Why Shopping Without A List Is Like Writing Without A Plan


At home, I unpacked the delicious food and inspected what I’d bought. What had I done? Everything looked wonderful on its own, but there weren’t many ingredients that would combine well with others. I had too much of one thing and too little of another. Many items were completely unnecessary. Still, I wasn’t daunted and I thought I’d find my way. After all, I was creative and resourceful, wasn’t I?

Finally, I stopped, close to tears. I looked at the beautiful mess and realised I could have made 10 different meals if I’d had the correct food and cooking utensils (yes, some of my choices were that bizarre). I needed to begin again, but I had run out of time. I had to pack everything away and order pizza instead.

A shopping list is like a plot outline. It gives you something to work towards. If you know what you need to put into your creation for it to work, you have a fighting chance.

When you write without a plot, you’re courting disaster. You have so many stories and no idea which one you prefer. You tap out a few sentences, and then you’re seduced away by another character who really doesn’t work in the current story. Maybe you need to add another sub-plot to force it to work? Until you write yourself into a plot hole and stop.

Perhaps your muse will give you the correct direction next time. So you rush in, adding too much dialogue and conflict, and even more characters, plots, descriptions, and unnecessary words. You try desperately to find a way out. You cut chapters. You weep. You even try to change the font. You end up with a not-so-beautiful mess and you have to abandon the story again.

I know that sometimes it does work and you can create a work of art. Mostly, it does not, and while it’s fun to try out new things, it’s never fun to waste time and effort. If this happens too frequently in your writing life, it may be time to make a list.

As JRR Tolkien said, ‘If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map; otherwise you’ll never make a map of it afterwards.’

P.S. I think this is what may have happened to George RR Martin with his latest books. Writing without a plan only works for a while, and for a limited number of books. After that, we all need help.

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by Amanda Patterson

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Marketa

    I listened advices like this. Plot. Plot at least something. I did. I thought it has to work when so many people tell it – and it is very logical.
    I listened them, I start to plot… and I stop writing for two years.
    Now, after New Year, I just sat and started to write. No plot, basicaly no idea. And I have 4k words now and I think it is my best piece so far (don’t want to jinx it).
    So I disagree 🙂 It doesn’t work for everyone. Not at all.

  2. Jim Crocker

    Great article with a good analogy to food, menu, meal prep. This really rings true and makes all the sense in the world. I’d say that the previous commenter is looking for an actual story to come popping up in those first 4k words. Exploration of a story idea is like recon. Once you have intel about landscape and adversaries, you work up your action plan, gather resources and set forth. Otherwise it’s like wandering around in somebody’s basement with the lights off hoping to find a bag full of cash and hoping you don’t step on a snake. Hmmm…that might be a good story right there.

    Cheers!
    Jim in MT (that’s Montana)

  3. Stephania

    I’m like a butterfly when it comes to writing. One day I’m so focused on one amazing story and the next, I’m totally lost in another one. I have many docx with unfinished stories. It’s really sad. This article helps understand why I’m failing to complete each task but one question still remains. How do I focus on one at a time?

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