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Filling The Blank page: Plotting and Planning With Jennifer Burke

Writing.ie | Resources | Plotting and Planning

Jennifer Burke

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 I am giving a talk at the Red Line Book Festival in October 2014 on writing a novel. While planning the talk, I began rummaging through my cupboard where I throw all my notes and plans and scraps of novels. I found four A4 sheets taped together, on which I had drawn a semi-circle from the bottom left hand corner to the bottom right hand corner – like a setting sun.

This was my story arc. On this arc, I plotted out my first novel, The Secret Son, chapter by chapter, main-event by main-event.

Planning a novel is not an exact science, but I am convinced it is necessary. It doesn’t have to be the first thing that you do – in fact, it probably should wait until you’ve quite a bit of writing done. Nothing motivates like words on paper. But once you have a few key scenes written and you start thinking about stitching them together, a plan is essential.

I like the analogy of the compass. If you went hiking in the woods, you wouldn’t spend the entire time staring at your compass – you’d miss the scenery. But it’s a comfort to know the compass is there, and it will guide you when you start to stray. If you didn’t bring the compass at all, you’d be nervous, or at least you should be. When you get lost hiking, you can’t see the wood for the trees.

My point is that if you have your novel planned, if you know where it’s going and how the characters will develop, it leaves you free to be creative with the language, the characters and even the storyline. Knowing you have the comfort of the plan should things start to fall apart should be a comfort. Remember, your novel needs to flow from beginning to end. There is nothing worse than a disjointed book. Readers expect every word to be leading somewhere, and without an overall plan, how can this be done?

Pictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.A plan should never constrain. It should be empowering – giving you a structure within which to proceed.

I found the visual structure of the story arc useful in plotting The Secret Son, but actually not too helpful on my second novel, Levi’s Gift.

I was tingling with excitement about the idea for my second novel, Levi’s Gift. It began for me when I was inspired by a trip to Italy. The storylines and characters flowed faster than I could write them. I started writing bits and pieces whenever I had the time. A scene here. Character interactions there. Before I knew it, I had gone way past the planning stage and all I had was a jumble of scenes, not a coherent book. I didn’t know where to start myself!

Because I had allowed myself flow freely in the first stage, I needed a tight plan to bring it all together. Levi’s Gift is divided into three parts. So I had an A4 page for each part, onto which I ruled boxes for each chapter, or section. I filled in the key story points for each chapter into the boxes. I could soon see patterns – some chapters were fuller than others. In some cases, there was too long between chapters with real action. Some characters were coming to the fore more than others. Detailing the plot in this organised way gave me a realistic picture of how my story would appear to a reader, and that knowledge gave me the ability to shape the novel in the way I wanted.
Knowledge is power.

In my press full of writing material, I also found pages of character interviews. In these, I posed questions to my characters and they answered them. Yes, it does sound like I’ve tipped over from writer to crazy lady who thinks the voices in her head are real! But as any published author will tell you, character interviews are essential to dissecting the people in your book. Just because you write them, doesn’t mean you can make them into anything you want. If they are to be real to the reader, they must have a life of their own.

In the interviews will be more information about my characters than ever appear on the pages on the novel. But they do give characters depth and let them be presented in a more realistic way.

Plotting and planning shouldn’t feel like a chore, or a constraint. It should feel like a relief that you have a map to guide you. Your plan can be in whatever format you like – remember, it is only a guide. It can be scrapped or amended at any time. But if you don’t have a firm understanding of the flow of your novel, how can you expect your reader to follow the story seamlessly?

Remember too that if you want to get published, you will end up pitching your novel to the industry. The writing industry is a business – where plans and standards are key. A standard commercial novel will be at least 100,000 words. Science fiction tends to be longer at 120,000 words. A novella, or short novel, can be anything between 10,000 and 50,000 words. Young adults (YA) books are usually somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 words. This is of course flexible, but agents and publishers are inundated with manuscripts. Pitching a science fiction book at 80,000 words doesn’t make you look like you are breaking a mould. It makes you stand out in a bad way, like you didn’t do the research or couldn’t reach the word count. Plotting and planning will help with these technicalities.

(c) Jennifer Burke

If you are starting to write, check out Jennifer’s previous articles:

Finding a Story

Filling the Blank Page

Reworking the Finished Story

A Writing Life & Getting Proactive About Publishing

Read Margaret Bonass-Madden’s interview with Jennifer here – ‘On Being a Winner’

 

 

 

About the author

Jennifer Burke is a Dublin based author and solicitor. In July 2013, her life changed forever when a TV3 camera crew burst into her office to announce that she had won their Write A Bestseller competition, and with it a three book deal with Poolbeg Press. Her first novel The Secret Son was published in September 2013 to critical acclaim. Its success in the bestsellers list prompted Poolbeg Press to establish a new imprint, Ward River Press, which focuses on accessible literary fiction. Jennifer also writes shorter fiction. Her short story, Leaving the Cold Behind, was published in the 2012 From the Well Anthology and she has been shortlisted for the past three consecutive years in the Fish Flash Fiction competition. Jennifer takes part in a monthly writing group in the Irish Writers Centre. Her second novel, Levi’s Gift, is available now – pick up your copy online here..

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