The Problem With Planning

It's a small dog in a wrestling mask and cape. No, it's got nothing to do with the article. Old Willie Wagglestaff once wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men will bite you on the arse again and again.”

Wise words indeed. In fact, I’m regularly bitten on the arse by my own plans. I can plan for England if I really put my mind to  it.

I’m more than happy sitting for days and days, thinking things through, making mind maps, drawing little sketches, writing character bios, hunting for photos that will offer some sort of inspiration or seeing how long I can make a sentence before anyone realises just how long I’ve been labouring over the same point.

It never used to be like this.

When I was at school the English teacher would ask us to write a story about something  and I’d write one. No planning, no plotting, no character development, just writing. So what’s changed?

The thing I never did in school was read a whole lot of, How-To-Write, books. Since then, I’ve read dozens of them and the one thing they all have in common is the importance they place on the planning stage.

Many of the older ones place an inordinate amount of importance on planning. One asks for 25 pages of background information on each character, before you start the story, in order to really get under their skin. I’d struggle to write 25 pages on my own life, never mind some imaginary idiot’s.

Being a mindless fool, I’ve clearly taken this advice to heart and now find myself planning things out so much that I never actually get around to writing the damn story. So it’s lucky that the more modern books present an alternative. That of just getting on and writing the story, making it all up as you go along.

Stephen King, for example,  says that he likes to just start writing, having come up with nothing more than a vague kind of “what if” beginning. So I’ve taken this on board, thought it through, planned it out and developed:

Mr Uku’s Story Development Technique

To use this technique, all you need is a starting point. No planning is to be done beyond the basic premise of the story and the main character(s) involved.

Once you have your starting point or vague idea, you begin writing. What’s important at this stage, is that you keep telling yourself this is the FIRST draft. Don’t worry about getting your descriptions just right. Don’t worry about getting just the right bits of dialogue. Christ, you can even just mark the place with notes that something incredible and witty needs to be inserted here. Just get on with the damn story.

This first draft becomes your story and character plan rolled into one and will eventually become a full length synopses.

This synopses draft will, obviously,  be full of flaws. There’ll be characters that just don’t work, plot holes and all the other cock-ups you’ve been trying to avoid. But there’ll good stuff too. There’ll be a complete plot for starters; even if you change it all later you’ll have a better idea of where it’s going. You’ll have a much better understanding of your characters too without having to write 25 pages of bio.

The second draft is where you do your planning and start to fill out all the descriptive details and witty dialogue. Only now, it’s more like editing. You tidy up the plot, flesh out the characters, make notes as you go and start the rewrite. Notice how much easier this second draft is now that you’ve got the whole story down in a complete form and not just a bunch of disconnected plans?

The third draft should require nothing more than a few cosmetic changes and checks for spelling and grammar. And you’re done. Easy.

Alright, maybe I over simplified things just a touch, but I stand by the technique and will be doing things this way from now on.

The beauty of it is that if your character notes are as in-depth as say, “a man who lives in a graveyard and collects noses” then the fleshing out of this weirdo is done in the actual story and not in pages of psychological dissection and background

The same goes for the plot. You’re notebook may only have a single line to explain the idea but why spend all your time fleshing it out when you can just get on and write it.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to impart my writerly wisdom on you all, because I really don’t have any.  But this is how I think and if somebody else finds it useful too, then good.

If you’ve got your own methods, please feel free to let us all know how you work in the comments.

Ta.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Nettie Thomson May 10, 2010 at 12:30 pm

While it pains me to say this, there is more than a modicum of sense in what you write. Amazing, isn’t it? However, what if, like me, you’re not too sure where the story starts? I find I write myself in to the story, inevitably ‘telling’ the reader waaaay too much. It is the 2nd draft where I see where the story actually starts.
Also, some stories I do a bit of planning, and I’m happy with that. Some I start with a vague idea: a character, a situation, the inevitable ‘what if’. I’m generally happy with that too.
I do agree that the best thing to do is just get the damn thing written. So I’ll away and do that now.
P.S. It took you ages to write this post!

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Mr Uku May 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I am amazing aren’t I.
I agree that the story actually starts in the 2nd draft; that was the point I was trying to get across. Perfectionism in the first draft is what I’m trying to avoid. Why spend time worrying over details that may be entirely changed in the second draft when you fully understand your story?
P.S.
It took me an hour to WRITE this post. It took four days to PLAN it 🙂

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Squeaky May 10, 2010 at 12:32 pm

*runs* *tackles* *massive squishy hug* *congratulates grumpy bugger with hat obsession for hitting nail on head*

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Mr Uku May 10, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Glad you liked it… now put me down.

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Rosie May 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm

This is all well and Uku, but can you actually write? I have seen no evidence of Uku being able to write, and demand to see some, now. Please.

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Mr Uku May 10, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Shhhh.

