Over on the International Thriller Writer's site I've been leading a discussion on whether to plan a novel in advance. Here's my contribution, but you can read the rest of the debtate there.
Before starting the ‘Death Force’ series a couple of years ago, I spent about five years as a ghost-writer for Random House. I churned out seven action-adventure thrillers, books that were supposedly written by spies and special forces guys.
In many ways it was a frustrating experience. You get quite well-paid, but you don’t get any credit for your work.
But it did teach me one really useful thing – the importance of planning your plot.
When you are ghost-writing, you need to get the ‘author’ and publisher on board. The last thing I wanted to do was spend months on a book, and then get told it wasn’t what they wanted. So I started writing incredibly detailed outlines. I’d do a 15,000 word outline for a 100,000 word book. Every chapter and incident would be detailed, bits of dialogue, and character development. Then I’d make sure everyone was signed up to it.
And you know what. I found it was a tremendous discipline. It forced me to really think ruthlessly about where the plot was going. It forced me to think hard about turning point, and twists, and to fitting the characters into the story. And it made me much better at chucking things out – I could edit much more fiercely on an outline than I ever could on a finished manuscript.
So now that I am writing my own books I still do these incredibly detailed outlines.
And that has two big advantages.
First, the plots are much better. They start in the right place, they are tighter and leaner, and more exciting.
Second, when I’m writing the actually book, I don’t have to worry about plot and structure because that is already done. I can focus on jokes, dialogue, one-liners, terrific action descriptions, and all the other stuff that goes into a first-class thriller.
So if there is one piece of advice I would always give an aspiring writer it is – plan, plan, plan.