Planning isn’t just for City Councils by Christopher Patterson
It stifles my creativity.
I’m not in high school anymore.
I know what I want to write.
I’ve heard all these excuses when it comes to outlining a book. I’ve heard them all because I’ve used them all. We don’t need to outline. Things like NaMoWriMo are for amateurs and people who really shouldn’t be writing in the first place. Outlining and drafting are just unnecessary work, taking away time better used to execute my craft. Here’s my favorite excuse:
I’ll just let the words take me where they will.
And…that’s why I have done several rewrites on my books. Because I wanted to buck the system, be my own, independent person, blaze my own path, and do things my own way.
I think there is credibility to some of the responses authors have to the suggestion that they need to outline, plan and draft. We don’t want to be so regimented that it takes away from our creativity, and the outlining we do for writing fiction is definitely different than the outlining we learned in high school. You should know what you want to write. That’s the first step…coming up with a story. Finally, there are times when we have to let the words take us. There are times when we are writing and the Muses take over. We create something—a sub-arc, a back story, a new conflict, a scene—that we never intended and its beautiful, magical, wonderful, and more.
But let’s compare outlining to some other professions, some other areas of life. I do this because I think we think as writers, we are so different. In certain ways we are, but if you want to be a successful writer, ought we not look at our writing like a profession, a job, a career?
Would you be okay with a surgeon who just opens you up without a plan? They know what the issue is. They have a general idea how to fix it. But they didn’t plan. It would stifle their creativity as a surgeon. They take their idea, open you up, and away they go. No one would be okay with that. Perhaps the very best surgeons in the world could do that, if they absolutely had to, but even they don’t. Even they plan.
Would you be okay with your financial advisor meeting with you—perhaps a meeting for which you are paying—without a plan? They know the market. They have a general idea of how the economy is doing right now. They have a general idea in regards to your finances and goals. But they simple execute trades, transfer money, and place you in retirement vehicles as the winds blow, as they just “feel” something. No one would hire a financial advisor like that. In fact, the whole financial industry has rules in place so a financial planner can’t do that. Of course, your Edward Jones or Charles Schwab agent might get a feeling from time to time, just as you might get a creative intuition that allows you to break from your plan, but the majority of the time, they stick to the plan.
I love to workout, lift weights, wrestle, and grapple. What happens to those people who just walk into the gym everyday not having a clue about what they are going to do that day? They make fun of the gym-goer walking around with a pen and a pad of paper, recording their sets and reps and weight, but that’s the person seeing results. That’s the person who took time, at home, planning out the week, planning their next mesocycle or macrocycle in the gym, establishing goals, and keeping track of their progress. If you were paying a personal trainer $50 or more per session, would you be okay with them just deciding what you were going to do that day when you walked through the door? No one would be okay with that, so why would we as writers? Why should our readers be okay with that?
While I was doing a little research to write this blog, I came across an editing group based out of New York who would strongly disagree with me. Now, they have big name editors working for their firm. They are based in one of the literary hubs of the country. They have credibility. But one of their first statements was, “Planning your novel ahead of time increases the likelihood it will be dead on arrival.”
Does that statement confuse you as much as it confuses me? We can over plan. I have stopped going to writing groups because they are filled with authors who have been planning their book for ten years. They blocked out a whole Saturday to outline paragraph 3 of chapter 4. They spent an hour contemplating the title of chapter 10. So, yes, we can over do it. You don’t want the planning process to get in the way of writing. But, please, explain to me how planning something out, laying out a general framework of what we will be creating, if you will, writing the blue print of the story, increases the likelihood that it won’t work.
Planning makes writing feel like work. Uh huh. Is that a bad thing? Listen, if you are writing simply because you want to get ideas on paper and could care less if someone else ever picked up your ideas and read them, cool. If you are writing something only for your family and friends and know that they are the only ones that will ever buy your book, great. But the majority of you, if you write, want people to read your story. You want to make some money with your craft. You want to be a best seller. How is, then, writing not work?