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Lisa Horstman May 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

And here I thought I was the only one who planned until the cows came home. And when they came home, I still didn’t write the damn thing.

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Mr Uku May 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm

If you think you’re the only one who does something, you’re always wrong. Consider yourself uniquely the same as the rest of us 🙂

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Becka May 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I’m glad I came across this post! This is exactly what I do when I’m working on a story. Some people call me a “pantser” but I just call me a “writer”. Why would I plan it all out in neat little outlines if I know it’s going to change on the second or third draft? Plus, who wants to spend days making lists and outlines if I could just start writing and figure it out at the same time the reader would? I like the discovery too.

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Mr Uku May 10, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I’m glad you came across this post too Becca 🙂
Where’s the fun in writing a story if you already know how it’s going to end? Discovery isn’t just for readers.

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Rebecca Brown May 10, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Hello you!

Without going to the extreme of a massive bear hug, I’ve got to say you’re sooo right. I have LOTS of stories, rather good ones if I do say so myself ;), that just died completely cause I tried to plan them. And because I’m lazy, but let’s not go there. My finished stories, and my one project out doing submission rounds now? A couple of vague ideas written down then just sitting down & writing.

Think you should get this patented now! 😉

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Mr Uku May 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Patented? That’s just the beginning. I’m already in discussions to set up a PayWall 😉

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Margaret May 11, 2010 at 3:18 pm

I fall in between these two methods. I write a initial synopsis, usually 1-3 pages, and then a plot-based outline which can be as extensive as a very spare first draft, but other than character and world notes as they come up, I don’t do a lot of that kind of work.

What I’ve found is that the more world building I do in advance, the worse my novel is for one simple reason. My brain says, “You’ve already written that,” when it comes time to ground the reader in the book. My brain fails to distinguish between pre-writing and the actual text on a subconscious level.

Therefore, my initial synopsis and outline have proved out to be the best approach. Enough so I know the shape of things and can write relatively quickly, but not so much that I think the book has already been written.

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Mr Uku May 11, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Hi Margaret, thanks for stopping by.
Interesting you should say that about your brain thinking “you’ve already written that”. I was going over this post last night and came to a similar conclusion.
I think the problem I have with over planning is, my brain sees a load of work that I’ve already done and just refuses to do it all again. Which is why I think my new method works so well for me.
I think it’s important, in writing, to find methods that fit your own personality. People like me sometimes need “permission” to try alternative methods so we don’t feel like we’re doing it wrong. I’m glad you’ve found a method that works for you and hope others find it useful too.

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Margaret May 11, 2010 at 8:27 pm

I follow links people post on Twitter. By the time I actually read the window, I’ve usually lost who sent me, but it’s a great way to end up at places I’d never have found on my own.

One minor clarification to my comment, though. When I say “I’ve already written that,” I don’t mean the story (as some complain of that issue with outlines) but that I believe I’ve already included that specific detail or aspect when I haven’t actually put it in the text at all.

And yes, it’s very easy to feel like all the writing techniques are commandments as opposed to suggestions. I did a radical rework of my writing style some years back because of a “You can’t” critique that ultimately worked out for me, but it could just as easily have killed my forward motion.

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wildelycreative June 2, 2010 at 9:38 am

I take full credit for stopping your planning process and telling you to “just write the damn story already”.
Your welcome.
.-= wildelycreative´s last blog ..How to make primitive kilns =-.

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Mr Uku June 2, 2010 at 9:45 am

Hah! Too late.
Patent Pending 🙂

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Gary William Murning September 28, 2010 at 11:02 am

Very much think it’s a horses for courses situation. My debut novel was very much written in this way – and the dozens I wrote that didn’t get published! I think it can certainly be really useful for writers new to the discipline. It avoids the inevitable tendency to do everything except actually get on with it.

Now, however, I find myself planning meticulously. My initial outline has enough detail to almost be classed as a first draft, but it isn’t. I know my characters well in advance, carry them around with me for months before actually writing anything down, but when it comes to actually getting on with it I now like to have a very precise idea of where I’m going, so I can concentrate on the language etc.

Having said that, however, it’s VITALLY important using this technique to ALWAYS leave room for the occasional riff! And if something better occurs whilst writing the writer should be prepared to say “to hell with the outline”.

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Mr Uku September 28, 2010 at 11:15 am

HI Gary, thanks for stopping by.
Yes, I agree, it is horses for courses. I think what I was trying to get across is that writers (by which I mean, me) need permission to do things their own way. Many of the How To books insist you do things the way they tell you too which is a horrible way to learn if that’s not how you would normally work. I think just getting on with it will give you a taste of how the story could develop. And remember, there’s no reason you can’t stop in the middle of that first draft and begin your planning at that point. Sometimes it takes that long to work out where a plot twits or a character will take your story.
That’s what I love about writing. I can do it my way, make up rules as I go, break them if I fell like it and it’s always right.

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