Go with the Flow or Plan Ahead – How Do You Write?


Writers’ conferences are interesting animals. Picture the anxious, eager young writer wielding a notebook/voice recording device. Every word spoken by the sage is truth and golden and pure. Every joke is funny. Every poignant example brings a tear.

And if the sage says: plan, then plan we will, by Shakespeare’s quill!

But SHOULD you? And should YOU?


How Detailed the Plan?

Planning depends on:

  • Who you are.
  • What you are writing.


Who Are YOU?

In terms of planning, writers can generally be divided into three groups:

  • Those who plan everything to the comma and the caps;
  • Those who plan vaguely and meander along; and
  • Those who swear that planning steals the creative soul.

Let’s see how planning can be managed by the two extremes: the over-planner and the free spirit.


Are You an Over-Planner?

If you are an over-planner, then NOT planning would scare the living daylights and the shining moonlight out of you and leave you adrift as a tiger on a boat.

So. If you are a natural planner: do go ahead and plan. (You will do it, regardless of permissions or prohibitions.)

But –

do place a limit on the planning.

Because planners tend to get lost in the very act of planning. Any (rehabilitating) planner will know that the very deed of sitting down and creating schedules, calendars, lists and tasks, makes rainbows and sunshine and happy faces appear.

Tell yourself something cruel, such as: “I will plan the following week’s work on a Friday afternoon for two hours. And that’s it. I will do no further planning. I will not amend the present planning. I will not do anything but think about the writing until such time as I sit down and do the actual writing. I will do the writing, not the planning, until the Friday afternoon planning time slot.” Then you can wear your happy clothes and make a special tea and plan to your heart’s content for two solid hours.


Are You a Free Spirit?

As a free spirit, you firmly believe that nothing good comes from planning. But maybe you should give it a try. Do some rough planning. Do some crazy planning. Do some scary planning. But do it, regardless of your convictions, and see if it makes a difference.

If you are writing a novel, go ahead and splurge your story down on paper as if you are trying to convince an agent at a party that you have something worth reading. Don’t think too much, just write as fast as your brain can move and your fingers can keep up.

If you are writing non-fiction, write down all the headings and subheadings. Think of this as giving someone a peep into the table of contents of your completed book. Don’t think too much, just write as fast as your brain can move and your fingers can keep up.


Now put some spaces in there, create some paragraphs and highlight some important plot twists or main headings.


You have just planned.


WHAT Are You Writing?

As a young writer you would have read “how-to-write”-articles and “why-I-am-such-a-great-writer”-interviews. And maybe you would have reached the conclusion that there really is no secret. Sometimes lots of planning works, sometimes it doesn’t. For some people it works, for others not.


Should You Plan a Work of Fiction?

Usually planning helps create structure and plot. Characters tend to grow as you nurture them, but you still need to make a note somewhere that the guy’s eyes are blue and not green. Because you might forget it seventeen chapters later and make a silly mistake. Consistency is always a strength.

If you create a basic outline of your plot, then it makes it easier to see where the strengths and weaknesses lie. You can then say: “On this day everything changed” anywhere in this storyline and add a great twist.

Or you can see, quite early on, that you have a great deal of action or deep inner struggles, but you actually have no plot at all. That is an important thing to realise at the start of the book, rather than 50 000 words into the book.

You might want to make your characters more rounded. If the hero is shining too much, add a bit of dirt. If the minor character seems to take over – maybe the hero isn’t the hero at all? Or you might have to “kill your darlings” and put a minor character back into the background.


Should You Plan Non-Fiction?

Writing non-fiction without creating some sort of guideline makes for scary writing. Non-fiction, especially online writing, is all about the structure: the headings, the paragraphs, the white spaces, the bullets.

If you write monologues, then maybe you could use some structure? The easiest way is first create the outline and then flesh it out with examples and more detailed content.

You will often find that planning a bit, or a lot, makes for better time management. Once you start writing, you know what you want to say, and the only thing left is the saying of it.

Maybe you have the kind of brain that already thinks in paragraphs and headings. If so, go ahead and write without a structure. But make sure you check and change after you have done that.



The first draft often is like a sexual encounter: all passion and energy and dripping with sweat.

