When it comes to writing, how much planning is too much?

I might be one of the few writers who look forward to editing a rough draft.

I won’t deny there’s something invigorating about the first trip through a story.  Even with the requisite chapter outline, a certain amount of magic occurs during the first draft.  Characters climb up off the page and take on lives of their own.  The story wends in a slightly different way, sometimes concluding in unexpectedly manner.  Subplots and themes emerge.

Pure, uncensored creativity pours forth.

But it seems few people have the same enthusiasm for a second (or third or fourth) draft of a novel.  It’s not hard to see why.  If the first draft allows the writer to indulge in a carefree orgy of imagination, a Wild West of whimsy, and a devil-may-care series of experiments, then the editing process demands the writer to abstain, rein it in, and exorcise a host of demons.

At the start, the writer writes the story he wants to tell, plain and simple.  His prime concern is getting ideas onto the page.  It doesn’t have to be great or even particularly good; it just has to be done.  A beginning, middle, and an end are helpful, but, really, if some loose ends aren’t tied up, so what?  The editor will sort it out, after all.

Which is why many writers cringe at the thought of going back through their work to evaluate what works: The party is over, and there’s a heck of a lot of cleaning up to do.  In addition to fixing broken furniture, the editor nurtures underdeveloped elements and axes the stuff that just gets in the way.

It’s a big responsibility…some might say, a burden.

Tempting though it may be to describe writing as creative and editing as analytical, I believe the same spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness should permeate the editing process. And the same intoxicatingly high level of energy.

For someone (like me) who basks in the brainstorming process, geeks out on organization, and approaches problem solving scientifically, editing can present a pitfall of a different sort.  Whereas some writers struggle with a rewrite because “there’s nothing like the first time,” I procrastinate before diving into the second draft for an entirely different reason:

I absolutely love to write about my writing.

Consider how many words I typed while in the planning phase for the first book in The Soul Sleep Cycle: 30,864.  That included four character profiles, a partial outline, and a generic “notes” document that contained everything from explorations of character motivation to pushing through dead ends in the plot to researching the science behind the sci-fi.  The investment of 30,864 “planning” words resulted in a 73,256-word first draft.

Upon finishing and then reviewing the first draft and soliciting beta readers for feedback, I wrote 15,624 more words while debating how I would solve eleven overarching categories of problems and a total of 103 individual issues in the MS.  The final draft of If Souls Can Sleep ended up at 91,557 words.

So to get to a 91,557-word novel, I wrote 46,488 words in supplemental works—more than 50% of the final work.  (And that’s not including first draft.)

I have no idea whether or not that is normal.  Or practical.  Or if there is a “best practice” when it comes to planning and repairing a novel.

Here’s where I start to worry: Having recently read through the first draft of the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep with my most avid fan/harshest critic/wife, I came up with thirty-seven categories of big-picture problems and a total 233 individual issues that range from “should so-and-so get more screen time?” to “so-and-so doesn’t make a credible red herring…fix that.”

Simple algebra suggests that if it took me 15,624 words to solve 103 issues, it’ll take about 35,344 words to solve 233 of them.

Again, whereas some writers might balk at the task, I’m all too eager to open my sequel notes file and begin solving each and every one of them.  My problem is that the rewrite of book two will face an indeterminable a delay while I’m wearing my editor’s hat.

It begs the question “How much planning is too much?”

The easy answer is an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do to whip a MS into a publish-worthy state.  If a writer can do all of the planning in his head, so be it!  But for those (like me) who hope to avoid a third draft by getting his ducks in a row before beginning the second draft, a lot of time and effort will be required.

A rule of thumb states that a writer needs to know far more about his characters and plot than the reader ever will so that he can write with confidence.  After all, a reader will notice the hole resulting from when the writer doesn’t know.  The paradox is that it’s equally problematic if a writer puts everything he knows into the story.

How much planning is too much?  I imagine it depends on each author and each book.  Rules of thumb aside, there are no definitive laws when it comes to the craft of fiction writing.  No perfect formulas for planning and editing.

Which brings us back to “an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do.”

So even though my many extraneous words will never be seen by anyone but me, I have to believe they serve an important purpose.  My novel will be better because of my background knowledge.  In my experiences, shortcuts lead to dead ends.

And if I have to delay the second draft in order to spend another month writing about my writing, well, that’s a punishment I’m all too willing to accept.

So how about it—am I a literary freak of nature?  I’d be grateful for any other writers’  insights below!



Filed under Writing

14 responses to “When it comes to writing, how much planning is too much?

  1. John Haefele

    Which is why every new J. K. Rowlings book is longer than the last…

    • Ah, but just because an author does his or her due dilligence while world building, it doesn’t mean he or she MUST include every idea, every back story, every supplementary detail in the novel(s). Not that Ms. Rowling is the only best-selling author who seems to be editor-proof. But why would an editor curtail the page count when more words equals more money?

      Or, one could conclude, that if you are a master storyteller, you can get away with publishing more of those words and ideas that result from the planning process…

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  7. Hahaha! I love the statistical analysis, David – you are indeed a planner and an organizer. I just want to say that I don’t think there is a “best practice” for writing. Each artist is unique and our approaches are all different. Once we got used to writing documents that were longer than ten pages the rest of our process just became what we do. I actually don’t think the average writer can do too much planning. I get lazy and so cut my planning short in order to get to the “good stuff.” On the other hand, even I write at least five pages of back story for each primary character and several pages of outline notes.

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  9. M. J. Engels

    You say a mouthful here, and I’m glad you said it. You and several others know I’m an electrical engineer by education and experience, so the kind of planning you describe here feels as right as rain when I do it. And like you, I *like* editing. Kinda like a builder who takes his time puttering around doing finish work inside a new house while a storm rages outside. The walls and roof are up, the doors and windows are in–not unlike when a first draft of a manuscript is complete. I’ve heard said of a draft manuscript “it just needs to exist”. I would submit that it also has to be complete. And once it does, I think that’s the time for taking it from good to great. For me now that mine is done, I expect I’ll be a “putter-inner”, expanding on areas where my “telepathy” might have fallen short putting the ideas I’d like into the reader’s head.

    It is laudable to finish, but commendable to finish well. The finish work is where all the planning pays off…the paint, drywall and furnishings only look good when the floor is level, the walls are plumb and the joists are true and square. And even though it’s the “finish work” that the reader sees at last, I think what’s behind it (the structure of the house) is what will not only make or break the whole building but prepare the writer–like a builder–to go forth and do a credible job the next time.

    Of pantsers and planners, I’m a habitual and compulsive planner. Asking me to give that up would be like asking me to give up breathing. Not gonna do it, or well, not for very long anyway!


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