Plan Ahead or Don't

The video below is one of my favorite author-editor scenes:

And it fits with the advice I’m about to give for writing fast: plan ahead, or don’t.

In my experience, writing fast means working with a loose set of ideas, a general sense of the work ahead, and then plowing through it as quickly as possible without taking much notice of the world around you. The key is following the action and not to get bogged down in the details. Once you get off in the weeds, it’s hard to get moving again.

Reading this, you may think that it’s best not to plan your NaNoWriMo novel and you may be right.

You may be right about this because you may be writing your very first novel-length work. I’ve read a number of first-time author experiences where the writer was just surprised how the book “just flowed out” or they “wrote like mad.” These writers are consumed by the passion of composition, the deep connection they feel with their work. And while they might have a heap of editing and rework to do later, it may turn out that writing flat out was the best thing for their work. Otherwise, they might have stopped and wondered just what the hell they were doing in the first place.

At the same time (and I say this while gazing upward at my twirling pencil), making notes can be helpful for moving fast. With a framework for your story, you can concentrate on the moment and worry less about the larger picture. This enables you to work with the assurance that you know where your story is going and, roughly, how you’re going to get there.

So what’s an author to do?

I can’t tell you which method to use because this is something you have to learn for yourself. This is one of the great secrets of writing fiction (if not writing in general): there are a great many things that no one but you knows about and you won’t know what you know until you know it.

“Many things in writing are best learned in the laboratory of pen, paper, and wastebasket.” ~ Wallace Stegner

I know that isn’t terribly helpful, but it’s true. The only way to really learn how to write (fast or slow) is to do it. Everything you read in writing handbooks is merely advice based on someone else’s experience. There is no perfect roadmap, no set of assembly instructions.

There are some writing books that claim to give you such structure and guidelines and if you follow them to the letter you may indeed write a book. However, you won’t follow them to the letter, I assure you. As you begin to write your book, you will find that some of the rules apply to you and some do not. Perhaps you will discover that there are entirely different rules that apply to you and no one else. In the end if you stick to it, you may not discover the “right” way but you will discover your way, and that’s about as close as anyone gets in these things.

For me, writing is often like watching a movie. I turn on the film and sit back and record what I see. Essays like this are sort of the same thing. There’s some part of me that steps up to the podium (or whiteboard, cause I like to scribble) and then just begins rambling on and on about one topic of another. The writer part of me tries to get it all down as best as I can, which is a semi-nice way of say that I usually make a mess out of it even if I do have a lot of fun trying.

So for me, taking a lot of detailed notes before I draft is often a debilitating move. I spend more time fussing about whether I’m getting all of the notes into the story instead of watching the movie and recording what I see. What I do find helpful though is to write little story trailers, the kind of thing that gives a sense of what the story is about without giving it all away. This provides enough structure to keep me moving forward while still allowing for the flexibility to go way off track depending on what I find.

Yeah, I know that sounds completely wacko – unless you’ve written a novel and then it sounds sane if not downright sensible.


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9 thoughts on “Plan Ahead or Don't

  1. My first few novels were written without outline or plan, and while I believe they stand up pretty well, I’ll tell you this…when you reach a point in your novel where you suddenly can’t figure out what happens next…that can be like hitting a wall.

    So … I learned to outline. I have found that – though I generally outline the entire novel, there comes a point where the book has strayed so far from the original plan that the outline is more of a shelf ornament than a map. Sometimes I will stop at this point and adjust it a little, but usually I just make sure, at that point, that I have an idea where I want the story to end, and plow on ahead.

    My novel DEEP BLUE terrified me near the end. I had a vague idea how it ended, but had loose ends, and was thinking it was all going to be too “little” to be satisfying, and that it was falling apart. Then, halfway through the next to last chapter? Epiphany – and I think that is the strongest ending I’ve ever written…I had no idea I was going to write it until I got there.

    There are many roads from page one to THE END – but I believe, particularly during a timed deadline project, that at least having a placebo outline is a good idea.

    David Niall Wilson´s last blog post..To Lighten Things UP… Halloween’s Coming…ZOMBEATLES

  2. Great post Jamie!

    As a playwright, I’ve done both of the above. Captured pretty much the whole thing in a few days of white heat writing and “note carded” the process so I’d have a bit of a guide for a longer work.

    I like the advice you give about each writing book is based on that writers experience, some of it will work for you and some of it won’t.

    I’ll have direct my playwrighting students to your blog for some sage advice!

    thanks so much,
    The Motivation Mama!

  3. @David I know that today I couldn’t write a book without doing some planning or outlining. I’m not sure it would be all that fun, though perhaps given the right topic I might give it a go. That said, when I think back to my first book, I couldn’t imagine writing it with a plan. The whole idea of spending that time planning would have frozen me solid.

    Thanks for the great comment, especially that last line.

    @Denise Thanks! I give the only advice that I have, which is what has happened to me (for better or worse). :)

  4. I agree with your point on “how to write a _____” books. How wonderful it would be if they worked for everyone as advertised, but as you say, they should be considered “what worked for me, may not work for you, but give it a whack” books.

    My favorite so far is “101 habits of highly successful screenwriters”. It’s broken up in to chapters on particular aspects of writing, ranging from habits to outlook, etc. Regardless of your writing goals, reading the quotes allows you to pick and choose your own pearls of wisdom, selecting those that agree with your own outlook or those that show you the way to a better one.

    Cheers, y’all!

  5. I like the story trailer ideas, I’m going to try a vague outline just so I don’t get completely lost and also because I’ve never finished anything before, so maybe an outline will help!

  6. @Laura I know exactly what you mean. You might need to watch this bit from Dylan Moran. Another one of my writerly favs. :)

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