But thereafter the baby needs time and energy and food in order to grow.  What does this mean? Simple: if you don’t edit, then nothing will be borne.

Creating characters

SASAPD Function 008

Kinds of characters

It sometimes happens that someone posts a group photo to Facebook and say “2002” and it’s Back to the Future all over again. The funny thing is that you really need the tags to remember some of the people, although they might have been sitting next to you in class for three years, or eating lunch at the same table and talking about sports and loves morning, noon and night.

But some you might know, immediately, intimately. You know their names, their habits, their likes and dislikes – anything and everything.

The same applies to characters. In really simple terms: you have the good guy and the bad guy and their respective friends and families.

The Good Guy

The trick is: the good guy shouldn’t be all good. And, of course, he doesn’t need to be a guy. Make sure that the good guy, like all of us, has a character flaw – something that will make cause conflict and get the action started or move the story along. Remember: the good guy doesn’t need to be your main character. The bad guy would do as well.

The Bad Guy

The bad guy shouldn’t be all bad. And gals can be as bad as guys. Just don’t assume that the bad gal needs to be sexy as well. Isn’t it funny how often writers seem to think that boobs in leather equals a good bad gal? Bad guys should also be multi-dimensional. A really great bad guy is one who has some good parts as well. That causes conflict in the reader – “I hated him, but now I understand why he is so horrible, and now I am not sure if I hate him any longer?”

The “friends and family”

The “friends and family” characters should add to the action, heighten the conflict, but not draw attention to themselves. They should serve as a spotlight for our main characters. Yes, we do need the funny old man with the cackly laugh to show the bad guy which way the good guy ran. But we don’t need the funny old man to say, “Sit down and let me tell you a bit about my years in the Great War.”  In fact, we don’t even need to see the egg smeared on his polka-dotted tie. Too much info!

Finding a character

Sometime a character will arrive at your doorstep, fully dressed and ready for action. That is a great gift and one you shouldn’t take for granted, because most of the time a character will have to be found, created from bits and pieces, a bit like a collage.

Creating a character

Your main character must be nice and fleshy, with unique traits and mannerisms, a specific look, a way of dealing with others, maybe even aspects such as a walking style or eating habit. For a story to be really memorable, a great plot would be part of the package, but the fact that you can just about pick up the phone and call the main character, would be the string that holds it together.

The main character can be bits and pieces of people you know or imagine. He can be inspired by a person you really know. He can be all imagined. He can grow out of an emotion (what would “anger” look like, if he had to walk down a busy road?) or be created from a theme (who would help me personify “forgiveness against all odds”?)

Adding meat to the bones

Once you know who the main characters are, you can start putting a bit of meat on the bones. The way you do this, will depend totally on who you are as a person.

You might do something visual, such as looking for photographs where aspects of the character are captured, or even making some drawings. You could collect things that symbolise something in the character (a feather that once was beautiful, but now is all gunky, might be a great reminder of your character’s past, and represent his present).

You could look at some audio clues – what music makes the character’s feet move: Opera? Folk? Metal? Pop?

And a sense of smell? What does the character smell like? Roses? Chicken livers? Brake fluid? Or which smells remind the character of someone or something important? Does she like eating toast because that is what she smelled when she woke up each morning and it reminds her of her dead husband? Or does he smoke cherry tobacco because it reminds him of his son who is living in Australia?

Keeping track

One of the reasons why an editor, or at least a fresh eye, is important is the horrible realisation that the colour of your character’s eyes has changed between Chapter 1 and 7. Or even that you sent a minor character on an errand and he simply got lost somewhere in the middle of the book, never to return.

You might want to keep track of some features of your characters. Use whatever works for you. Maybe a small card for each character. Or a table for each character on a sheet of paper. Or an Excel worksheet. But do write down some basics, such as:

  • Name, Surname/Last name, age, sex, etc.
  • Physical features: eye colour, hair colour, body (fat, thin, athletic), etc.
  • How is the character related to other characters?
  • Any quirks or mannerisms? Likes and dislikes? Hobbies?
  • Whatever else you think you might have to remember later on or that would add to the character’s background.


And do remember that anything that anyone writes about how to deal with characters are just guidelines. Find your own way. And sometimes, on a good-good day, a character might surprise you and knock on your door, all fleshed out and dressed to the nines.

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