Liars Club

Readers’ Questions: How Much Do You Plan Before You Write?

by Merry Jones on December 29, 2010

in Advice for Writers,Liars Club Philly,The Writing Life,The Writing Process

Burning Question 15: Readers most frequently asked questions, answered!

Readers often ask me about planning.  Do I know the ending of a mystery before I begin?  How much of the story evolves during the writing; how much is decided in advance?

In a way, these are the same questions we humans ask about free will.  Do we (as characters in a mystery) really make our own decisions?  Or are our actions predetermined, our fate subject to some divine design?

The answers, as they pertain to my writing, aren’t all that clear.  Actually, I plan a pretty clear path before I write, so I won’t go off on tangents and get lost in some dead end or maze.  The story needs to move steadily forward, so I need to head in a definite direction, toward resolution.

But writing doesn’t just begin at the beginning of the story.  Before I write a single word, all the elements have to be ready to go.  Which means: research has to be done.  Before I start, I need to know everything necessary to tell the story.  For example, for RIVER KILLINGS, I needed to know about sculling and sculls and boathouses.  For DEADLY NEIGHBORS, I had to learn details about dog fighting and its grisly culture.  For SUMMER SESSION, which comes out in 2011, I had to collect facts about brain injuries, aphasia, PTSD, narcolepsy, and what it’s like to be a soldier in Iraq.

Once I had that information, I was able to begin telling the story, following my basic outline, presenting events and characters as planned, introducing obstacles and predicaments according to the arc and rhythm of the tale.

All of my planning, however, at times goes out the window.  Characters sometimes rebel, refusing to take blame for crimes they insist they haven’t committed, or the reverse–committing crimes of which I’d never suspected them.  In THE RIVER KILLINGS, for example, the villain wasn’t the guy I’d thought he was.  In fact, I was shocked, nearing the end of the book, to learn that it was someone else completely.

Plots often twist because the characters move in unanticipated spurts or reveal motives I haven’t deliberately assigned.  At some point during the writing, they come alive, possessing their own wills and relationships, dictating what keys I should type.

I have learned that these efforts of characters, while fascinating, are NOT always helpful to the plot or the completion of the book.  A secondary character sometimes wants to shine in the spotlight.  A main character with an ego wants a backstory incident to get more attention.  But, once in a while, characters suggest a new route to the plot’s resolution, one far more interesting than the path I’d pre-planned.

And so, back to the question, how much planning do I do before I write?  A lot.  I have a map, complete with mountains and valleys.  But do I know the whole story in advance?  Despite all my research, outlines and detailed charts, no.  Not ever.  Never.  All I really start out with is a direction, a compass, an initial crime.  Oh, and a bunch of characters capable of mutiny.

Merry Jones is the author of the Zoe Hayes mystery series and several humor and non-fiction works.  Her latest suspense novel, SUMMER SESSION, is due out in 2011.

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Matt DeJulio December 30, 2010 at 10:14 am

This is fascinating knowledge. Words sometimes flow in mysterious fashions. While I am not a fiction writer, I know when I write an essay or even a simple, short business letter I have my whole thought process worked out in advance. But once I put the words to paper, the creative process takes over and the tone and substance evolves as I write. I fine tune and edit, but never change the basic course of thought. If I put the paper aside for a day and try to put the same thoughts to a new paper, the words come out with a very different slant. Maybe our deep rooted ID takes over or some divine inspiration, or even the weather, but something never comes out the same the next day. Since writing a book, whether fiction or non fiction involves more than one day of thought, the characters and plot are bound to change. I am all for mutinies when appropriate.
Have a healthy and happy New Year!!

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