Last week I had to prepare a meal for six guests, but I didn’t know what I wanted to cook. So, I decided to go shopping and wait for inspiration to strike. This was not a good idea. Every time I chose something, I realised I was missing something else and I spent a good portion of the afternoon backtracking. I also added extra bits and pieces – just in case I’d forgotten something.
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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