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Sarah Webb and Martina Reilly on Plotting & Planning

Writing.ie | Resources | Plotting and Planning

Sarah Webb

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To plot or not to plot? That is an interesting question. Over the years I have realised that it very much depends on what type of person you are.

If you are a planner – if you pack days before going away, if you know exactly where your passport is before travelling, then you’re a planner and you may need to plan your book.

If you pack the hour before leaving for the airport, if you hate planning anything weeks or months before it happens, than you’d probably think planning would kill your book’s spontaneity. And for you it might do just that.

So if you’re a planner like me – you need to plan. I’ve also interviewed a writer who is not a planner – the wonderful Martina Reilly – so you have both views.

So first, Martina’s answers:

Martina, how much planning do you do before starting a book?

I do no planning at all. I tend to get an idea of what I’d like to explore. In my next book ‘What If’ I had a few things I wanted to write about. The first, a moment where a life is changed forever (a lot of my books are about such moments, I am unable to get away from that, though in this book it is very obvious what that moment is) and the second thing I wanted to write about was Alzheimer’s. Having experienced first hand how devastating this disease is, I wanted to write an uplifting story where Lily uses her disease to ask forgiveness from her daughter. But how do you ask for forgiveness when you can barely remember?

That was the challenge and so I just dived straight in and began to write.

Other issues are explored in the book, ones which I hadn’t foreseen and that’s always a surprise. The importance of family ties and also the danger of toxic ones was something that I hadn’t anticipated writing about. I do this through examining various families, various types of family set ups and exploring how your family relationships affect your future relationships.

That’s not to say the book is really heavy, it’s actually very funny!

Do you do any work on the characters?

None at all. I suppose I see my characters as people I have been introduced to at a party. If I like them, I leave them in the story and get to know them over the course of nine months or so (the length of time it takes me to write a book). These characters begin to grow week by week as I find out things about them. I then go back to the start of the story and flesh them out using everything I’ve learned. Some characters are much easier to know than others. In the next book, there is a prickly character called Deirdre, she was a hard one to get right, but to my mind, she is the best character in the book now. She was hard because I really was inventing a brand new person, one based on various aspects of people I’d observed. But seeing inside her head was quite difficult….

Any story boarding/plotting?

No! Having said that, diving straight in can be a bit of a disaster sometimes. Maybe about 40,000 words in, I’ll discover that the way I’m telling the story is all wrong. I might need to introduce a better/stronger plot (yikes) or I might feel that the book would be much better if it were told from a first person narrative instead of a third person narrative. I fight against it for a while until I KNOW it’s not working and then I’ll go back and rework. I have found though that it doesn’t really hold me up as I get a renewed interest in making the book right and I fly along. The way I write is quite organic, I suppose. I like to surprise myself with the story so that way I hope the reader is surprised too. If I plotted and planned, I think I’d lose the spontaneity with which I write.
I’m also a very impulsive person, so plotting and planning would drive me mental.

In this book, June, the manager of Lakelands featured quite a lot. My editor, Ciara Doorley,  said she was great, but that she felt that Deirdre (the prickly one!) would be a better person to explore. She was so right and I was kicking myself that I hadn’t seen it. Maybe if I’d taken a little time at the beginning it might have been obvious to me. But nah…still won’t change the way I work!

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

Very little. I suppose I edit as I go so most of my books (bar three) have been published with very minor changes. Aside from Deirdre getting more of a starring role in this book, there was very little to do.

But I do love editing, believe it or not!

It’s like the sun shining through the fog when someone you trust points out how you can make your novel better!


And now I’ll ask myself the very same questions:

Sarah, how much planning do you do before starting a book?

Lots! Unlike Martina I can’t start writing a book if I haven’t thought about the characters and the plot for many weeks (even months or years in some cases). Once I have the initial idea – for example ‘a book about a young Irish girl who dreams of being a famous ballerina’ – I grab a yellow A4 notebook and I start jotting down notes. I also collect clippings from magazines and newspapers on the subject and I read extensively around the subject. All these things trigger my own plot ideas and make me more confident that I know what I’m writing about.

Do you do any work on the characters?

Yes. I write down everything I know or am starting to find out about the main characters – what they look like, their birthdays, their dreams, hopes, fears . . .
I give them names – I love naming characters. Once I find the right name for a character they become much easier to visualise and understand.

Any story boarding/plotting?

Sarah’s scene by scene plot notes

Again, yes. I go through the book scene by scene, jotting down notes about what I’d like to happen. This is all very much subject to change, it’s just a way of keeping myself going. It also means that I’m not so frightened about getting ‘stuck’ half way through the book. I always know how the book is going to end – the middle is a little more vague.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

Again, a lot. I usually do around five or six rewrites, often more, depending on the book. Some books require more rewriting than others. Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze didn’t require too much rewriting; The Shoestring Club, my last adult book required quite a bit of rewriting. In fact the first draft is very different to the final book. Pretty much everything changed and I think it’s a much better book for all the thought, planning and rewriting.

So there you go, two writers, two very different approaches. Now which type of writer are you? Do you need to plan or are you happier just sitting down and writing?

Sarah Webb’s latest novel for adults The Memory Box is out now in all good bookshops. Martina Reilly’s latest book What If is also released this month, and in an innovative move, Martina auctioned the opportunity to have the book dedicated – she said, “As this is book 17, I realised that I had run out of people to dedicate my books to! So…I have decided to auction off the dedication and give the money to Canteen Ireland – an organisation that works with teenagers who have been diagnosed with cancer.”

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