Freitag, 2. April 2010

.how to write a novel without planning or plotting

Vor ein paar Tagen habe ich für Jacky von einen Gastbeitrag namens Plot- und Planlos zum Roman geschrieben, der zeigt, dass man auch ohne plotten und planen Geschichten schreiben kann. Die deutsche Version könnt ihr hier lesen.

A few days ago I wrote an article for Jacky's German blog (i.E. Becoming a writer). It is called something in the lines of Writing a novel without planning or plotting.
Since I wanted my English readers to be able to read it, too, I translated it. I hope the translation isn't too horrible and you fine some interesting idea or point in it.

From the first hint to the first words

Ideas are sneaky, little beasts. They creep up on you while you are actually busy doing something entirely else with no time for them. They wander into your mind, demand attention or threaten you to pack their things and leave forever. Since I’m constantly working on something, they wouldn’t have any other chance to get noticed…

Usually I work on three projects at once

1. A novel
2. A short story collection
3. Revision of a written novel

So, when a new idea turns up it is usually the last thing I need that moment. Ideas, though, are every writer’s elixir of life and so of course I can’t just let them escape.

For the time being the new arrival will be written down in one of my beloved notebooks.
It can be almost anything:
A sentence of which I know that it could become something big stuck in my head or a character whose story I yet have to discover but who already feels pretty alive.
Sometimes it’s just a tiny scrap, an approach. And sometimes it’s almost an entire story in one swoop.

No matter what it is, while working on a novel I don’t have time, patience or muse to concentrate on another one.
So it get’s written down in a notebook and out of my head.

To chose an idea

I only begin writing on a new novel when the old one is ready for revision or in the hands of a beta reader.

Revision and rewriting are often long and tough, especially if you have one or more beta readers you have to correspond with.
I’m too antsy to wait until a project is corrected so I mostly begin writing something new while editing the old one.

When I’ve reached the point to start something new, I normally already know what I’ll be writing about next.
It’s an idea that crawled into my head over a longer period as if it wanted to say “Hey, I’m ready! It’s time!”
It’s an idea that makes me curious and of which I want to know how it will end so badly I begin to write.


I always start at the beginning of a story and work through it chronological. I never write the last scene first or something from the middle. To start any other place I’d have to know more about the idea but mostly I don’t.
I’m like a reader, I have to learn things as I go along.

In moments when I’m not writing, the stories keep sticking in my thoughts. Characters surface and tell me about themselves, coherences become clear, scenes begin to grow.

Like the ideas I have no freaking clue where they come from. Suddenly they are here. I make notes which grow so fast that most big projects have their own notebook sooner or later.

While working on other things it is possible that questions, settings or plot-ideas emerge from nowhere. They, like everything else, are written down into my notebook.
I write down everything that occurs to me, when it occurs to me. I don’t force anything.
As soon as I got it out of my head I can concentrate on my current project again.

Before I start writing something I have a vague idea about a character of the story, but nothing concrete or anywhere near integral whole.

Most of the time I don’t know what’s going to happen or how it will end. To find out is one of the pleasures of writing.

Do you never have any problems?

Of course I do.
No matter how vivid a story is there are always problems or even blocks.

While working many things add up per se. The characters develop, a plot surfaces and sometimes even an ending without me doing anything.

However the way from A to B, from the beginning or a certain scene to the end is often missing. I know what has to happen but I don’t know how or how to get there.

During my second, and until now for me most important, novel I reached a point I was totally lost. I knew what had to happen but I did not know how. The words were missing.
I was stuck.

To make it even worse I had lots of personal problems adding to that crisis and it became one hell of a writer’s block which ended in me not writing anything in about two years. It was hell.
At one point I was able to work on short stories again but the project I loved so much remained wordless. I couldn’t do anything against it. None of the tips I got changed anything. I put the project on ice.
Life was too troublesome to write anyway. I’d just graduated and an unknown future was in front of me.
Mentally I kept working on my project but the knot didn’t want to untie itself, no matter what I did. I resigned and tried to concentrate on different things. I got a place to study far away from my hometown and prepared for a life of which I feared that it would be one without writing.

