Saturday, 20 August 2016

How Much is Too Much Planning?

I talked a while back, here and to a lesser extent here, about how my novel writing process has gone from being a fairly laid back and make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair to a current level of preparation that could justly be compared with that of minor military campaigns.

And honestly, I'd come to the conclusion a while back that I was preparing as much as anyone reasonably could: plotting out the entire novel as a detailed synopsis and then breaking it down into a chapter plan before a single word hits the page, that's pretty organised, right?  And it seemed to be working, too: with the skeleton of a plot in place, I was freer to focus on characters, dialogue, action, all the fun stuff that can sometimes end up being two dimensional in a first draft when simply keeping everything rolling becomes the overriding impulse.

Then I got to my current work in progress, and everything exploded.  The thing is, it's a book that requires an astonishing amount of world-building - the world-building, really is what it's all about - and not having that ready in advance has been disastrous.  I mean, not disastrous, I'll get it figured out, but right now I'm thinking that'll mean an entire draft more than I'd normally do, which is hardly a good thing.  Plus, the writing's been like pulling teeth, and then putting those teeth in a sock and hitting myself in the face with it, because it's not fun at all knowing you're doing a rubbish job of something and I've been doing a really rubbish job of inventing a complicated alien society and ecosystem on the fly.

At the same time as that was sinking in I was talking to people about my synopsis for the next book in line, and the feedback that came from a couple of readers was that they weren't clear on how the central relationship was supposed to play out.  As we discussed it, my writer friend Charlotte Bond suggested I should try putting together some character profiles.  My first reaction was one of wariness, since that sounds awfully like a writing exercise and writing exercises are one of the many things I classify as people who claim to be writing doing something else instead.  But I didn't have any better solution, and I really did need to get this stuff worked out.  So I've been giving it a go, and, what do you know, the results have been surprisingly great so far.  Looking at the characters in isolation is pushing me to delve into their motivations and backstories in a way that I know I'd struggle to do if I was worrying about having to keep the wheels of a plot spinning.  Minor characters are developing a level of complexity I'd normally reserve for my leads.  And now I'm thinking that I really need to do something similar for the world: the major locations, the major systems, perhaps even the major events of its history.

I've always been distrustful of this sort of my approach, too, and for the exact same reason.  If I'm honest, whenever I hear fantasy writers (it's always fantasy writers) talking about how they map out every last corner of their world before they begin, down to what rodents like to eat each other and who cleans out the privies in that tiny village the characters won't ever visit, I tend to assume that they are in fact prevaricating.  Because, you know, they are.  But I'm telling myself that this feels different: I already have the novel planned in its entirety, so I'm not trying to craft anything extraneous; the character traits and relationships I'm figuring out will almost certainly find their way into the final book, and I have faith that so will the world-building, once I get to that.

But where will this all end? I have no idea, though it's easy to start imagining nightmare scenarios where advance plotting means writing the entire novel before I ever start writing the novel, trapping myself into some kind of weird Möbius reality in which planning only ever leads to more planning.  And wait, there's a word for that, isn't?  I'm pretty sure it's called prevarication.  So let's not do that.

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