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How Much of What you write is carefully planned and How Much is not?
Tony Colina
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2012 11:49 AM
Hello everybody....something I'd like to share opinions about....I often happen to read novels whose chapters are almost assembly-line crafted, if you get what I mean...for example....all chapters are ten pagers, or whatever. I've always asked myself, is that a sign of great discipline and skill in writing, or is it just some editor's gimmick?
I never plan the size of my chapters in advance (well, there are many other things I don't), and so, for example, in the same novel I can have very short chapters mingled with very long ones, as you can see in my novel 'Of Rust and Rain', the first five chapter of which you can find in the slipstream/intersection section of this site.
I'd really love to know what you think about this topic and shere ideas....
thanx, folks

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2012 12:09 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Nothing is planned!

Just kidding. (I'm a tad lightheaded from doing my yoga poses. Its been a while.)

I plan the characters, the plot, and where places are situated on a map I drew using little charts and lists. Then I just write. Any one who has been around the block will tell you that getting the information down is the first step. When you're done, then comes the editing and revision stage where you cut out the fluff, the shit, and the nonsensical. I have recently found that sometimes I end up recutting chapters for page length or the flow of events. It really is just about what the story calls for.

Chapter length aside, make sure that your characters and/or plot are almost well rounded when you start. The story my shoot off in a direction you don't want it to go (which may be for the best), but you should have a good idea where you might want it to go.

I'm an extremely disciplined writer. My story goes where I want it to go and my characters do what I want them to do. It is my story. I control it. I plan ahead and make notes. (I shocked my creative writing professor with my amount of control, and he had been teaching 43 years.)  I know that not all writers can do this. Most just have to write and see what vomits out onto the page, then go from there. I used to be like this, put I have a tendency to fly off on tangents that are not at all relevant to the story. That is why I plan everything, except chapter length of course.
Tony Colina
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2012 12:16 PM
thanks for yr comment, LA.
course I know discipline's a very useful ace up any writer's sleeve, but...don't you think sometimes (just sometimes) it may be interesting to give a bit of rope to the story and see where it takes you?...

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2012 3:18 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Actually, I plan where the story is going, but not every single step along the way. I have fun with my character interactions. If you read my work, you'll see that I use my dialogue to show their relationships. Even though I plan my characters out, it only helps free up "a bit of rope" because I don't have to think about how they might react. I can snap off dialogue and reactions in a snap. It really is quite enjoyable having an argument with myself.

Like I said, I have to plan a majority of it because my nature does not allow me to let everything flow free. I zig, zag, smack into walls, run in circles, and jump off cliffs trying to fly. I have to give myself a leash. I must plan. Although, I should also say that if you saw the papers all over my desk, I don't look it. I've got my notes and my manuscript everywhere. In file folders, in my purse, on my desk, on notecards, in notebooks, etc. It was an adventure trying to figure out how many chapters I had written down in my Moleskine in between the notes on cigarettes, matches, my timeline, map, doodles, short story excerpts I was working on, blah blah blah.
Alexandria Brim
Posted: Saturday, February 4, 2012 6:38 AM
Joined: 10/20/2011
Posts: 353

I always say that when I set out writing, I know Point A and Point Z. Points B through Y are surprises along the way.

Of course, I have ideas for things I wish to see in my story. But I let the characters bring me to these points. And if their paths don't ultimately include them, I abandoned them for things that belong on the path.

"all chapters are ten pagers, or whatever."

I used to believe chapters had to be x amount of pages. But then I read a few other books and realized it didn't have to be as such. Chapters just had to begin and end at logical points. Once I realized this, I felt much freer while writing.
Tony Colina
Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2012 4:09 PM
hi Alexandra....
point A and point Z, yes.....of course.
sometimes i just have point A and point Z is, so to say, distorted in haze, or some curtain thicker than that (this was the case with OF RUST AND RAIN, the vocel whose first 5 chapter I posted here)...let's say the veil was broken as we (the story, the characters, and I) went from letter to letter...

Tony Colina
Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2012 4:26 PM
you speak about papers averywhere...
I know that scene.....sounds familiar, to say the least...

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012 11:50 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Oh, it doesn't surprise me to hear that. It makes perfect sense.

I keep trying to organize, but it never seems to work out without a place to put it all.
Angela Martello
Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012 5:53 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394

I have a plan, more or less - but then my characters go and do something that shifts the plan.

Seriously, I basically have a broad outline and some of the main characters in mind (or jotted down in a notebook or typed into a separate Word doc), but the action details, the individual dialogs, the sudden plot shifts, new characters, and so on, all come to me while I'm actively writing or taking a walk or doing just about anything.

Writing for me has always been a very organic, evolving, and sometimes downright surprising process.

Tony Colina
Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2012 6:04 AM
hi Angela,
when did you copy-and-paste your words from my pc?

seriously....reading your words was like looking at myself in the mirror.....that's the way it is with me, too: broad outline (sometimes hazy, too) and some of the main characters. then it all becomes organic, evolving and, yes, surprising, too. just as you said.
feel free to have a look at the first seven chapters of my OF RUST AND RAIN. I'll be delighted to read your work.

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, February 13, 2012 10:43 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

I try to outline a plot, but once i start actually writing a section, it tends to shift and alter itself. Characters start doing other things.....  Damn tricky, those characters.

Maria Granovsky
Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 11:47 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 28

I can't outline worth a damn. I couldn't even do it for law school courses. So I'm in the camp that knows its points A and Z, and lets the characters lead the way in between.

