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  • Writer's pictureMatt Davies

Does planning kill creativity?

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When I first started writing fiction, I went to an author talk given by thriller and YA author James Phelan. During the talk, he explained that he planned all his books before he wrote them, act by act, scene by scene. I don’t know if he still does this, but I remember thinking at the time that such detailed planning must absolutely obliterate the creative process, turning what should be a free flow of ideas into a boring architectural framework much like the blueprints of a house. Now I realise that, for me, those blueprints are a great help. After all, you would never start building a house without a plan. You need to know what the finished product will look like before you can know how to set the foundations, otherwise they might not be strong enough.

I’ve learned that, for a planner, creativity doesn’t have to be sacrificed. Authors who write purely on instinct (often referred to as ‘pantsers’ because they ‘fly by the seat of their pants’) plan as they write (whether they are conscious of it or not). Planners do this upfront. It’s probably not that much different in a way.

[A cool aside: George RR Martin (author of the Songs of Fire and Ice series that includes A Game of Thrones) talks about two types of writers: gardeners and architects. He says: The architect plans things very thoroughly, while the gardener just plants the seed and adds a little bit of water every now and then, and just kind of sits back and watches the plant grow. A great way to look at it, George!]

When planning is invaluable

My third YA novel (currently in its third draft and titled Tiny Little Fault Lines) is a single story told from four different perspectives. For this manuscript, I found planning really helpful. In fact, I planned every scene before committing any words to paper. I wanted to work out upfront who’s point of view the reader would be hearing at different aspects of the story and I wanted to make sure I was balancing ‘air time’ between my four protagonists. Because the story shuffles between points of view, I needed to make sure the story would read as continuous and flow logically while ensuring that the events that were most personal to each character were told from their point of view.

For Tiny Little Fault Lines, planning become a kind of forensic process of analysing the story for all those elements that ‘should’ be there – theme, turning points, character growth. I did worry sometimes while writing it that I could be missing something by not just sitting down and letting my imagination run wild. But I guess I am still doing that by planning. I didn’t restrict myself in the planning process. There is definitely that element of trying different things and seeing where the story takes me that happens when a writer takes the ‘pantser’ approach.

That strict planning approach worked well for that story, and I stayed pretty true to my outline. But for others that I’ve started fiddling around with now (ones with a more linear, straightforward structure), I find myself going back to my old process of planning as much as I can, getting stuck, writing a bit, planning a bit more, then getting back to writing. So I guess it’s a kind of hybrid model.

Everything at once

There are so many things you need to keep in your head while writing a scene – the goal of the scene, the goal of your protagonist in that scene, what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, how the scene fits into the overall novel, tone, character, theme – if you can have a few of those things sorted before you start writing your scene, you’ll be way ahead.

When you have a plan, you can go into a scene knowing the basics, but how it all unfolds still has to be decided in the process of writing it. You still have to work out exactly what each character is going to say, how they are going to say it, how they will act, and what are the reactions/inputs/spanners from other characters in the scene. Freeing yourself up from the bigger picture stuff probably allows you to concentrate more on these creative aspects of your scene because you already have a firm idea about how it should all fit together. Your mind can let go of the ''what'' and the ''why'' and concentrate on the ''how''. This, for me, is all about economy. It saves a lot of time down the track!

So, I guess I’m a big fan of the idea of planning, but sometimes the story doesn’t take off in my mind at that early stage and so I just have to start writing something and see where it takes me.

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