Anarchy rules
Mechanistic vs Responsive

Help yourself: the novel-planning grid

A friend has just had feedback from a publisher who wants to buy her book. The main plot is great, but one of the subplots needs to go, and the other doesn't work, so it's a case of cutting one, replacing the other, and knitting the whole book back up together again. Much discussion ensued, because the issue is partly about getting the new stuff right in itself, partly about weaving it into the existing stuff, and partly about making sure she's fished the bones of the old subplot out completely, so that readers don't choke on them. Coloured highlighters were mentioned, also ways of making sure the baby didn't get thrown out with the unwanted half of the bathwater, and so on.

I mentioned the way that I plan my novels, because it's also a way you can re-plan them when revisions get structural. And before I knew where I was, three people had asked me for the spreadsheet file I use. Now of course there are as many ways to help you plan a novel as there are writers, so for once in a post I'm not trying to encompass all the possible processes. This, in other words, is how I do it, for you to ignore, adapt or accept, as seems right for you. At the end of this post, there's a link to a generic version of the grid that I use, pulling it about for each novel, for you to help yourself. And this is a link to a whole, glorious collection of other writers' such grids. (Apologies for that being the Dail Mail: the original link has died, and it's the only one I can find to replace it.)

This is the plan for The Mathematics of Love. The rows, fairly obviously, are chapters. The different columns mean that I can track not only each of the two narratives, but also various other things: Stephen's 1819-20 narrative, Stephen's letters which set out his backstory, themes that are brought out in both chapters, Anna's 1976 narrative, links of plot between the times, and Stephen's nightmares that finish each chapter. You'll see that I didn't in the end have a 12th chapter. You'll also see that it's mostly in biro, but some in pencil. I actually do it all in pencil to start with, rubbing out and re-writing till it's right, and then biro things in as I write them. Each row, with perhaps 30 words of notes represents 12,000 words or so; The Mathematics of Love is 141,000 words, and I plan and write in separate chapters, so it's no bad thing to have a quick way to find what happens where, and know what I've written and what I haven't yet. Indeed, it occurs to me that working like this could be very useful for writers who don't write from beginning to end, but hop about the place. So I like the fact that longhand shows the traces of my thinking; it saves re-inventing the wheel, by showing the changes of mind I've already had. You'll notice, if you peer, that various things like the days of the week in Anna's strand are fitted in, and so are various other notes, about things which it turned out that I wanted to keep track of. The curly brackets down the left hand side happened late, when someone suggested that there was a bigger architecture to the novel than chapters. Because I had the plan, I could brood over it and see if I agreed, and if so where the divisions of the parts should go.


There's another advantage. When I'd finished A Secret Alchemy, I had to re-write the modern strand, and this was where my system really came into its own. (System? writers don't have systems, except for the things which really matter, like drinking coffee...)  Faced with the need to come up with a completely new story and plot for the modern strand, with a much smaller cast, I drew up another grid, copied in the strands I was keeping, and then spaced out the new story to fit with them. And that then sat at my elbow (much easier than having to bring up another window) while I wrote. And for both novels, my US editor wanted changes: with the grid, it was easy to start thinking about what should be moved where, and where the new scene in A Secret Alchemy could go.

Obviously it's probably more useful if you're a masochist in how complex you like your novels, or if you're just a structure geek. But don't forget that there's nothing that says you have to fill it all in at the beginning. I often leave gaps where I don't, yet, know what will happen, and fill them in as the work develops: until then the gap is there, reminding me what I haven't yet discovered or worked out. And even where I think I do know, I always, always do it all in pencil, so that I can change things when what I'm writing in Chapter 5 makes me realise that what will happen in Chapter 8 is different from what I'd expected. And of course you could spend procrastinatory hours fiddling. But you might have it at your elbow for a couple of years, so what's an hour or two?

More importantly, since making the grid is something I do when I'm about to start actually writing the first draft, I find that having to think out what are the most useful and necessary columns to have, clarifies my thinking about what are the most structurally necessary elements to the book. Other books have other columns: the one for A Secret Alchemy has a strand for each of the three narrators, one for tracking how the modern narrator's backstory is revealed, since that's what powers her narrative, and one for thematic connections between all of them. The one for my current novel tracks main story and back story for each of the two narrators, but also the story of an important character who's not a narrator but is very much an actor in the plot, the weather, the dates, the background politics, and themes and particular artifacts which I want to keep in play.

As I've said, it's a useful (essential?) part of the planning process to think about what the columns should be. But I have seen people use this grid with a separate column for each character, and I'd suggest (tentatively) that doing that might not be helpful. A lot of the value of working like this is that it helps to integrate all the different elements of a novel into something which reflects the structure of how the story is told. And although you need keep an eye on how each character's story hangs together of itself, what's more important is how they appear in the actual novel: how the reader will experience it. So I'd suggest thinking as much - perhaps more - in terms of "on-stage" (what's narrated) and "off-stage" (which we'll only know about from characters' telling each other, or discover later in flashback). In other words, the most important column or columns for me is the first one: the one which tracks the whole, main narrative. For novels like TMOL, it's the one which says "Stephen Now" and "Anna Now". However your novel is built, it's important, I think, to have a single column that expresses the whole arc of the narrative: the other columns are there so you can look across to see which bit of the past is due to be fitted into the present moment of the story, which bit of the action is going on off-stage (and we'll hear about it later), which bits of two separate narratives (if you have them) are next to each other and so on. Indeed, for the three separate narratives running in ASA, I numbered the bits in the different columns - Antony's, Elysabeth's and Una's - in the order they were going to go into this chapter.

Indeed, the WIP (as of August 2012) has a single narrative, with an MC called Isobel, but with a knowledgeable, external narrator telling the story in third person and through several points of view. Even so, I do have a single column which expresses that whole narrative, with a circle round the initial of the character who's the centre of the events for that bit - though one of the things I often don't know till I write my way there is where and when the actual PoV will change, in a scene. The other columns are things like "Offstage" (again, with the character identified), "Isobel's past" (as it's revealed), "Politics" (for events which change the story, or the atmosphere) and so on. It's the first time I've written a novel in this form, and I'm very interested (and pleased) to realise that the grid still works!

Since people seem to find the grid useful, I've uploaded a generic version here, and if you click on the link, it should be available for you to save onto your computer. It's now a .xls file, which should open in any spreadsheet programme, and you can then do what you want with it, adding chapters, pulling columns about and so on. Obviously you're downloading it at your own risk, although it was clean when I uploaded it, but if you think it would be useful, do help yourself: Download NovelPlotGrid