Since we’re entering the season of vacations and trip-taking, I thought I’d risk one more time up on my soapbox to bring you this important message. I know I’m a curmudgeon about planning out your novel in advance, but it’s one of the few things regarding writing I’m pretty adamant about. If you feel like listening to another lecture, go ahead and read my earlier post, but I’m going to paint a little analogy for you here about taking a trip—for writing your novel is a journey of sorts. And we have all probably had smooth-running trips as well as disastrous ones we’d rather forget (and wished we hadn’t gone on).
A Trip with Some Objectives in Mind
If you’re like me, you like to have a sense of security in knowing the trip will be a good one, and that means planning in advance. Let’s say you live in the US and you’ve never gone to Europe. You have three weeks, and you want to see about ten cities and visit two dozen major landmarks. So you go online, get brochures and maps, read reviews—do some research. then you start working out an itinerary. Maybe you don’t want to be so specific that you leave no room for spontaneity along the way. But you don’t want to just hop on a plane to Frankfurt and wing it without even having your first night booked in a hotel. Of course, if you’re just out there looking for any kind of adventure and part of the thrill is seeing where you end up and wanting to be surprised, that’s a different kind of trip and doesn’t apply here. I’m talking about a trip where you actually have some objectives in mind, some specific sights you really want to see and experience, and you don’t want to waste a lot of time traveling needlessly on planes and trains in a haphazard fashion. You know that if you plan carefully, you’ll pack in a lot of sights and go from one city to the next in an orderly manner.
Don’t End Up Sleeping on a Bench in a Subway
By now you should know where I’m going with this. If you don’t want to hear the lecture, go learn a writing tip in the other section of my blog called Say What? But I hope you’ll hear me out (you can make faces at me since I can’t see you). Writers who dive into a project as huge and challenging as writing a novel without planning much ahead of time are taking many risks. They may go off on a journey that wastes their time and resources (emotional ones primarily) and doesn’t bring them a lot of joy. They may experience a large amount of stress by not having things planned ahead, similar to having to sleep sitting on a bench in some subway because all the hotels in town are booked for a large event. A trip taken without enough advanced preparation foments too much undue stress—stress that could have been avoided if some time had been taken to plan it out better. Travelers embarking on such an unclear journey face one unexpected problem after another as they try to get to where they wanted to go. the journey becomes a big hassle and it’s not a whole lot of fun.
Planning Does Leave Room for Spontaneity
If you want to write a novel that is going to “visit” certain “places” and that eventually gets to a final destination, you’re going to have more success and less stress if you take some time (days, weeks) to plan it out in advance. I mentioned in my previous soapbox speech that I don’t like to use the word plot because it implies putting a novel together is all about plot, and it’s not. You can use the word if you like; I’m not stopping you. I just would like you to imagine for a moment that this journey you want to take, which you hope will be memorable and wonderful—a journey of the heart—is like a well-planned trip. If you work out the major details, such as itinerary and flights and sights you want to see, you can still leave plenty of room for variation and exploration.
When Lee and I went to London a few years ago for three weeks, we had a lot of places we wanted to see around the country. But we wanted to be spontaneous too, so we booked a flat in London for the first week, to get us there. We knew a week would give us time to see all the museums and sights on our list. Once we were there, we kicked around ideas of where to go next, but before the week was out, we had the next week sketched in. We decided to head over to Bath (a city I love but one Lee had never been to) for a few days. Once there, we explored the surrounding region, then booked a room in an inn up in York and spent most of a week there. We had hoped to get to many other places, but we found there wasn’t enough time to thoroughly enjoy our trip if we just whizzed through each town without spending some time in each place. We decided those other destinations would have to be visited during another trip to England. (And yes, we took our little garden gnome with us so we could give him a vacation too—just like in Amelie.)
Planning Keeps You (Mostly) on Course
Sometimes when we write a novel—whether we’re winging it off the top of our heads or following an outline—we tend to get distracted and veer off in another direction. Our characters like to take over and insist on doing things we didn’t plan. Sometimes that works great—it’s often your intuition and creativity leading you in a better direction than the one you first had. Much like arriving in a town you thought you’d stay in for days, but when you take a side trip you find it’s an even better place to visit, so you change your reservations and head out. But when you have a solid framework for your novel, knowing your objectives, goals, themes, plot and character arcs (don’t get me started again on the arc thing), you won’t veer far off course. In fact, if you do start wandering down a dark alley, you’ll stop and go back because you know right away it’s not fitting in with the kind of trip you had in mind. On the other hand, if you’re just writing “by the seat of your pants,” and you veer off in some odd direction (which will happen most of the time you’re writing because you really have no idea where you want to go or what you want to do at all on this trip other than “have fun” or experience life” or something vague like that), your trip is going to be a real mess and a disappointment (to you and everyone else you’ve dragged along with you) .
Enough said? I don’t want to be so brash as to say that a lot of writers don’t plan their books ahead because they’re lazy or they’re afraid planning will take away from the joy of being spontaneously creative. I can’t speak to the first part of that statement; only you know why you won’t take the time to plan your novel in advance. But I can speak to the second part, as I hope I’ve conveyed above. You don’t squelch your creativity by constructing a detailed framework in which to tell your story. You actually set up a place for your creativity to explode in greatness. A piano has only eighty-eight keys—that’s the framework in which a composer has to create. And yet untold numbers of amazing musical compositions have been written within that framework.
This week, just think about what I said. If you’re already a serious plotter, go take a vacation and have fun. I bet you’re the type that plans most of your details in advance because you want to really enjoy a stress-free experience. If you’re a “pantser,” just think about trying to plan your next novel (or this current one) a little more deliberately and in a little more detail than you’re usually comfortable with. Stretch yourself a little. I think you’ll find it feels good.