One evening during my first week of college, far away from home, knowing no one and being without telephone, mobile or internet, I was deadly bored.
Hesitantly I opened the document of my nightmares just to re-read some scenes. It just clicked.

Within a very short amount of time I finished the project and also several others. Until this day I don’t know what actually happened but since then I’m writing like mad.
Novels, short stories, songs, poems, you name it.

The fight against the wordlessness

This wasn’t the only time I was stuck.
There is a point in every project when I just can’t go on because I just don’t know what will happen (all you plotters out there may cheer now).

When something like this happens I begin to look through my notes. Since I write down almost every thought I have about a story, the chances are good that I already have a solution without noticing it.

I go through different scenarios and try to find out which works best, which one feels right.
I occupy myself with my characters, maybe fill out some character sheets or write a short story about their past.

The better you know your characters the easier the writing gets. They are the engine of every tale. Your story can be boring as hell, as long as you have strong and believable characters nothing is lost. The better you know them, the faster the story moves because they show you what’ll they do, what is going to happen.


Also, I try not to have a fixation on scenes I’m having problems with. If I can’t write one I simple hop to the next one. Sometimes my first draft looks like a puzzle, missing pieces I have yet to search for and add during revision.

Is it even possible to write if a big part is missing?

Yes, it is. Considering I’m forcing myself to write on, the story stays alive. The cast stays alive, keeps on moving and doing their business and sometimes that’s exactly what I need to find out what is missing.

For example:

Dora, main character from my last NaNoWriMo Novel "The Key to Hell" was confronted with a problem I had no clue how to solve.
So I skipped the scene, made a note inside the document (and my notebook) and went on to the next chapter.
In this she was talking to her friend about the (now solved) problem. While talking to him she explained how she managed to fix dilemma. It was just there, in the middle of a talk without me even thinking about it.
I could just go back and add the missing piece to the puzzle.

Planing and me

I’m a person who tries to be open for almost anything especially when it comes to writing. My shelves are full of writing advisors and my RSS reader is full of writing blogs.

It’s not like I never tried to plan. I did. It just didn’t work out for me.

Some examples:

1. Walking among the mad.
As some of you might know this is the name of my Alice in Wonderland short story collection. Actually, I just wanted one short story because I wanted to know what might have happened to Alice after her visit to wonderland. One story. I wrote it and noticed “Oh, this is not the end.” So I planned to write two more, all written with one point of view. By now I have over 80 stories, the point of view is changing in every chapter and no end in sight.

2. Kristopher
He surfaced in my second novel and should only appear in one scene to give the protagonist a hint and vanish again. Cameo appearance. Suddenly he was the brother of my female lead, showed up every other scene, became the male lead in another novel and will be the protagonist in my next NaNo novel moreover.

3. The Key to Hell
Before I began writing I had a very good idea about the cast and the plot because I had to formulate them for a workshop months ago. NaNo came and I realized that some characters were useless but there were dozens of others, also a new second protagonist I never knew of surfaced and the plot was completely different. It almost was a different book altogether.

So much about planning for me…
As soon as I begin to try planning something or plotting a story, it changes direction. It’s like a curse. So I gave up.

The only time I actually plan is when I stop writing and make notes about future events in the storyline of which I am fairly sure will they happen or about their chronological sequence.
Everything else just doesn’t work for me.

Stop, full stop, finish? Oh no…

Every project comes to an end sometime.
When the last scene is written I close the document, take a deep breath and drown in melancholia for a while. To finish a project is hard and it hurts. Every time.
You spent so much time with those imaginary people and suddenly they are gone. It leaves a hole even new characters can‘t fill.

