expect a regular person to do? By reporting Sally, Bob will uphold a universal truth that crosses cultures, that people who have been injured by theft should be made whole, and that people who violate norms of conduct should not have their transgressions ignored.
Divine Command What does God will? As a devout Christian, Bob knows that stealing is wrong, so he encourages Sally to report herself and make restitution to their boss, and to repent to the Lord.
Virtue What would a good person do? Because stealing for any reason is the mark of a weak person, Bob does not hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Care What resolution preserves our relationships? Bob approaches Sally to ask why she’s been mismarking her timecards. He suspects that if she is struggling financially, he can help her out — but fundamentally he wants to help her stop her theft so he doesn’t have to report her to their boss.

Sometimes people get confused and think that because different people can make different ethical decisions for different reasons, that therefore morality as a concept is unworkable. Untrue. The complex moral reasoning of most ordinary people resembles the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: One or two paradigms are dominant, another one or two sometimes crop up, and others almost never make an appearance.

If your characters consistently behave as humans would behave in the real world, then not only are your characters more plausible, but the conflicts generated by their clashes are more powerful. Never underestimate the power of base moral conflict to drive tension and keep a plot advancing. When done well, these psychological studies drive powerful reader engagement and lead to more compelling stories.

What Would Impel You to Murder?

Statutes recognize several distinct grades of legal culpability when one human kills another. Deaths resulting from the acts of a perpetrator who didn’t intend to kill and had no ill will for the decedents — i.e., the crime lacked intent and malice — may end up with a manslaughter charge, whereas a death arising from the perpetrator’s failure to exercise due care might be charged as a negligent homicide. When a death occurs because of the willful act of the perpetrator, then the charge becomes murder and falls into one of three degrees. Many crimes of passion get charged as second-degree murder. Premeditated killings earn a first-degree murder charge. Layered into the mix are a host of defenses — insanity, self-defense, accident, impairment, victim retaliation, etc. — that attempt to minimize the mix of intent and malice that lead to specific charges and specific sentences.
The law’s judgment, however, imperfectly squares with moral judgment. To many ethicists, killing in reasonable self-defense — including during combat — and killing that follows from an unforeseeable accident, both carry minimal moral culpability. A person’s moral burden increases when a death results from an avoidable set of circumstances, like intoxication or reckless driving. It increases further when a killing that might legally be justified nevertheless could have been avoided with non-lethal approaches to conflict resolution. It increases still further when the perpetrator put himself into an environment where there was a known and avoidable risk of violence, like when an angry husband returns home to confront a cheating wife. When you cross into the threshold of first-degree murder, an ethical distinction follows from the reason for the crime; this reason may appear in sentencing memoranda but usually not in the charge. In general, the more the act of murder depersonalizes the victim, the higher the level of ethical censure.
Let’s shift gears. I’ve been doing a lot of editing of short stories for the Brewed Awakenings anthology. As part of my prep, I’ve visited libraries and bookstores to browse recently published novels and anthologies, to get a better feel for how certain plot devices unfold or how other authors manage the flow of dialogue and contextual information within a scene. What I’ve taken away from that exercise is that for many writers — although, to my satisfaction, none in our anthology — killing is something that just seems to happen, often without malice or intent. Murder becomes a plot device that’s divorced from any real grasp of what the crime actually entails in the real world. (It’s curious how many contemporary novels rely on killing and rape as staple plot conventions, despite near-universal condemnation of the practices. Perhaps there’s something significant in that.)
For an average person, the innate prohibition against murder is so strong that the only realistic way he’d kill another is by accident or through avoidable impairment. So when authors craft tales about premeditated murder, the killer rarely works when he’s an archetype of Joe Sixpack. Premeditated murder by a psychologically competent offender occurs for only a small number of reasons:

  • Financial or reputational gain (contract hit men, insurance windfalls, gang violence, failed drug deals, prison murders)
  • Revenge (grudges and other personal animosities against a known victim, honor killings, failed marriages)
  • Jealousy (knocking off a rival for someone’s affections, envy over the good fortune of another, killing a scorning lover)
  • Service to a cause (ideology, religion, sociocultural tribal codes)
  • To avoid exposure (cover up other crimes, silence whistleblowers)
  • To gain exposure (school shootings, serial killing, police-assisted suicide)
  • Bias (hatred of known or unknown others who exhibit a disfavored characteristic, tribal initiations, out-of-control bullying)
  • Thrill (killing for fun by a person not psychologically compromised, BDSM snuff activity)

Of course, reasons for premeditated murder by the psychologically incompetent run the gamut — “the voices made me do it,” etc. — but that class of perpetrator is less interesting because they’re acting out on disordered compulsions, so their actions are rarely voluntary in the sense they rationally consider their motive, means and opportunity to kill another absent any legal justification for doing so. In this sense, although some serial killers are impaired, certain diagnoses within the DSM-V don’t rise to the level of acute psychological disorder that removes moral culpability. A person with antisocial personality disorder, for example, has a diagnosis that may well be admissible at trial, but all but the most severely afflicted can still function normally and make rational choices about first-degree murder.
All of the above having been established, the question for authors is straightforward: Can you explain why a rational person willingly ended the life of another? The cultural and even instinctive taboo against unjustified homicide runs deep. A person rarely just wakes up one day and snaps into Murder One (that’s what Murder Two is for); the sequence of events leading to the pulling of the trigger or the wielding of the knife take weeks, months or years to develop. Introducing a premeditated murder at random makes for a thin plot.
But the larger question rolls beyond authors and includes everyone. What stops us from killing? For some, it’s that pre-rational inhibition rooted in culture, religion or instinct. For others, it flows from a panhumanist love for all living things. And don’t forget the fear of arrest, trial and incarceration and the deep loss of friends, family and freedom that follow. Or about the physical difficulty that comes from subduing another and the exposure to blood and internal organs that may dissuade the squeamish. Authors rarely seek recourse to the rich literature on ethical paradigms; if they did, they’d realize that certain ethical frameworks justify the don’t-murder injunction using starkly different logic models. (Consequentialists, I think, have the hardest time with this problem.)
There’s no such thing as a random killing. Each murder has a reason for its commission that outweighs the relative risk of its consequences. For authors, there’s probably some wisdom in avoiding the rape-and-murder trope unless you can paint a compelling character sketch of the perpetrator — why did he do it, and why didn’t the fear of consequences deter him?
For everyone else, it’s a useful exercise to consider the circumstances that could lead you to cold-blooded murder. And if you find that you cannot list any, then follow up with the question: Am I deceiving myself?