Planning from experience

Recently, on one of the fantasy fiction/writing discussion boards I participate in, there was a discussion of how much we all plan before we sit down to write. It’s a misleading question, really, because it draws an artificial boundary around what constitutes writing (isn’t all that planning also part of “writing”?), and perpetuates that distinction between planners and pantsers (whereas I suspect both sides do all the same thinking, it’s just when the thinking is done – before or during – that varies).

In any case, I found myself – as always – more interested in the why and how than the what. Specifically, I realised that what and how I plan now has been heavily influenced by the sorts of things I did in revising two previous novels. Which makes sense: that sort of structural work is something I’ve identified as necessary, and it’s super frustrating to have to do the heavy conceptual earthwork at a point where I’ve already spent weeks and thousands of words in directions that are now being bulldozed. Much more efficient to get that all nailed down first.

The results are undeniable. I had a rough plan for Notorious Sorcerer, and that still led to spending weeks meandering through false starts on some chapters, only to get to the end (eventually, after a year or so) and have to trash whole sections because I needed a different focus. I had a very strict, down-to-scene-level plan for my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, and I banged out the first draft in November. I’ve recently had a first glance at it, and while it needs a lot of polish, I’m not sure it needs much in the way of big-picture lift-and-shift.

Is this because of my planning? Maybe. Is my improved planning because I now have the experience of two other novels behind me? Undeniably. It’s more than just having a better grasp on the need for character arcs, or how to pace a plot. It’s also smaller things like having an idea of how much material makes a chapter, having an idea of how long it’s going to take to write from point a to point b, balancing POV, and all sorts of other miscellania of the writing process. Having slogged through the whole aggravating, magical, gruelling process before makes the next slog just a little bit easier. (Or, at least, just a little bit different. There are always new bogs to get stuck in, and new challenges to bollocks things up.)

The catch, of course, is that there’s no way to get the experience except to do the slog. Even if I could communicate perfectly all the things I’ve learned from my past few years of writing and revising, that’s all based on how I do things, how I think about things, and how I want to do things. My lessons are not your lessons. Even if I could go back in time and hand my lessons to my younger self, she wouldn’t be able to make use of them.

Sooz Dennard, whose advice for writers cannot be over valued, wrote (in a post or newsletter that I sadly can’t pin down at present) about the lack of a quick and magical fix. There’s no perfect shortcut that allows you to get from here – with this tangled ball of ideas and images and thoughts – to a completed novel without the intervening stages. The only way to have written is – unsurprisingly – to write. Or, more precisely, to think, write, rethink, rewrite, move around, tweak, delete and start over, and to do it over and over and over. The only way we get the experience to make our writing quicker, easier, better is by experiencing slower, harder, annoyingly mediocre writing.

And honestly, that’s sort of exciting. Looking back at the things I’ve learned in the last five years, I’m really pleased with my progress. And five years ago, I knew I was much more polished than I had been five years before that. Imagine where I’ll be in another five years. The things I’ll have learned. The challenges I’ll have experienced, and overcome, and benefited from. How much better I’ll be.

Let’s get started.

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