Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Planning And The Plan

I just read this from one of the writers I follow, Melissa Foster. And felt a need to rebut it.

Yesterday ... I stood at my easel with a purple pen, and scribbled a sorta-kinda outline for my new manuscript. I was so proud of myself for having tried to prepare before writing (a huge feat for a pantser like me!). I then took a red pen and added the next layer to each point. Twenty minutes later I stood before my computer on my treadmill desk, music on, easel before me, and...I wrote 9200 words. None of which followed the sorta-kinda outline. What this taught me is that I am not you. You are not me. We all march to a different beat, and we need to do what works for us as individuals. So, please do not judge my inability to outline. My creativity flows wild and free, and I shall not judge your ability to prepare (which I am in awe of on a daily basis) and follow your own creative path.

Though I am more of a "plotter" than I am a "pantser," I understand that others work differently and my primary concern is pragmatic: Did doing what you did make successful completion of your writing task easier, or harder?

Clearly, if cannot produce an outline, you ought not produce an outline before you write your novel. If you wait, you'll never write! You should write instead. I just hope you don't get blocked 1/3rd of the way through your project.

In the paragraph above, Melissa cites the fact that she wrote 9200 words without consulting her outline as evidence that she cannot outline. Yet, she had already created an outline in purple and red. She proved capable of creating an outline, she just didn't bother following it.

And that's cool.

No, that's better than cool, that's awesome. She dashed off 9200 words of prose!

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, said this:
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
An outline is not a contract. It is not a covenant signed in blood. For the writer of fiction, the outline should be no more than a plan. It should capture your thinking about your work and what you intend to do. The outline should bring to mind the problems a work will have to solve. (I'm sending Mycroft Holmes to Kashmir? OK, maybe I should research a bit of Indian culture, or the topography of the region.) The outline should give the writer an idea of where the story is going. (Where am I going after Kashmir?) It helps you identify scaffolding.

An outline is just your thoughts written down. It's a deliverable of thinking. When you are planning a work you are thinking about it. And when you are planning a work, you don't know some vitally important facts. An accurate plan can only be made after the work is done and you've learned all you need to know. And that's why it's worthless, because everyone makes plans at the point of maximum ignorance.

As you get into the work you learn, and that learning needs to be integrated with your up-front thinking about the work. Yes, you could stop writing and update your outline, but you ought not turn off the writing part of your brain for busy work. Remember, the plan is useless. Don't stop for it. And planning is indispensable. Don't skip it.


  1. Great post, Steve ,and very inspirational.

    I think some might read the post and think that I completely disregarded the outline, and the whole reason I took a stab at outlining was to get ahold of the possibilities that my story held before diving in. And while my "outline" is not a clean and perfect bulleted outline as most people know and love them, mine was more putting down important scenes that I envisioned, and highlights that might come, and though I didn't follow any of those that I wrote down, the above comment is spot on. There is no doubt that my sorta-kinda outline facilitated a deeper level of thinking--or maybe a different level of thinking that pushed my creativity forward.

    1. Melissa, I may lose my "plotter" card for saying this, but I think the value of outlining is to make you think of the work at a different level, not to produce a clean and bulleted blueprint for your work. As a software guy, I have to shift gears from thinking top-level abstract about big systems, and down-in-the-weeds code minutiae. It's a Bad Thing to skip one or the other in Software and I suppose my main thesis about plotter vs pantser is to encourage thinking about the work at both micro and macro levels.

    2. In his books on plotting, Save the Cat (and its follow-ups) Blake Snyder claims that even buying office supplies--that purple pen, that red pen--are part of the process, and I think he's right. These stories live in our heads long before we are aware of them, and even the most mundane thoughts become tinged with "what ifs" for the books waiting to be written.

      I've experienced what you described--ignored everything I planned in advance. But I still think the planning itself enriched the world growing in my head.

  2. I started out as a pantser and swore by it. It was many years later that I finally recognized the truth--I'd always had outlines of one shape or another. They just stayed in my head. I had ideas, scenes, even emotions, that I knew I was writing toward, but never tried to write it down. So my "pantsing" was plotting in my head, whether I wanted to admit it or not.

    My brain eventually got less adept at holding onto things and getting to a scene and struggling--"I know there was something amazingly clever that he was going to say here"--finally convinced me to start taking the occasional note.

    Now that I am writing a long, intricately plotted and densely detailed fantasy trilogy I found it necessary to have a way to track my story, the clues being laid, the details being dropped in, etc. I have three storyboards on the wall.

    I confess. I am now a plotter.


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