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Plan to Succeed

To take the next step in your writing project, you must be able to see the next step. Plans do work. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

All wannabe authors must learn not only how to write but how to get the writing done. Surprisingly, the latter is often the harder struggle. Books about writing technique and internet sites with writing tips are abundant and easy to understand. If you have the time and resources, there are many formal writing courses available. Most people develop the basic skills simply by writing something on a regular basis. Almost anything will do: an habitually kept diary or journal, chaotically produced draft versions of assorted incomplete works, or copious entries in notebooks meant to be useful (i.e. coherent and readable) later on. I have written in all these ways. You probably have too.

So the writing skills build themselves over time. As is so often the case, we learn by a mix of study and doing, in an unsystematic sort of way. However, learning how to write is an open-ended process with no precise goal and no definite end. A lack of organization is not really a problem. Finishing a writing project is completely different in that there is a both a clear-cut goal and a definite end to the process. There may also be a time constraint. In this situation, a want of method will lead inevitably to failure.

Since we all work in different ways, and because such dry details are considered less interesting, the amount of guidance for getting the writing done is neither abundant nor particularly useful. Anyone who reads literary biographies knows that, even in these lengthy books, how authors go about producing a work is often sketchily described or not dealt with at all.

We are all familiar with a few basic ideas the how-to books and tip webpages repeat endlessly:

All well and good, but none of this is useful at the details level. When it comes to actually finishing a work, it is the simple problem of not knowing what to do next that stymies many otherwise talented writers. Inability to see the next step leads to boredom or discouragement and the project stalls. What we need goes beyond an outline or a decision to start on page one and try to wing it. We need a simple plan focussed not on the story, but on the method of getting the story written. There is no set approach to this, but an example from my own experience will light the way.

A few of years after I became serious about my writing, I began to think about changing the rather complex methods of working that I had cobbled together as I pushed forward. My approach, which had evolved with agonizing slowness, was heavily dependent on note making. I would build and carefully elaborate a story from the initial (often vague and simple) idea by erratically accumulating a large number of notes. This method required a great deal of organizing and reorganizing, consumed much time without producing even a draft typescript, and took place intermittently over a prolonged period, the last point making it necessary to have a number of projects going at the same time if I was to have something to chip away at when the current project went dormant. I am a manic-depressive and none of this is a good idea for someone prone to having his life frequently disrupted by severe mood swings and prolonged bouts of brain fog.

I realized that what I needed was a straightforward method calculated to produce a finished typescript in a very short time. This way I could more fruitfully exploit the brief, but often manic, periods when I do get some writing done. I decided it would help if I could specify a few parameters and then work within them. It then occurred to me that this is probably true for everyone.

Sample parameters:

  • devise a 50-step plot which will allow me to say something
  • choose and name suitable characters
  • work out basic setting details
  • quickly assemble the above into a rough and ready book plan (or sketchy outline)
  • book’s length to be 300 to 350 pages
  • book to be made up of 50 six- or seven-page (on average) chapters
  • do two chapters (length flexible) a week
  • book to be finished in 25 working weeks spread over one year
  • improvise as I go
  • work from memory
  • continually adjust and think of ways to stay on schedule
  • make staying on schedule part of the writing process

The rather arbitrary parameters outlined above were born of frustration with my lack of progress when it comes to finishing anything. As most writers do, I like the idea of speedy progress followed by completion, but content is everything to me, and that takes more time than the simple proposed procedure will allow. I opted instead for a two-part arrangement.

I begin every project with the construction of a detailed outline. (An elaboration of the first four points in the above plan.) Instead of sorting notes by subject or type, I integrate items by timeline directly into the outline. This turns outlining into a straightforward process with minimal “bookkeeping” overhead. The method eliminates the tedious processes of organizing notes, checking to see which ones are due to go in, and flagging each note’s eventual inclusion in the outline.

The second phase is the production of a first draft of the story. (The last eight points in the plan above.) I tailor each plan to the needs of the outline and the time I have available.

The key point here is that a plan of some kind must exist. Remember the old adage, “Plan the work and work the plan.” Design your plan to fit your own habits and allow for your strengths and weaknesses, as you understand them. In other words, be realistic and flexible. Note the various considerations that I included in my example: book length, number of chapters, chapter length, the pace of work, the time allotted for its completion, the use of improvisation (but strictly within the parameters of the outline), reliance on memory (to avoid a lot of bookkeeping), and the attention to the schedule. You can include whatever you find useful. Remember that uncertainty is your worst enemy. The more well-defined your plan is, the more likely you are to keep going. To take the next step, you must be able to see the next step.