Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

The other morning, my critique partner tossed off 4500 words on her new manuscript, and gave it to me to look at over lunch. Yes, you read that correctly. 4500 words. In one morning. I'm lucky if I can manage 3000 words working sunup to sundown.

When I asked her how she'd managed to write so much so quickly, she pointed to her sheet of notes -- scribbled bits of plot and character development that were cryptic in the extreme. But she claimed she'd been thinking about the story since the previous night, and had it pretty much written in her head, so she just had to type it out. Unfortunately for my hopes of ever having a 4500 word morning, I don't write like that.

A few days ago, Tina blogged about the difference between being a plotter or pantser. But most pantsers -- at least among the published authors I've talked to, and it's worth noting that these are the ones that finish books and deliver them on schedules -- don't write blind. They have some sort of an idea for the book. They may not have a plot, per se, with turning points and escalations and denouments, but they have a theme, or a motif, or a character arc, or a situation they want to explore. In other words, they have a plan, loose though it may be.

I'm not a plotter. The conflicting needs and desires of my characters produce their actions, and those actions result in a plot. But it's like quantum physics ... all plots are possible, until the moment when the waveform collapses and a single plot is chosen. So my writing is a series of collapsing waveforms, looking at the range of plots, picking one, writing a few hundred or thousand words until the range of possible plots is once again overwhelming and a new one needs to be selected, then the whole process repeats until the book is finished.

To keep from wandering forever lost in my imagination, I rely on my plan, which helps me to choose the appropriate options from among the glittering host of possibilities. So, for example, in my current release from Cerridwen Press, SHADOW PRINCE, my plan included the basic setup for the story, the backstory (developed in NOT QUITE CAMELOT), and the dichotomies I wanted to explore, such as trust/suspicion. And because of genre conventions, I knew that the characters would ultimately be sucessful in their quest, and the resolution would be a happy one, although I didn't quite know what that resolution would be. When faced with a choice for where to take the story next, I went back to the plan, and that kept the whole thing flowing in a cohesive fashion, building toward the final showdown at the end.

I'm finishing a new novel, now, and really need to write quickly. With my critique partner's example, I thought I'd try making some notes for what has to happen in the various chapters remaining. They ended up being notes like "wanders around town, meets people, learns things". Wow, exciting chapter, huh? I'm sure it will be, by the time I write it. But until that moment when a single possibility is chosen, there's really no way of knowing what will happen. That's what keeps it interesting.


J L said...

I do the same thing as your CP and the same thing as you -- I don't plan out a book, but I do jot notes constantly about what has to happen, what will be coming up, etc.

I also never end a night's writing at the end of a chapter without starting the next chapter. That way, the next day, when I sit down I have a starting point. I may change it, but I at least have a starting place.

I just finished my WIP. 80,000 words or so. I write in chapters, not in one continuous book, so my word counts are always estimates. I started on June 1, finished Aug. 13. Took a week or two off for National Conference, etc. That's pretty normal for me -- 10-12 weeks per draft. I write a very clean draft, too, and don't anticipate a lot of edits.

The only way I can pump out that much work is with my notes and my notebooks (all chock full of sticky notes and random things jotted on napkins and scraps of paper). But like you, I allow the characters to dictate what will happen. In this book, I had planned to have them break up mid-book.

Instead the hero proposed. Man, that one came out of the blue!

Of course, they aren't married yet ... that might be in the next book. Or ... maybe not.

Denise A. Agnew said...


Great post. I definitely consider myself to be a frequent heavy duty panster. In researchiing my latest historical, however, I had to do so much research that the details of my story, the things I wanted to happen in the story came to fruit as I was researching. This only happens in my historicals. So you could say I'm less of a panster with a historical but with my contemporaries I'm wild. :)

Denise A. Agnew

Jennifer Dunne said...

JL: Wow. That's a LOT of words. My crit partner wrote about 90,000 words since June. I ... didn't. :-) I just steadily plod along, 500-1000 words a night. Although that means when a chapter doesn't work, I lose up to a week's worth of work! Ouch!

Denise: I often say that either I know WHAT will happen, but not HOW, or I know WHY something will happen, but not WHAT it is that happens. And I sure never know both WHY and HOW until I write it!

Denise A. Agnew said...


Damn, girl. You took the words right outta my mouth and my head. That's often how it is with me. And yeah...write faster!! I want another Jennifer Dunne book in my hot little hand or on my ebookwise machine. :)

Denise A. Agnew

N.J.Walters said...

Great post, Jennifer. I'm not a heavy plotter, but I do always have an idea where I'm going. I just don't always know how I'm going to get there. LOL But that's half the fun of writing.

Mechele Armstrong said...

Great post Jennifer.

I'm not a fast writer. Just doesn't come for me that way. I try and be a frequent writer. Otherwise, I wouldn't get things done LOL. I envy those who can write that fast.

TinaGerow said...

I know what you mean! Cheyenne McCray usually writes 3-5K a day, and I always feel like a slacker when I only make 1500-3K. I keep telling her to rub off on me though - so I'm hopeful! :)