Planning a New Novel

Yeah, I said planning, not writing, because I’m a plotter. Those doubts have crept in, though.

“Just write it already.”

“Write what?”

“You know, the story you know you’re going to write anyway after you’ve thought about it for too long.”

I look at my notes. I turn on the computer. I create a new file. Then stop.

Reading Craig Johnson’s latest and Catriona McPherson’s first have convinced me to keep planning. I don’t know if either of these writers is a plotter or a pantser, but I stand in awe of their careful attention to detail in each scene. So finely drawn, but never too much. I never get bogged down in those details, but I do sometimes stop just to admire such excellent craftsmanship. (Or is it just raw talent that I don’t have that critical voice interjects?)

Then there’s that extra touch of the theme strung so carefully all through. Just touches. Probably not all readers even notice it. Take Spirit of Steamboat for example. It’s a Christmas story. Our hero, Walt Longmire, is reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in the first scene. Johnson uses brief allusions to the story throughout his piece, like a sardonic thought from the sheriff. After a long list of difficulties he’s facing, he adds, “God bless us, every one.” The novella is full of these little touches. They don’t call attention to themselves, but they do elicit a laugh, a feeling of wholeness. They add that extra something.

That’s what I want to do. Have something so well crafted that I lace it with the extra touches that make it shine. McKee (Story) calls it an image system. Certain images, turns of phrase are associated with each character. In Johnson’s case, he always includes an overriding image system for his whole novel.

I love it and am planning to emulate this. I’m learning from you, Mr. Johnson. But for me, creating a sense of the whole through an overriding theme takes planning. So for now, that’s what I’m going to do.

Author: Theresa Crater

Award-winning author Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her visionary fiction. In The Star Family, a Gothic mansion holds a secret spiritual group and a 400-year-old ritual that must be completed to save the day. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill. Other novels include School of Hard Knocks and God in a Box, both exploring women in historical context. Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “The Judgment of Osiris” and “Bringing the Waters.” Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches meditation, as well as creative writing and British lit.

17 thoughts on “Planning a New Novel”

  1. It is on the list of “do not’s.” But it would be handy. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to jump in and write! You never know what your subconscious will come up with once you do.


  2. I’m with you! A little careful planning ahead of time goes a long way for me, particularly with short stories where I don’t have room to ramble. I’m still pretty new to the noveling side of things, but having a good plan in place seems like a wise choice to make. And unlike some, I often find planning things out often gets that creative intensity to write going just as much as plunging in head-long, and often carries the story farther than the blind plunge. At least in my experience. 🙂


  3. This is when it is beneficial to be a pantser. (During the revision process, I often wonder if the plotters don’t know a thing or two!) As a pantser, you just start. Your first beginning might not be your final beginning, but getting those initial words down helps unlock the story. Good luck!


  4. Maggie–It’s true. The creativity still flows. People fear that plotting will kill the creativity, like stirring a batter too much, but this is what works for me.
    Diane–Thanks! I think there are pros and cons to both approaches. Each writer has to figure out what works for her or him. But then, some projects will demand that you change your usual strategy.


  5. Planning is good, but there are limits. I am a plotter. In fact, I use Scrivener for outlining, keeping images, research files, etc. (I LOVE Scrivener! Anyway, I also keep a Go-Back file so that *while I’m writing* if I come across something I forgot or something that I might need to add in revision then I can feel comfortable that I won’t miss those connecting threads.
    However, as a plotter, I recognize that I might have the tendency to get stuck there. I am not one of those people who love writing. I love plotting and I love revising and I love having written. Blank pages give me stomach aches. So, I have to force myself out of the planning stage and remember that I can pull it all together and give it a polish and a spit shine when I’ve got the first draft down.
    Now that I think about it, that’s probably why Scrivener is so helpful to me. It’s not just a planning/organizational system, but it’s where I write, too, so it forces both processes.
    Great post, Theresa! Really got me pondering!


    1. Donna, you really hit the nail on the head. When does plotting turn into procrastinating? I joke with my students that if they’re cleaning behind the refrigerator, then they’re definitely putting off writing.
      I’ve heard a lot of praise for Scrivener. I’m going to have to check it out.
      My favorite thing is “having written.” Well said.


  6. Oh, how I understand this! I couldn’t figure out to say this on my “do not” list, but there have been times when I have STARED at a particular sentence or paragraph in a book I admire, trying to analyze/understand how in the world the author managed to make such a wonderful thing. (To take the pressure off, some of those tightly woven details you mention might come from the *revision* process, too…not necessarily important to figure out at the beginning if it feels burdensome now.)