That said, towards the end of the novel, I do create a list of all the odds and ends that need to be explained, squared away, and generally tidied up. I have a mental image of multiple strands that I must braid neatly and bind with a bow. Because as a reader, nothing spoils my enjoyment of a mystery or a thriller more than loose ends that feel like slopiness on the part of the writer (which is different, of course, from the planned open endings designed for potential sequels). 
Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 8:41 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

As far as plot and characters and events, its roughly 30% planned 60% of nebulous ideas, and 10% complete surprises from left field.

World building is a different story.  That's about 85% planned before I go into a story and 15% evolution from character and events of the story itself.
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 3:26 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

It’s nice if chapters have similar length so that there is a nice cadence to the story, but I think it’s not as important as other things. You need to separate your writing goals into high-order and low-order concerns, or you’ll go mad! J

I think more pressing that the overall narrative arc and character development are carefully planned. Why is a character doing what she’s doing? How is it serving the big picture stuff? Is it somehow forwarding the plot? Or is it extraneous and intrusive? I just think that If you get the main things right, you can always play around with the chapter length later!

Nicki Hill
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 12:06 PM
Joined: 4/22/2012
Posts: 175

I'm in the Points-A-and-Z camp.  It's funny when I have people beta-read my WIP, because they'll have ideas for where they think the story is going, and I'm like, "Yes, please tell me where this is going, because I honestly don't know my next step right now."   

I've always enjoyed writing in collaboration, because I can bounce ideas off of whomever I've working with and vice versa, and between the 2+ of us, we can craft a pretty solid outline.  On my own, however, things get a little nebulous.  Sometimes it feels like trying to catch light in a jar.  The best I can do is write furiously and hope that the majority of the impression makes it from my brain onto the page.  Outlining at those times is completely out - it's too clinical, and I'll lose the spark.  Not to mention, if I try to outline too far ahead, it's a guarantee that my characters will slip the leash and run off in a completely different direction, and then I'm left trying to herd them back in line, at which point the plot has at least wobbled precariously if not outright veered zig-zag fashion across the page.  It's better for me to just write and figure it out as I go along, and generally follow the lead of my characters.  But I always have Point Z in mind, and that's what really drives my plot - if the characters venture too far afield, it's time to cut and rewrite and force them back onto my path again.

When I've come to Point Z, that's when I'll go back and clean up any odds and ends still lying around - and I know there will be plenty!

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 12:00 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

Wow, had a rather long response written and then hit the wrong key combination and poof!  Gone.  So let me try to reconstruct:

I've said in other posts that I outline.  If two (or three, or four) characters need to be in the same place at the same time, but took different paths to get there, planning is essential.

But, some parts of my outline are more diffuse than others.  Some scenes, I have imagined in great detail before I set a single word on the page.  In other places, I have a general idea of what needs to happen to move the story forward, but not of the events that lead up to this necessary event.  Case in point: A month or two ago, I was writing a section of a book about two lovers who had to spend some time apart.  Obviously they didn't want to, and in my outline I had them separating, but it wasn't until I started writing about their relationship, that I came up with a string of events that led to the separation being a logical (but still painful) decision.  This string of events was not planned in advance, but it definitely solved a problem for me.

Or, last week, I was writing about two different groups of people who were traveling in the same direction.  Both groups had the same destination, and each group had the ability to aid the other, so I brought them together.  It wasn't necessary to the story, exactly, but it did allow me to have fewer traveling scenes.  (I get bored with a lot of scenes where all people do is set up camp for the night.)

As for chapter length...I actually write my entire first draft with no chapter divisions, only scene divisions.  I revise a bit, remove and add scenes, and by the third draft or so, I find the material naturally dividing itself into chapters.  They are most definitely not all the same length, but neither are any of them shorter than 4 or 5 pages.

So in the end, I do have point A and point Z, but maybe also points C,D, J, L, O, P, and W.  And sometimes the rest surprises me.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 6:57 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Not everything is carefully planned, but everything is carefully written and VERY carefully revised.  I don't outline before I start, and have only a good idea of the main "problem" and a very good idea of the protagonist's motivations. 

In terms of chapter length, I used to divvy up chapters around 4500 to 6500 words because I personally like chapters to be roughly the same size and give me about the feel of a short story.  I find very short and very long chapters uncomfortable, as a reader.  Sometimes, if closely related, I might have two POVs in one chapter (marked by a strong transition clue, of course.) 

Then I got an editor who wanted every POV in its own chapter.  So in the current group of books, that's what I'm doing (I now have a new editor for the last two books, but in order to make the series consistent, I'm sticking to the original editor's way of doing things.)    In first or main draft, I don't worry at all about chapter lengths, but in revision I might flesh out a very short chapter created for POV reasons only, or move the POV break to combine it with another for a more regular length.  I also break up a very long POV section into one or more chapters. 

Since many of my books are multi-POV (and multi-volume) I often write the POV strands separately and then braid them at the end.  At that point, I'm also ensuring that the main POV has the most "space," that the timelines of each POV work out (I've been keeping notes throughout and try to keep them all charted--who is where when, and how long it takes for information to travel between them), and so on.  Lots of "and so on."  A few times I've been able to write this kind of book straight through, but that's usually when characters are close enough for regular contact. 

Posted: Sunday, September 2, 2012 12:39 PM
Joined: 1/9/2012
Posts: 22

I always used to be firmly in the A to Z camp. One of my books was finished - as I thought - but something about it kept bugging me. I put it away for a while (a couple of years, actually) and when I came back I realized that Z wasn't Z at all... Busy with a major rewrite as we speak. I will be more open minded next time.

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