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I've been working on a fantasy series for the past few years. When I first started, I wrote my first draft (for the first book) in one go without any planning at all. Even though I enjoyed myself, once I was done I felt like the book wasn't good enough and could have benefited from planning.

I let the story marinate in my head for a few years, and ended up getting a bunch of new ideas that meant the first draft would have to change completely (basically, only the genre and characters remained the same).

But I should add that, though I felt I wasted my time writing the first draft, it was beneficial because I got to know the characters, and I don't think I would have reached this point if I had started planning from the beginning, without having done any writing.

When I picked up the story again I decided to focus more on planning and less on writing (as I didn't want to spend time writing material that could become outdated when I got better ideas).

However, I still spend time writing when I am inspired by a scene and feel like I absolutely have to get it out on paper (which happens often). So right now, my current system is to focus on planning (in terms of story arcs and characters arcs) and only write when inspired.

The problem is:

  • writing is fun, but planning gets boring after a while, unless I jot down a few scenes in the process
  • the ideas I come up with while planning seem good at first, but I sometimes have much better ideas when writing, or when I am inspired on the fly. The ideas I came up with while planning seem predictable in comparison.

I don't want to stop planning because I jump around a lot and write scenes from different books in the series, and things get really confusing.

Also, there are some things I can do while planning that are much harder to do while writing, such as:

  • figuring out the order of events

  • which conflicts happen in what order

  • how the events of each novel flow together

  • when characters should be introduced

  • how character relationships progress

  • how characters develop

My main question is: how do I stay engaged while planning, and how do I strike a balance between planning and writing while still making meaningful progress?

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You say that the ideas you come up with while writing are much better than the ones you planned. Sounds like you might be a discovery writer.

I have four novels still in the work is progress stage but they - if I do complete them - worst case served as practice. Best case, I have two high concept fantasy novels waiting to be finished. Even my juvenilia has a purpose and while they will never see the light of day, they were fun to write and taught me.

My current work has no relation to them in style or genre. I am writing a spy thriller that began as a question. I spent two months creating the characters of the brother and sister, getting their relationship just so. Finding their names and getting to know them before writing that first sentence.

Since joining this forum I have learned that I am a discovery writer. My characters go about their lives, meet others and have adventures - often surprising me. I have a general idea of the arc of the series, but the way the characters interact drive the story.

Choosing to write the entire series scene by scene but not in order is an interesting choice. If that is your process, that is your process, but it might make flow more difficult to achieve.

Worry a bit less about planning and devote more time to writing. Periodically read sections to check for flow and keep going. You might find errors or, as I have done on occasion, realized that character x needs a tweak and go back, make a few changes and go on.

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You are learning to write. Part of learning is to understand that it may be time to abandon a project and move on to the next one. It is good if you finish a project, but only if you chose a project that is manageable at your current level of experience as a writer. Usually, when you start out as a writer, it is a good idea to begin by writing a few short narratives, then a few longer narratives, then a few novels, and then your first series. What you did is attempt a marathon without ever having run before. It is quite likely that you are now at the point where you find out that you have overestimated your skill and stamina. So it might be prudent to stop working on this project, put it in a drawer, and write something shorter first. And then, when you have written a few novels, and the current project still lingers in your mind, return to it and write it with the mastery you have then achieved.

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The thing you may need to realise is there's planning and there's planning.

You could plan everything to the minutest detail and have a long arc across all of your books (much like Harry Potter) but each book has to be separate in its own way, otherwise people will wonder why it wasn't simply released as one book.

Plus, it's all very well meticulously planning out the entire series of books but what happens if, midway through book 2, you realise that you've got to go off in a different direction and the plans for rest of the books are useless?

Every book could be planned in as little as one line or even a blurb.

If we were to use film as an example, looking at the original Star Wars trilogy, you have "A New Hope", "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi". Each title is a key, small example of what happens in each film and is enough to build a story around without getting bogged down in the details of it.

There's nothing wrong with doing both your writing at the same time. You're writing a chapter and something happens which gives you another idea of what could happen in the future, whether in the same book or a different one so you stop and sketch out what happens later. And likewise, you could be planning and realise you've got a great idea for something to happen right now and jump straight into writing.

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What you describe is a normal part of plotting and rewriting. Ideas almost always improve if you return later and spot the clichés that need to be subverted.

Just stay organized so your out-of-order inspiration sessions and random plot notes can be accessed and edited quickly.

The Snowflake Method is a process where a large narrative is constructed by first sketching-in the broad themes and then expanding them into more detailed versions, again and again until you have the novel. I use Scrivener, first as an index card board to slide the major plot points around, then flesh-out the details similar to Snowflake – I just call it the index card method (but I am not selling a book or software so there might be a cleverer name for it).

Scrivener is easy to split a file in-line, so as the outline becomes chapters and chapters become scenes the whole project can grow organically. It still has the index card metaphor where entire blocks of scenes can be re-arranged by dragging the files in the hierarchy. It's also great for adding a quick note to an earlier scene to include Chekov's gun, without interrupting the inspiration flow.

Ultimately you want to keep the organization of plotting with the spontaneity of discovery writing. That requires good editing tools that let you work on the larger structure down to the granular scene.

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