    Planning is important to me, though I’m kind of in-between plotter and pantser because I make the most skeleton of a plot outline then see what happens when I write around that backbone, if that makes sense. Enjoy being surprised by what characters do/say BUT I need the backbone to begin with. Also need a sense of purpose/issue/theme before I go in, too. All of this to say: I think we all have different ways of preparing to tell our stories. World-building is heavy lifting and some of us have a pondering or “simmering” phase that is absolutely necessary before we can launch. (Though I love “You know, the story you know you’re going to write anyway after you’ve thought about it for too long.” Ha ha!)

    Have your other books begun with similar planning or is this a major shift in your approach? Or is the planning the same but the “image system” is the new element?

    In any case, please know that your admirers want to read your next story, whenever you tell it.

    ps: Feel like I should clarify to all that I wasn’t slamming Pinterest at all! People use Pinterest as a collection space for novel materials and find it helpful. In my list of do-nots, I only meant to suggest how *ironic* it was that whenever I went to find inspirational writing quotes, it took away from my own writing time… 🙂


    1. Cynthia, Yes, I think we all understood your irony and that you enjoy Pinterest.
      I think we’re all both plotters and pantsers in the end, because we move back and forth between planning and writing. There is no right way. It’s what works for each writer and each project.
      When I started plotting, I started getting published. I think now I’ve advanced into thinking about this “image system” or the light thread of allusion or image or quote running through that ties the whole piece together. I’m excited to try it out. It might be there unconsciously in other pieces, but I want to bring it forward in my mind more.
      The “simmering” phase is the one I have most trouble with allowing myself to do. I agree with Donald Hall (writing teacher & author) that sometimes procrastination is the subconscious saying, “Wait, I’m not quite ready yet.” Other times it’s just fear of the hard work of writing.


  7. Oh, and yes, it could be those touches are added in the revising process.
    Palms face! When will I ever learn to write?
    Nobody ever does, says the sage.
    (Yes, all writers have voices in their heads.)


  8. Glad it was clear. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was Pinterest-dissing. Because I would never. Gasp! Perish the thought! 😉

    You are so right about everyone having their own processes and not having a “right” way for any specific project.

    I’m smiling that you mentioned Donald Hall’s idea — was actually thinking about that before when I read your post! My issue has always been that it’s hard for me to know whether it’s the subconscious or the fear talking on any given day. Like: am I honoring the process or just avoiding confrontation? Should I walk away or force myself to write? *spins in circles*

    Back to seriousness: it really sounds as though you’re moving to the next level of your craft in taking on the image system. (Does that make sense? I’m trying to nod to how artists do more and more complicated things the longer they create?) Very cool.


  9. I, too, adore and admire Craig Johnson (can I just say, I did a HUGE internal happy dance when he was announced as the Guest of Honor for this fall’s Crimebake writing conference?!?). My goal is to be able to write setting half as well as he does. It’s breathtaking. Theresa, your comments were spot-on–I think, after all is said and done, we all have a little plotting and a little pantsing going on, otherwise we’d never finish anything well. Some of us just lean a little further in one direction or the other. Love the reminder of Donald Hall, too! Another great post. I love reading these each day!


  10. Okay, did the theme change since this morning? LOL

    I plotted my last novel. It gave me good structure, but a thin story. So now that I’m revisions I’ve (almost) totally thrown out the plotting structure and I’m going to all those little tangents I love. And yes, in a future revision some of those may have to go. C’est la vie, right?

    I must be weird. I love first drafts, writing, plotting, revision, and having written. (I also love looking at Pinterest, even though I can’t figure out how it works.)


  11. I’ve tried pantsing and for me, plotting is the way to go. Sometimes, like when I’m doing my what things must happen in each third of the story, I think I must be crazy – but once it’s done, I have an idea of what needs to happen. Does this kill the creativity? At first, I thought it would, but no – it serves as a guide not a straightjacket, and I revise each third as I finish the prior third. When I type #30# and being my edits and revisions, I can concentrate on making each scene shine because my basis elements are in place.


  12. Pam–Glad you’re also a Craig Johnson fan.
    Mary–You are obviously a born writer. You love it all.
    Kait–I agree. Plotting leaves me free without freaking out about where I’m going.


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