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Posts Tagged ‘planning’

I used to be a writing teacher in my other life. I never taught creative writing but I did teach freshman composition, technical writing, and writing for the Web. One of the most useful things I picked up in my years on the front lines was an introduction to the writing process.

A little background here: back in the old days (i.e., before 1970), nobody ever talked about how people actually wrote. They just told you what to come up with—for example, a “description essay” (and how many people outside of freshman comp classes ever write essays that do nothing but describe?). Then some composition researchers started looking at the way people actually went about writing. They found that the process went in phases that they divided into, roughly, prewriting, drafting, and revising.

Prewriting involves all the things you go through before you actually start writing—if you’re a planner like me, it means brainstorming, charting, maybe using the kind of question and answer structure you get in a software program like Dramatica, and so on. If you’re a pantser, it probably means doing a lot of thinking, both conscious and un-, about what you’re going to do and how it’s going to work.

The drafting phase is pretty straightforward—it’s getting the words on the page. And revising means going back and making those words say what you really want them to say. It’s those last two phases I want to talk about. I think a lot of beginning writers run into grief because they get these two phases confused.

Let me give you an example. I know a writer, a very talented writer, who can never seem to finish any of her manuscripts. She writes a couple of chapters, takes them to her critique group, lets the others in the group look at what she’s written, and then goes home and tries to make it perfect. And that’s where she freezes up. It’s not perfect and she can’t go on writing that particular book.

Now my finished stuff is far from perfect, I know. But believe me when I’m drafting it’s even more imperfect than the finished version! That’s because when I’m drafting, I’m drafting. I spend all my time getting words down on the page—not always the right words, or the words I’ll ultimately end up with, but words nonetheless. And I don’t really go over them from one day to the next. I’ll read what I wrote yesterday, and maybe I’ll fiddle with it a little, but for the most part I’ll move pretty quickly on to the next scene I’m going to work with. It usually takes me a couple of months to do a complete draft because I write longer books (around 90,000 words), but I don’t stop moving forward during those months unless something seems catastrophically off. Whenever I’m tempted to go back and clean things up, I end up muttering “Just get it down, just get it down.”

And that’s the point I’d make here. In writing more than in some other pursuits, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Nobody starts off with a perfect draft, trust me. Some writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, have claimed that their masterpieces came to them fully formed. They’re lying. The first time through, the words in the dialogue won’t be quite right for everybody. You may not have enough detail in the descriptions. The action may seem too abrupt or too drawn-out. But here’s the point: IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Think of your writing as a party (maybe that will make it less painful!). You get the house set up before the guests arrive, but once the guests are there you just let ‘er rip. Maybe you’ve got a few things planned, like a meal or a TV marathon you want to watch. Or maybe you’re somebody who just likes to let the party develop the way it’s going to develop. Anyway, as long as the party’s going, you’re going with it, just letting the whole thing flow along. You wouldn’t stop a good party to run the vacuum sweeper just because somebody spilled a little popcorn on the rug. You might gather up some dirty glasses, and you’d probably refill the chip and dip bowls, but you’ll save the major clean-up until after the party’s over.

The main thing here is, don’t let yourself get hung up on revising before you’re ready. Don’t keep rewriting that paragraph to get it absolutely right. Get it good enough and then keep going. The great thing about the writing process is that you’ve always got a chance to clean it up later. Let the guests go home, let yourself put your feet up and take a rest, let your brain relax.

And then get out that vacuum sweeper and go to work.

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By now, most people who read writing blogs and attend writing workshops have heard about the split between planners and pantsers. Planners are, obviously, writers who like to plan out their work before they write. Pantsers are writers who like to work by the seat of their pants, making things up as they go along.

Many of the articles about this opposition are written by pantsers, and sometimes they sound a little, well, defensive. Pantsers claim that they work this way because they have to. They’ve tried planning and it doesn’t work for them. Let me go on record here as saying that’s fine with me. I know some pantsers and I believe them when they say they have to work the way they work. But I’d say in response that I have to work the way I work, too.

The problem with this planners vs. pantsers opposition is that planners sometimes get hit with the charge that they don’t experience “inspiration” when they write. That somehow planning everything out in advance takes all the zing out of their writing, leaving them with something pedestrian and dull. I think perhaps pantsers feel this way because when they tried to plan, that’s what happened to them.

Now leaving aside for a moment the point that a lot of great writers were planners, based on the notes they left behind, this seems to me to miss the main point: inspiration can happen at any point in the writing process. Some people have it when they’re thinking about the story, some people have it when they’re outlining the plot, and some people have it when they actually sit down and start writing. And inspiration can hit you more than once, so that even though you’ve planned where you’re going, you end up taking some delightful detours. The idea that you can only be inspired if your muse whispers to you while you work on that paragraph is not only incorrect, it’s dangerous.

In my experience, people who wait for inspiration are asking for disaster. Sometimes it happens, but frequently it doesn’t. And if you’re sitting there waiting for your muse to speak to you, you may well find she’s gone on an extended trip to Outer Mongolia. My pantser friends claim that once they have the basic idea, the writing always comes, and in their case that may well be true. They’ve got a process that works for them. However, for those just starting out, I’d argue that you need to try a variety of processes before you decide that you’ve found The Way.

Although I’m fundamentally a planner now, I’ve tried doing my stuff in other ways. The first couple of books I wrote, back when I was first trying the “I want to write fiction” thing, I did as a pantser. I’d begin each day’s writing by asking myself “What happens next?” and then I’d write whatever I came up with. After a while, though, I found that process nerve-wracking. I kept wondering what would happen if I couldn’t think of any “next.” Or if the “next” I came up with was really lame. Or if a “next” led me in a direction where, I discovered later, I really didn’t want to go. Going back and starting again might be like ripping out knitting when you miss a stitch, only I was afraid once I ripped it out, I wouldn’t be able to get started again and I’d end up with nothing but a pile of used yarn.

Planning took that pressure off me, or rather it put it in another place. Now I get all the “what happens next” out of the way at once. It’s not a whole lot of fun, and it involves a lot of different charts, but when I finish I’ve got the skeleton of the book worked out. Then after that, all I have to do is check back to my plotting charts when I’m ready to write and go from there. My inspiration, such as it is, comes when I’m actually writing the book and centers around the way people talk to each other rather than the way the plot works.

My point here isn’t to argue that planning it the “best” way to do your project. My point is that we planners aren’t necessarily unimaginative grinds. We write the way we write because it works for us. And that’s what everybody should be trying to find—what works.

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