Planning vs Spontaneity

I recently joined an online chat with author Polly Courtney, who rather infamously ditched her publishers, Harper Collins over ‘naff covers’ (and a few other issues like how her books were positioned in the market) to pursue the self-publishing path. Here’s what she had to say about Planning vs. Spontaneity.

Louise: Hi Polly. I’d like to know if you plan your novels to an inch of their lives, like the worksheets here, or if you shoot from the hip on a few things. I’m a planner, but I do find I can kill my enjoyment of the story if I plan each scene too much before I sit down and write. Although it is easier to keep the flow going with everything planned out carefully. Just wondered how you handle the split between planning and spontaneity.

Polly: Hi Louise, I’m with you there – I’m a planner. However, I also agree that there should be a degree of spontaneity and freedom for characters to do what they like. My process is to think (for quite a while) about the theme, what I’m trying to achieve with the book (e.g. ‘open up people’s minds to how it feels to be a youth today’ or whatever), then I think about main characters and map out key events that need to happen, then I go to the next level of detail and write 1-2 lines about what happens in each chapter. It’s only when I’ve got this (relatively tight) plan that I sit down to write the chapters. But as I said to Charlotte, often the characters go off and do their own thing as the book develops, so I am continually updating the storyline to suit them. The characters are the most important thing!
That’s just me, though – there are no rights or wrongs. I know a lot of writers (including PD James apparently) who just sit down with a blank page on their screen and see what comes…

I’d like to dissect a few pieces of this comment to explore further.

Think about the theme – As we know, a theme in a romance novel is an important part of the story. The theme sets the tone of the story and dictates the plot. Common romantic themes (often called ‘tropes’) are accidental pregnancy, baby on the doorstep, reformed playboy, blackmail, boss and employee – you get the picture. A good, tried and tested trope goes a long way to catching a publishers attention. Read more about tropes here.

Map out key events: Now this is plotting and in a romance is based on the characters goals and motivations. This is what drives the plot. So by mapping out key events what she really means is doing a detailed character analysis so you know what drives your characters, what they long for and what they fear. Then using this as your divining rod, develop the plot or key events.

Write 1-2 lines about what happens in each chapter: Here she’s fleshing out what happens in each chapter. This means concentrating on how your characters react to each other and to the situation they find themselves in. Every action must have a purpose and every reaction must be in line with your characters motivation.

Doesn’t sound so simple now, does it?

But within this framework the characters develop as the story progresses. Updating the structure to accommodate them keeps you to your format and keeps your story on track to the inevitable HEA!

Read the full chat archive here.

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