The Perils of Over-Planning

Planning your writing is a great idea. Understanding your characters and their motivations, knowing their arcs back to front and having an idea of how and when you’re going to ramp up the tension will help you write a strong, exciting story. But there comes a point when you have to unclench your fingers from the plan and get involved with the chaos.

Something I hear a lot at writing retreats is: “I’m working on my plan. The 16-point plan*. I’ve written it, actually. I just need to . . . tweak it. Also, I have two books on Writing The Perfect Novel which I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to apply the two I already read but they’re contradictory so now I’m super confused.”

I mean, I don’t hear that exact sentence, but often something similar. And this common complaint is linked to two problems we’re all familiar with: perfectionism, and imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome says, “Hey, you’re not a proper genius writer**, so you need all the help you can get with this book. You’d better follow ALL THE RULES or this is gonna be a piece of shit, you know that?”

Perfectionism’s there too, nodding along, and she thinks you’d better make your plan immaculate because when you’ve finished the plan you’ll have to start writing and if you start writing you’ll probably get it wrong.

The problem is, writing is not chemistry. It is not pastry. There is no recipe which, if followed utterly correctly and to the letter, will yield the perfect novel. You are not a novel-producing machine. You are a human being. Human beings are messy, and complicated, and imperfect, and that is why they are capable of producing art. You’re going to need to let go of that plan at some point and get creating.

When you do that, you’ll find almost immediately that your story diverges from the plan. That’s fine. In fact, it’s great. Your story is not sterile, it’s organic. Bits of your brain which were not involved when you were building your solid, well-engineered outline are going to start getting involved and adding all kinds of shit to the mix, like that bit of dialogue which is word-for-word that outrageous thing your Auntie Bernie said at your grandmother’s wake sometime in the late nineties. Incidentally, is your character a bit like your aunt? Didn’t she have that tiny terrier she used to dress in hand-knitted jumpers? Oh my God that would make such a great addition to your story. You should probably put that in.

I sometimes think this a bit like gardening. Every year I plan my fruit and vegetable garden. I think about what seeds I’d like to grow, which varieties will fit the space best, which will work as companion plants, and I try and make sure the garden will produce across the whole growing season. But I can’t do much planning beyond that because it’s a garden, full of living things. I can’t reduce it to a grid of square inches, deciding precisely which plant will be there and for how long. Neither can I do that with my writing. Characters, if they’re really working, have a life of their own. The texture and flow of your writing will be all the more beautiful for developing organically, just as a garden is more beautiful when you experiment and adapt, when you are flexible.

I’m aware this is annoying advice. It’s all well and good giving it the gardening metaphors but how, when you get right down to it, do you stop micro-planning and start writing?

Here’s how: start writing.

Start anywhere you like.

That’s it.

Once you’re in, you’ll see that the dreaded act of Actually Writing can be lovely. Almost immediately there’ll be new ideas, and your characters will queue up with a number of helpful suggestions regarding their motivations, habits, and assorted personality disorders. Almost immediately, any micro-planning you’ve done will be rendered useless by the level of change your own writery brain is already bringing to your story.

So if you’re at the should-I-microplan stage, and you know yourself to be a bit of a perfectionist and you already have a solid, well-worked out broad plan, save yourself some time and DON’T DO ANY MORE PLANNING. Because the writing stage is not simply the implementation of your plan in a slightly longer form, it’s an act of creation. And the secret is, you can’t get it wrong.

*As featured in Plotstormers #marketingjazzhands

**NB: These do not exist

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