How to Plan Your Book

(Like a Software Developer)

The first thing my husband said when I announced I wanted to write a novel was, “make sure you have a plan”. I dutifully ignored his advice, believing my creativity would take me where I needed to go, sat down at my desk and started writing. After six months of furious work I looked up, blinked a few times and then swore loudly. I had written myself into a dead end. I had no idea where my story was going. My characters didn’t know either. We were completely lost. I realised I needed a plan.

I crept sheepishly into the living room and admitted to my husband that the only way forward was to step back, scrap much of what I had written and write a plan. Fighting the urge to say “I told you so” he chuckled and said, “That’s probably a good idea.”

You see, to him it had all been so obvious. As the owner of his own software development company, he had worked on large-scale projects many times before. He knew from experience that anything of scale requires some forethought if not significant planning. In the software industry before they start actually programming they spend time planning exactly what they are going to build. This allows them to identify issues ahead of time.  To him, writing a book was no different. He approached it like a software developer. He knew that laying out the structure, plot and characters from start to finish would allow me to test my logic, find flaws in the plot and improve my story long before I invested any time in actually writing the thing.

how to plan your book

Susie Mander discovers the importance of planning when it comes to writing a novel. Image Credit: Pete via Flickr Creative Commons.

On a purely conceptual level I understood what he was saying. If I had a plan I would make less mistakes and therefore save myself time and money. I had already wasted six months writing around and around in circles. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. The only problem was I had no idea how to lay out an entire novel. It was completely new to me. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

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So I signed up to an intensive writers’ group and over the course of a few weeks learned how to break my story down into manageable parts.

One week we focused on character. We sat around in a group sipping green tea and eating gluten free biscuits while introducing our protagonists as if they were real people. The group then asked questions—often quite confronting questions like “What is their motivation?” and “What do they want?”—and we had to respond. Putting us on the spot like that quickly revealed just how well (or poorly) we knew our characters and where we needed to do more work. Perhaps the most useful question was, “But why?” Answering the question “why?” for each decision a character made revealed whether the character’s actions were necessary to plot development, whether they were behaving in character, or whether they needed to be reworked or cut all together. By going through this process I discovered I had no idea who my protagonist was. It was a humbling experience.

For a few weeks I simply worked on fleshing out my characters. This may seem excessive. I used to think so. I was always in such a hurry. I despaired at the thought of day after day ticking by when all I had achieved was reams of notes, family trees, and mood boards stuck all over my wall showing the cast and their costumes. But I persevered.

After working on all major characters I spent months on plot structure. I discovered gaping holes—like why would a young woman want to kill her mother when her mother seems so nice? In the past I had always printed off my work, cut it into pieces and laid it out on the living room floor but I discovered a wonderful viewing mode in Microsoft Word called Outline which allows you to drag and drop sections of work. I used this to fix the holes. I started supplementary documents like a style sheet and one called “The World of Tibuta” where I listed all the things I needed to create a fantasy world: nations, maps, fighting styles, weapons, rules of magic, creatures and their descriptions. As far as I was concerned I was ready to start writing again. Or so I thought.

I pitched the plot to my writing group. They found more holes. I tried it on my husband. He had a few questions. My brother-in-law read my outline and was confused. I took a deep breath, collected their feedback and tried again. And again. And one more time for good measure. When I actually sat down to write the book I sighed with relief. It felt good to be back in the saddle.

This isn’t to say it was easy from here on it. Far from it. I did multiple rewrites, naming each draft the way a developer names versions of software: v1, v1.2 and so on. Then I worked with my editor on a structural edit and a copy edit. This took another couple of months. I worked with a graphic illustrator. I spent at least a week trying to write a blurb. Then there was laying it out and proof reading it. Now that it’s finally finished—or as finished as these things can be—I am daunted by the prospects of starting all over again for the next book. Still, I am confident because I know I won’t cut corners this time. From now on I will approach writing a book like a software developer: plan first. Write later.

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