Wednesday, 2 December 2020

To Plan or Not to Plan

It's an old debate - one that never ceases to divide writers. Should you make a plan before you write - or should you just start and see what happens?

An esteemed subscriber recently raised the issue again in the context of 'types' of writers. It seemed to her that genre fiction writers probably needed a plan in order to deal with the complexities of plotting - and cut down on editing in the subsequent drafts.

However, she maintained, it was the more 'literary' writers that insisted that planning somehow stifled creativity. And that a good literary writer didn't mind editing for sense and structure after the first draft was down.

She asked me which I thought was the best approach.

Do Plans Work?

It's hard to imagine a business succeeding without a plan - but clearly some do. Even very large businesses - which surely don't intend to go billions into debt, though it seems to happen all too often nowadays.

Some would say that many marriages survive without a formal plan - just a commitment is enough, as long as you work on it every day. But there again, how many marriages actually last? Less than 50% was the last figure I heard quoted.

Most anything that has a definite end-date needs a plan - a military operation for instance or an expedition to climb Everest.

But what about writing novels, books and short stories? Are these activities too precious, too human, to warrant taking the spontaneity out of the effort?

Clearly, it depends.

Many Ways Lead to the Source

There are as many ways to write as there are writers. Some choose the hard way, some the easier, but each chooses the way that seems right for them - at the time.

My own opinion whichever way is based on the evidence that those without a plan tend to have more trouble finishing what they start.

To me, it comes down to your definition of the word 'writer'. You could argue that anyone who writes is a writer. You might also contend that a planner - or a daydreamer - is not strictly a writer until they start writing. But that someone who finishes their book, whether they had a plan or template or not, eschews the definition, and becomes an author.

An author is one who makes their dream real.

If it's true that some literary writers are less 'ending' orientated, then perhaps being a full blown 'author' is irrelevant to them.

Let's face it, the romantic ideal of 'being a writer' is sometimes more appealing than actually doing the writing - and having something to show for yourself is perhaps too much of a frightening prospect for many would-be authors.

Am I being too harsh?

I know there are 'plan-less' authors who do finish their work.

Similarly, there are many genre writers who, despite meticulous planning, can't seem to get more than a third of the way through their novels.

So really, there's no definitive answer.

The Three Cs

I believe that writing and finishing a novel requires three important elements, all of which, conveniently, happen to begin with C!

1. Commitment

Whether you have a plan or not, you need to make a mental, even sometimes spiritual, commitment to actually finishing your stories.

Most anyone can write a few lines - or many lines - that have no immediate impact without context. It's the context of the whole that defines a work's relevance and enables the reader to make a decision about the author's art or talent.

(Perhaps this is why so many writers fear finishing their work - lest they be judged! Scary indeed.)

2. Compromise

I'm not talking about artistic compromise here. Of course you should do your best and what is right for the work.

But I have noticed over the years that many writers feel they can never live up to their own expectations - and consequently struggle, often to the point of blockage. This is really not doing you any good.

Sometimes you just need to let go and write - and be happy that you're doing your best. Turn off your inner critic - he's usually wrong anyway. Have faith - and get the first draft down without beating yourself up. I would contend your work is ALWAYS better than you think it is.

3. Combination

Writing is often fun and rewarding in its own right. But also it can be difficult and exhausting too.
Sometimes you need to find new ways of inspiring yourself to keep going.

Sometimes planning is a good idea - to help get those juices flowing. Sometimes being spontaneous is more inspiring. It depends on the project - and how far along you are with it.

I don't so much plan as use 'triggers' - especially in longer works.

Before I begin, I often write a list of dot points that suggest a structure that I can use as a template, if I want to. Then I let my literary mind take over and write whatever comes to mind.

This, to me, is the right mix - and while it doesn't restrict my creativity, it does allow me to focus my energies. I recommend it.

It's Your Call

The goal for any writer is to keep writing.

And whatever keeps you writing is the right answer - for you.

So don't spend precious writing time wondering what the best way forward might be. We all have revelations about certain aspects of writing from time to time. Some help us, some do not.

The important thing is to keep the words flowing onto the page.

And perhaps the best reason to have some sort of plan, whether it's written down or not, is so that you know when to finish a project - and move on.

Because only when you know you can finish projects, do you realize you've progressed from being a mere writer, to becoming a real live author!

Keep Writing!

© Rob Parnell