To Plan or Not To Plan…

I have been working on my self confidence lately. I have been blogging for years, sometimes more frequently than others. I have been writing seven hundred and fifty words a day, or more, in a journal almost every day for the last ten years. I often have to write technical prose at work. What I’m getting at is that I am a competent writer. I can write prose that people can read without any difficulty. The thing that I’m struggling with is whether I can write something that people enjoy reading.

I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month almost every year for the past seven or eight years. The challenge is to write at least fifty thousand words in the month of November. That amounts to a short novel. I have met the challenge five or six times. I have managed to finish a first draft within those fifty thousand words twice.

This year I have been writing a story at my weekly writer’s meeting. I didn’t plan it ahead of time. I write about 1200 words on it a week. As the story unfolds I have been figuring out some of the places it could go. I have no idea how it will actually unfold. Some writing teachers suggest that the first draft is for telling the story to yourself. Subsequent drafts are for cleaning it up and fixing the glaring flaws in it.

Other writers sing the praises of planning their story ahead of time. This varies from a few notes on a legal pad to a huge spread sheet that tracks every scene, every character, and every plot point. I’ll never be the latter type of writer but I am starting to believe that some amount of planning can make writing the first draft a lot more pleasant.

It’s not the minor details of a scene that are hard to write. I have no problem writing dialog aside from sometimes sounding like I’m talking to myself instead of recording a conversation between two (or more) distinct characters. The problems I have is with figuring out what is happening that moves the characters to the end of the story or even more importantly, what the end of the story is going to be.

I have started taking notes as I write. I’m tired of discovering that a character that I introduced as Alice in chapter one somehow has become Amy by chapter five. I also try to make note of physical and personality characteristics so that I can refer to them later. I use a program called Scrivener to write my stories. It has character sheets to record biographical data on your characters so that you don’t have to search through you manuscript to look up every detail that you have already written about them. It also has a template for recording details about locations in your story. I haven’t used that as much yet. It’s just a habit I haven’t established yet.

There are other useful features of the program. It has a cork board where you can write scene descriptions on note cards and play with rearranging them to see which scene needs to happen when. It has a feature where you can take a snapshot of your manuscript at a particular point in the writing and later roll back to that point if you don’t like the direction the story took.

It also has rudimentary formatting features. Some of my acquaintances that use it to write their manuscripts export them to another program to do the final formatting of them. I don’t worry too much about format. I am a believer in plain text as an archival format for my work. Plain text manuscripts don’t run the risk of the program that created them becoming obsolete and making the draft unaccessible. I have some manuscripts that my father wrote using WordPerfect before he died. I no longer have a program that can open them.

To get to the point, I feel a need to do more planning before I start writing. If while I’m writing I go off plan, I’ll evaluate whether it was better than what I had planned and keep it if so. I think most writers, even those clearly in the planning camp will do the same.

Take care of yourself and your loved ones. Stay at home if you can, wear a mask if you go out. Wash your hands and keep social distance. We’ll get through this together.