But the word „end“ doesn’t mean it’s over, oh no. Let the editing begin! Oh joy…

Beta readers and notes

Editing is almost never fun.
Plot holes want to be filled, contradictions need to be removed and don’t get me started on orthography…
Now my notes become the most important thing ever.

In the majority of cases I ignore the project for several weeks or even months to build some distance. Then I begin editing it roughly for the first time. This means that I read the story, decide if the plot is coherent and if (and where) there are any problems.

Then I send it off to one or more beta reader(s). As soon as they are done we begin talking. I listen to what they have to say, what they did or did not like and I make notes. I begin to ponder if the criticism is justified or not and whether it works with the story to change certain parts.

Working on something over a longer period of time, you begin to become blind. You just don’t see holes in the plot or spelling mistakes any more. Beta readers are worth their weight in gold.

Until now I was always lucky and there were only small holes in the plot. It happened only one time that I came upon a bigger one but the resolution came to me during the first revision and made me incredibly happy because it just fit.

Writing and me

Writing, for me, is all about feelings. It has to feel “right” no matter what I think about it. This means characters do incredibly stupid things I would love to slap them for but which are right for the story. It also means the plot has twists and turns I hate with a passion and have no clue how they made it into my brain…

Notes, Notes, Notes

My work is pretty chaotic but there is a certain system in the chaos. I would be lost without my notebooks. I collect ideas, character sheets, sketches,… whatever comes to my mind.

Although I try to have a certain order in the chaos I doubt anybody but me can read in those notes. Searching for something means a lot of page turning and even more post-it’s with cross references where to find something.
There are a lot of pages with keywords for ideas, others are full of character notes or even whole dialogs.

Most of the story develops during writing itself, though. While I work on a scene I may have ideas for a later one so I note it down and keep on writing.

My mind constantly works on stories, no matter what I do right now. This is the reason I always carry a notebook or at least a pen with me, for emergency-notes. You just can’t control when to have ideas and I wouldn’t want to.

Writing is all about feeling. It is an adventure. I dive into it and drift. I always end up anywhere.

Writing without a plan

Writing works differently for everyone. I notice it every time I read a thread at
Hence I don’t even know if it is possible to give any tips about writing without a plan. However I’m willing to try and give you some suggestions how it might work for you if you’d like to try:

  1. Don‘t stop writing. If you’re stuck in a scene and don’t know how to go on, leave it. Make a note with some hints what might happen and move on to another chapter. Don’t let the story go to sleep because you don’t know what will happen.

  2. Get to know your characters. Fill out character sheets, write short stories about them, search online for pictures of them, make sketches,…

    The better you know your characters the easier the writing gets. Let them take over and have them tell you what will happen. It is their story, they know what they’re doing.

  3. Notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes. Write down everything that comes to your mind. Every idea, every dialog, every sentence, every scene or person. Everything.

    You are not planning so this means that every thought you have about your story is even more important.

  4. Never start another novel while already writing one if you are stuck. While writing without a plan there will be hard times in which you don’t know what to do. Try to get going with the first two tips I gave you and don’t start something new because then you might not finish the project at all.

  5. Note down your problems. Sometimes you’re stuck but have no clue why. Try to verbalize your problem, it will help you to realize why you are stuck and help you to find a solution.

  6. Take a break. You can’t force the words to come, not every time. Take your time and do something different, something really, really boring. Something you don’t have to think about while doing it: Clean your room, do a puzzle, take a walk,… Sometimes when your mind has time to rest, you’ll have the best ideas

  7. Don’t force yourself. As cheesy as it sounds: Let your feelings guide you. If a scene feels wrong but you keep on writing it that way, you will have trouble with it later. Writing is all about feeling. Listen to your emotions.


Joerg hat gesagt…

I am also involved in Script Frenzy and I am teaching creative writing since 10 years and I really like your thoughts on writing!



freakingmuse hat gesagt…

Hello Joerg,

thanks for your comment and the nice words. It makes me happy that you like my thoughts!
Happy scripting!


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