“How much planning or plotting do you do before beginning the first draft?”
– Question by Cheyenne Trumbo
I think this is a question many writers ask of each other. In a craft where so much is down to personal preference, how do you work out when it’s the right time to do something, or tell when a project is “ready” for the next stage?
It really depends on your particular strengths and preferred writing style. Do you prefer to write with a clear plan, well-described world and characters you already know every secret and gesture of? Or do you prefer to plant seeds and let them grow alone; only to follow them with your words?
I prefer to work with a plan, yet let some aspects grow without too much deliberation. I compare the new threads with my outline, and let the characters develop as I go. So I know my character is a 16 year old girl, with red hair and her name is Jane. Then I let the story tell me about her, and let her actions show me who she is underneath the name.
For others, character development is part of the planning. They gather the information of her broken past and her baby brother, and how that phrase means so much to her.
The same goes for world-building, or plotting. And then it may even depend on the story, alongside your personal preference as a writer.
In essence, it takes as long as it takes: Some stories are fast-paced and you know where to take the scenes. Some are hard, with difficult emotional baggage and confusing twists that mean you need to take a few days off, or skip to another part.
It takes however many words you call a draft (I aim for 80-85k for a first draft). It takes hours at the computer, tablet or notepad, scribbling away and sketching out ideas.
If you don’t know what works, then try to write a story from scratch. Decide on a character. Come up with an image: Where are they? Why? Doing what?
Now tell the story, as though the film has begun and you’re unravelling the next events in real time. See if you can tell the next few hours of their time.
Then look at what’s missing, and what you focused on. Did you move into action without describing your character? Have you got any idea of this person’s past?
The things you chose to focus on may come easily to you — or maybe you felt you couldn’t write without that knowledge. If it’s the first; then plan the bits which are missing. If it’s the latter, allow yourself to plan some, but continue the exercise until you find the gaps in your work. Then, let yourself write.
The more stories you plot or complete, the better you’ll come to know your own style.