“Action without planning is fatal, but planning without action is futile.”
I’ve tried to find attribution for that quote without luck, but it seems to be popular in Project Management circles. I heard it at a company meeting about strategic planning and business initiatives.
Writing is In Everything
Me? Every company meeting I’m in, all I can think about is how it’s a lesson I associate with writing.
Company-level vision and goals? Writing.
Agile project development and SCRUM principles? Also writing.
Getting through slumps in diet or workout? Random podcast about getting your career as a comedian started? … You get the picture.
Planners and Pantsers and Weaponry
We’ve talked about planners vs pantsers in the past, and I think it’s one of those Hatfield and McCoy situations that makes people draw a line in the sand and stand behind it, weapons out.
*draws a line*
There’s a line, and on this side of it, I’m a planner.
(and it’s MY but, so it’s a big one)
You can overplan in SO many ways.
You can overplan such that you never actually get started because there are literally infinity number of details about a world/story/magic system/personality/city/economy that FEEL important.
Surely, knowledge of the farming industry in your world affects your economies and societies, thus affecting the story, right? RIGHT?
(It can. It doesn’t have to. And even if it does, you proooooobably don’t need to know absolutely everything about it.)
You can ALSO overplan such that you wring all of the shining surprise juice from the fruit of your story.
I know I’ve done it. I’ve sat down to write a story that I thought I did a good job planning, only to find that the plot falls to ashes on my fingertips. All the pizazz, the opportunity for surprise … it’s just missing.
You can get so attached to your beautiful, organized, tab-divided, color-coded plan that the moment your creativity tosses you a curveball, you fly completely off the rails.
Either that curveball is significant enough to topple your entire structure or you’re so focused on how perfect your plan is that you reject it without considering it.
… and if your “muse” is anything like mine, she sure as heckfire likes to toss curveballs.
Rubber Band Effect
The common reaction to falling into one of these overplanning states is to pitch your binders and highlighters into a bonfire, hitch up your pants, and just start writing.
I tried that too. It felt a lot like adding structure to my normal daydreaming.
Daydreams do not like being structured, I’ve found. I fell into problems of starting at the wrong spot and not knowing how to get from Point A to Point B in a way that wasn’t overlay hand-wavy or super boring. The story also ended up being more of an “Adventures of …” instead of a solid plot.
I like solid plots. I want to write them.
So pantsing clearly wasn’t for me either.
So What’s the Solution?
You might expect me to say “It’s different for everyone” here, and in the past I would have said it.
It’s true, of course, but it’s not the whole truth.
The REAL truth that I’m starting to learn is that it’s different for every STORY, too.
Which is why I find myself eyeballing that line in the sand I drew so confidently. Let’s take a look at my stories to date.
For those of you who don’t know Blue Moon, it was a webserial that I wrote way back when I was in college and had a LiveJournal blog.
Blue Moon started with a VERY loose overarching plot that I only barely touched on. It had initially intended it to contain more chapters with various inn guest hijinks, but the vampires decided they had a story that needed to be told and it meshed so nicely with the sister’s story that I ended up scrapping almost all of it.
Blue Moon was MOSTLY panted, but I had a plan.
Some may not know that Choose was my interactive webserial, propelled forward through biweekly polls that chose details about subsequent installments.
Choose probably SEEMED to many of you like it was mostly pantsed, but the truth was that the more I wrote, the more solid the rule system seemed.
Also, from almost the very beginning, we had a plot.
A VERY BIG PLOT, as some of you may be aware. We stopped the story just after we finally met Dame Vakaena, who presents herself as the quintessential villain … but there’s a very defined plot point where that changes and our heroes end up having to work with her.
There were other … let’s call them “tentpoles” that we had set up in Choose. Stars to aim for, supports holding up the story so that it could meander its way to conclusion.
But there was also TONS of room for wiggle in Choose. I knew where Bones came from after the first installment, but I didn’t know about the Hideous Paladins or even the rest of Hank’s backstory.
Choose felt good to write that way because YOU were all coming along for the ride with me. If it delved too far into “adventures of” territory, at least we were forging through the jungles together.
It had a good feeling of camaraderie, where writing so often feels like a lonely thing.
But it wasn’t eligible for traditional publishing because of that very openness.
I’ve had a series of short stories – the two Saucy ones come to mind, as well as the filler story for Choose about what Hank was up to while Remora was getting into trouble in the main storyline.
All of those were VERY structured, but they also felt good that way. I had wiggle room for characters to grow and misbehave, but overall it fell nicely into the expected structure of thing, thing goes wrong, other thing goes wrong, twist, ending.
And it was certainly much easier to revise them than it is a novel-sized work.
Flash fiction is unabashedly pants’d. I’ve published one and written a couple dozen. They have very little lasting meaning for me.
This is SUPER heavily dependent on the person I’m writing with, but it’s also mostly pants-y. The Warcraft stuff I did with Jenny rings as one of my favorite things to have been involved in, but I’ve got a few other stalled RP projects that I also enjoy.
The problem is that it requires both people. In the case of the Warcraft fic, I was the one who had to bow out. In other cases, I was the one who wanted to keep going.
In all cases, I cannot carry the weight on my own after the other person leaves. There’s a magic about having multiple authorial voices that meld nicely which cannot be artificially recreated.
Stained fell apart from overplanning and not enough planning. (Ha!) Some things I had planned just … didn’t feel right as they fell on the page, and I wasn’t able to recover. My villain’s motivation wasn’t fleshed out enough and without a villain, the whole thing collapsed.
Which honestly just goes to show how there are a few key things that super duper have to be planned for me.
There’s something missing from Scent Magic. The story and characters are incredibly interesting to me, but I can’t seem to find the right way to share them with readers in a successful way. I’ll keep trying, though, because I love the concept.
Jibba Jabba, Get to the Point
So what does this mean for me?
… To my consternation, it means I’m overplanning.
I know why I’m doing it. I really really don’t want to mess up Zonduth. Or Skrylar. Or Artigul’Uvaroth. Or any of the stories that Steven and I have been brewing for over a decade now.
(OVER A DECADE, dear heavens I just said that without blinking)
In general, I seem to do best with tentpoles for longer work. At least, thus far it seems that way. For all I know I’ll do my next one and feel completely differently.
But at the same time, every story I’ve tried to write without any plan (just a concept and a spark) fizzles and flops before I make it very far.
I need characters. I need plot tentpoles. I need a villain.
I need the reason THIS story needs to be told at THIS time.
… and I need to stop worrying so much about whether or not I’m doing it right and just write the damned thing.
It doesn’t do me a lick of good sloshing around in my brainpan.
Anyone else interested in taking a look back at your “successful” works and seeing what worked and what didn’t work for you?
Was it a surprise to find out where on the planning spectrum you fell?