Now, that statement wants me to go on and on about how modern Americans are becoming lazier and few work with disdain and that is root of many of the problems we have in our country—and if you’re in a different country, I’m sure you could relate as well—but I won’t. I will simply say the only way, in my opinion, to make something of your writing, to get published and get read and sell copies, is to treat it like work. We have to write when we don’t feel like it. We have to continue our education to get better at our craft. We have to push through moments of writer’s block and boredom and stress. If you want writing to help pay the bills, or pay the bills plus some, then it has to be treated like a job, and planning your story is a part of that.
Planning stifles creativity. I had an epiphany in one of my first years as a teacher. Another teacher was mentoring me and when he found out I wasn’t using the textbook that most of the other teachers were using, he obviously asked why. I said, “I don’t like the textbook. It stifles my creativity,” to which he said, “it’s not about you. It’s about the students. You can be creative and still use the textbook.”
First of all, even though I have said this myself, I don’t know how planning out your story stifles any creativity. But, secondly, it’s not all about me. Am I the only person planning on reading my story? If so, I can do whatever I want. In reality, I don’t even need to write a story. I could be totally content with my own imagination. What is my audience going to find enjoyable? How do I attract a larger audience? I mentioned this in another blog, but more than once, I have had an editor tell me I needed to cut whole chapters, several chapters, get rid of a character, etc. If it were all about me, I wouldn’t have done it. But it’s not all about me. I want people to read my story. I want people to enjoy my story. Planning doesn’t stifle your creativity. Planning perpetuates your creativity.
Not to beat a dead horse, but we can over plan. However, appropriate planning can and does (I am speaking from personal experience here) prevent rewrites. Another critic of planning stated: “Rewriting is a part of the writing process.”
True. I agree. But how many times do you want to engage in rewriting? Are we truly writing if the majority of our time is devoted to rewriting our story. Rewriting can be mind numbing and demotivating. We thought we were done. Nope. There is no better way to take the wind out of a writer’s sails then to tell them they aren’t done—in fact, they are nowhere close to being done—when they thought they were. Speaking from my own experience, let’s go ahead and publish, get some decent sales, have some decent reviews, and then tell a writer, “Nope, we need to redo some things.” That was life changing and one of those moments when I questioned whether or not I wanted to write. Do I think that could have been avoided if I had engaged in proper planning? Yes.
How do we plan, then?
There are a number of great ways to engage in the planning process. I used the book Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt for a while and it worked very well. You can purchase the book. It’s relatively inexpensive. And if you buy the actual book (I bought the e-book) it comes with a workbook that you can copy and fill in. It's simple. It’s laid out for you.
Many authors use resources through NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. This organization has hundreds of resources to help an author “write” a novel in a month. Are you truly writing a novel in a month? No. But the idea is get the whole process down, get the plan and the framework down, in a month and watch your story explode into something great.
My current editor has me write a simple paragraph explaining what each chapter is about. At the same time, he has me use the Michael Hauge story arc model, in which certain things—Action, a Turning Point, a Climax—need to happen at certain points in the book. I know. Some of you are already saying to yourselves, “Don’t tell me when something is supposed to happen in my own story.” We need to get over ourselves. It works. I also use a simple character sketch. What this character sketch allows me to do is write a quick backstory without having to include it in my story. Most readers don’t care about the backstory of minor characters, but I do. The most helpful part of this character sketch? The first question is simple. If I could choose any actor to play this character, who would it be? You would be amazed at how beneficial that is. All of sudden, my characters truly come to life.
I like this method because as I write each chapter, I can reference my quick paragraph. If I start to get off track, I keep myself in check. If I want to change something that I had originally written in that paragraph, I have to justify it to myself. It’s accountability.
Before I bid you adieu, think on this…Robert Jordan, the author of the Wheel of Time series, spent 20 years writing 11 of what was going to be 12 books. Robert Jordan, regardless of whether or not you enjoy his work, is arguably a literary genius, but he had notes, outlines, and plans. His wife was able to turn all this over to Brandon Sanderson who, in turn, seamlessly finished Jordan’s massive series. If you read these books, you would never know it wasn’t Jordan who wrote them (there ended up being three more instead of one).
The bottom line is, there are a thousand ways to plan out your story. But plan you must. Are there a few literary geniuses that could write a book with planning? Yes. I am not one of them. Eat a very big piece of humble pie, Google “How to plan your story,” take a day and do the dirty work, and save yourself time, energy, and heartache in the future.