Mentee Q&A: to plan, or not to plan…

As a mentor for Absynthe Muse, sometimes my mentees ask me the same questions frequently.  With their permission, I’ll start posting some of my answers here.

Q:  With your settings, do you simply visualise them, or do you draw them down? Or maybe just write it as it comes to you? I read that J.K Rowling spent fifteen years planning out every little detail of the Harry Potter books. I tend to just start with writing anything and everything, and then going back and finding something tangible in the middle of the mess and working from there. What’s the best way?

A:  The best way is whatever works for you.  Really.

The two basic styles are sometimes called “planned” and “organic.”  Planned writing means outlining everything, developing your plot, and checking for loopholes–before you write a draft.  Organic writing means just writing with no idea where you’re going, but figuring it out as you go along–usually going back to find the best parts, then develop those further.

Some writers swear by one method or the other.  Truth is, both ways are fine.  The biggest difference is when you put the time in.  Planned writers put in time before the draft–by figuring things out and organizing their thoughts.  Organic writers put in time after the draft–by finding the story’s heart and cutting mercilessly.  Both kinds need to revise, although organic writers often need to do more.  But planned writers have to work harder before they can even start writing.

And it’s even more complex than that.  Few writers are 100% planned, or 100% organic. They’re a weird mix.  Some writers plan novels and write short stories organically.  Some writers mostly plan, but leave a few details to be figured out later (and vice versa).  I myself often have planned beginnings but organic endings–in the same piece.  Many writers who strongly prefer one style discover that writing in the opposite style teaches them a lot.  And for that matter, planned and organic aren’t truly opposites–they’re more like yin and yang.  In even the most planned work, there’s a bit of chaos–and there’s order somewhere in the organic mess.

So write however works for you, but be open to trying something new.  And remember that the secret ingredient is time.  Whether you put it in before or after the story’s drafted, your time is what gives your writing flavor and texture.

2 thoughts on “Mentee Q&A: to plan, or not to plan…

  1. Interesting answer. I’m not sure whether I fit into either category. I tend to write the story in my subconscious. It’s what Damon Knight called letting “Fred” work on the story.

    I have tried a strict outline form. That novelette “Winter” was the result. It came out flat and uninspired. It’s not the way I work.

    It also depends on how you write. If you were to change your style to what doesn’t work, and kept at it, I’m sure it would start to work. That’s why there are so many ways to do this. Everyone has their own idea of how it should work, and they practice that way. That makes it work.

    I’m a 1-draft writer. I write everything that way, and my early stuff really stinks because of it. My later stuff shows that I’ve learned how to do it. Part of the reason I’m able to do it is because I let Fred do all the preliminary drafts.

    Other people are multi-draft writers. they practiced that way and that’s what works for them. Because they practiced it in the way they thought the world should work, it works for them.


  2. I’d call that a form of planned writing. You do the work before the draft comes out. I implied that prior work = outline, when that’s not true (as you noted).


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