Writing is like steering a runaway train, and so is life

Inspired by NJ Fraser’s blog post about best laid plans, I have been thinking about my approach to timelines and plans, and I’m noticing how much it reflects my approach to plotting stories.

I’m a plantser. Although I never start a novel with a blank page and no ideas, I do fly by the seat of my pants a lot. I usually explain my approach to plotting as frantically laying down tracks in front of a runaway train as it hurtles ever onward, trying to steer it to the station I’ve got set up for it to crash into. When I start a book, I usually know the general shape. I know a couple of major milestones on the way. I know approximately where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve got the main protags sketched out somewhere on paper. If I’m really planning hard, I’ve written a few short stories about the protags, to get a feel for who they’ll be when I write them.

I don’t have a detailed plot. Not a scene by scene–or even chapter by chapter–outline of everything that will ever happen. When I’ve tried to do that, I’ve lost interest in writing the story before I get far into it, because I don’t feel like there’s anything for me to learn about my characters or the story. It’s already sitting right there in the six page outline that I’ve written and polished.

When I’ve got enough worked out to feel like the story has the legs to work, I start writing. I accept that the first few chapters will be rough and require a lot of revising when I’m feeling more comfortable with everything, and I write. My story starts taking shape in my head, with the shape changing as it gets firmer, and I keep going. Whenever I’m not writing, I’m plotting out the next part in my head. Laying down those tracks so that the train never runs short and falls over. It’s not that I never ever plot anything–I’ll even write those plotty ideas down in short notes-to-self emails so that I don’t lose them–but the detailed ideas about what’s happening are never more than a few scenes or a chapter or two ahead of what I’m currently writing.

Towards the end of the story, when I hit the “I’m running out of space, will this actually end?” stage, I write a list of the remaining plot points that need to happen before the last page. It’s literally a list. Bullet-points and all. That list is what I work through in the final chapters, making sure that I’ve got everything in and didn’t leave a plot thread hanging (unless I meant to).

This is also why I always write linearly. If I was the kind of writer who had a detailed chapter by chapter breakdown at the beginning, I might be able to write out of order. I’m not, so I don’t.

How is this related to Nicole’s post on best laid plans?

Each year, I usually have some general shape of what I’m planning to do with the year in terms of writing. I know a few general goals. I might even have a brief bullet-pointed list of the main milestones that I intend to hit. As the year goes on, the shape changes and develops. Submission calls are announced. Fan writing challenges I’d planned to join have to be jettisoned due to other commitments.

My back goes wonky for four months and results in new words being written but very little editing happening, because sitting at my desk (instead of sprawled with my iPad) becomes intolerable.

I’m laying down tracks and steering the train, trying to still hit the station at the end despite the extra loops in my route (although I might have moved the station slightly, if the route called for it).

And at a certain point–around now, actually–I make my brief list of things that need to happen before the end of the year.

My approaches to planning books and planning my year are remarkably similar.

This year’s goals were brief: edit Papercuts, write the query letter, submit something (book, short story, don’t care, but submit something), write Another Novel, don’t abandon my fanfic writing origins.

Everything shifted around as I went and plot points (new short story markets! Ooh!) came up that I didn’t expect, but I’m largely on track with the general outline of the year again. It’s late September, though, and I’m hitting the “how will I wrap this up in three months?” stage, so I’m putting together my list and trying to figure out how to make all the remaining things fit into the space available.

I’m a plantser in life as well as in fiction, it turns out. What about you?


One thought on “Writing is like steering a runaway train, and so is life

  1. When it comes to life I have timelines, to do lists, and sometimes I even keep up with them.

    For writing I do it differently every time. Sometimes I have the world and write my way to finding the characters with a story to tell. Sometimes I plan out the plot chapter by chapter. It rarely looks exactly the same in the finished product, but often comes close.

    In the case of my YA Portal Fantasy I woke from a dream about a wooden door in a basement on the third day of NaNo, scrapped 2k words I had written from my detailed story plan, and wrote about the girl who decided to open the door.

    For writing I do what works for the idea that pops into my head. I plot, I world build, or I fly by the seat of my pants.


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