I don’t particularly like to travel, but when I do I’m the sort to plan it in advance. I want to know where I’m staying, what I’m eating, and how I’ll spend my time. I have an uncanny ability to imagine what might go wrong (I should write horror fiction) and ask all those questions: if the restaurant is full, where will we eat instead? What’s the contingency for rain? What if they’re late? What if they don’t show? What’s the backup plan? What’s the backup plan for the backup plan?
I know other people who fly themselves to Europe with nothing but a rail pass, a backpack full of clothes, and forty dollars. They sort things out on the way, usually finding new friends and having adventures. I envy their ability to do that. I just know that I wouldn’t meet anyone who puts me up for the night. The inn would be full, the restaurant closed for a regional holiday, the police surly, my knowledge of the local language insufficient to explaining why I am sleeping in the park gazebo.
I work the same way as a writer, and have – since my first book – written everything “on proposal,” meaning I tell a publisher what I plan to do, then they tinker with it a bit and tell me to go ahead and do it by a certain date. With a synopsis and a deadline, I proceed at my measured pace of 500 words a day and stay on pace, the same way I know I’ll be at the hotel just after check in time which gives me enough time for a shower and a nap before the 6:00 dinner reservations. I work “getting lost” time into both schedules (traveling and writing) and leave little to chance.
This all goes out the window when I have no idea where a book is going. I’m now in the middle of something particularly weird and challenging. At one point I gave up on it, but a couple of weeks later took it up again, like an emotionally depleting relationship with someone who has inescapable magnetism.
The dangers of writing this way are obvious. Manuscripts, like vacations, can be joyless affairs where every turn takes you to a dead-end, every rest stop is bleak, and every restaurant mediocre. Getting there is rarely half the fun (whoever coined that proverb probably never drove anywhere further than a single mixtape of “Awesome Roadtunes!” and a single large bag of Cool Ranch Doritos would get them). If getting there is half the fun, it just illustrates how truly awful the destination is. Can you imagine a hotel so dreary it’s only half as much fun as five hours of Interstate with occasional pit stops at Taco Johns? Exactly.
If you’re writing without a plan, the analog to that dreary hotel is a manuscript so messy it can’t be published, and can’t even be revised into shape. Your agent suggests gently that it was something you needed to write, for you. Your friendly readers won’t answer your emails. Even your cat won’t chew on its miserable pages. It’s yet another file to move into the “Misc Writing – Hopeless” folder on your hard drive.
The dangers of writing with a plan are that your work becomes workmanlike: the painting of fence pickets, the doing of a job to be done with it. The talk among other writers of “inspiration,” sounds childlike and naïve to your ears. Your inspiration is that a deadline is looming and you already spent the advance money turning the basement into a playroom. There can be no discoveries or unexpected detours because you already agreed to a plan. You can be satisfied with a job well done, but no longer feel like Moses upon the completion of every story, the way you did as a child pecking away on your mother’s electric typewriter in the office in the attic: HERE IS A STORY WRITTEN NOT BY ME (you would bellow in Charleton Heston’s voice), BUT WRITTEN THROUGH ME BY THE DIVINE! Quake, world, as I show it to you. (by the way, it’s about a talking dragon named Melvin whose best friend is a penguin.)
I now drive on without a map, just because Google Maps and Yelp! have nothing to say about the wilderness through which I travel. I hope I find a service station before I run out of gas.