The Plan You Think You Need, But Don’t
When it comes to writing fiction, people have the wrong idea about planning. Most people know that if you want to write a book, it’s important to have a plan. But they think that means some sort of outline: a map of plot lines and character descriptions that will carry you in your writing from the first page to the last of the first draft.
Although it’s important to have ideas and some sense of where you want to go when beginning a large project, I don’t know anyone who has actually written a novel who works strictly from an outline or plan. It’s impossible to predict where chapter one might lead you until you’ve written it. And only with that first chapter under your belt can you decide for sure what you want to put in chapter two. So you’ve got to remain flexible enough to be willing to change course throughout the writing.
The Plan You Think You Don’t Need, But Do
The real plan necessary to carry you through the writing of a novel is not one that will govern your characters and their actions, but one that will govern your own. You need a practical idea of where you are going to sit down and write, when and how often this writing is going to take place, and what you are going to expect of yourself when the writing happens. This is a decidedly unromantic idea, very practical and very far-removed from the commonly misconceived image of the creative artist: smoking french cigarettes, drinking cognac and carousing till all hours, waiting for the elusive muse to strike him to the heart with the inspiration to begin his next great work. In fact the practicalities of time management are so far from what people think creating fiction is about that this one stumbling block: the unwillingness to think in a practical manner about how to create, keeps many people from ever beginning to write a longer work of fiction.
But I’ve written two (going on three, knock wood) published books, all while holding down a full-time job and being a devoted father, and I’m here to attest that the number one factor in getting a novel written is setting aside a time and preparing a place in which you know you will be able to write in solitude, undisturbed. Factor number two is setting yourself a minimum level of creative output while you’re in your solitude, writing.
When I was working on the first draft of my last novel, Twenty-six, I worked summer after summer (July and August), for thirty hours a week. I wrote every weekday from 6 am to noon. And I did not allow myself to write fewer than five double-spaced handwritten loose leaf pages each day. Most days I wrote far more than five, sometimes as many as twenty-five, but I never allowed myself to write fewer. Many days I spent the first hour, sometimes two hours, drinking coffee and staring at blank paper. This was not wasted time, however, for if I had given up, I would not have got the pages that came later that day.
Tomorrow is the First Day of the Rest of My Life
I’m writing this now because I’ve just realized I’m ready to start the first draft of a new work. I’m not on summer holidays, so there’s no way I can commit to thirty hours a week. But I’ve got my writing desk cleared off. I’ve got pens and paper up there waiting. I’m going to get up tomorrow an hour earlier than usual, and I’m going to put that hour in on the manuscript. I’m setting myself the rather steep but not unrealistic minimum of three pages, double-spaced handwritten.
I’m getting ready. I’m going in. I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel.