Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Planning?

I’m a planner. Always have been.

My husband and I occasionally clash over this. I tend to ask him on Tuesday what we we’re doing on Saturday, and by Friday, I usually have every inch of the weekend planned. My husband doesn’t necessarily appreciate this, as he likes things to happen more spontaneously. (Which makes me wonder why he married me, but anyway…)

Lately, hubby has begun to see that planning can have its advantages. For one thing, I pointed out to him that we usually see my friends on a more regular basis than we see his. Why? Because I contact my friends ahead of time and plan our get togethers, while he waits until 6:00pm on a Saturday night to see if anyone wants to do something. My husband finally realized that my way gets better results, and in the coming weeks we’ve already got a number of visits set with five or six of his friends that we haven’t seen in years.

Yes, I like to plan because planning makes things happen.

Or so I thought.

Brainstorming is my favorite part of the writing process. Some days, in fact, it’s the only part I actively enjoy. I like to write outlines, agonize over character names, and sometimes even draw pictures of certain characters and scenes.

And that’s all well and good. But sometimes, I enjoy the planning so much that I forget to begin the actual story.

Ever since last summer, I’ve been planning a young adult novel about an eccentric teacher trying to make a difference in a tough, inner-city school. (There’s more to it than that, but I want to keep some of it a surprise in case I ever do write the thing.) I have already spent hours on this particular story. I hashed out the character’s backgrounds and struggled to come up with full names for each. At one point, it took me weeks to finalize a last name that really fit the lead male student. I even have a decent idea of what the story will be; I have some good thoughts on the beginning and am fairly solid on the end, although I admit the middle remains largely unknown.

I am proud to say that I have started this story, but unfortunately the time I’ve spent brainstorming easily dwarfs the time I’ve spent writing.

Of course, I can say that I don’t want to start the story until I settle on a goofy, multi-syllable last name that truly embodies the awkward character of a knobby-kneed teenager who wants to be a tough guy. But if someone other than me were to say that, I would tell that person clearly that they must start the story, and trust that the name will materialize as the process goes on.

I guess, for me, brainstorming has become sort of a creative placeholder. When I plan a story I can walk away with the illusion that I’ve actually accomplished something, and all without doing the dirty work of actually writing.

And yes, it’s absurd. As absurd as if I were to tell a friend, “Yes, I know we planned to meet for lunch on this specific day and time, but we can’t meet yet because I’m not sure whether we should go for pizza or Thai food.” At which point, I hang up the phone and think, “Aaahhhh, it’s nice to get together with loved ones.”

I wonder, how did I go from planning efficiently to using the planning stage as a security blanket? And am I the only one who’s guilty of this? Looking back, I can remember watching students spend way too long on the planning stage, from time to time, but I was not experienced or savvy enough to recognize the problem then.

Brainstorming is easier, I suppose, because it requires little committment. One doesn’t need to commit until you actual start to make good on the plan.

I have always argued that planning and outlining have a definite place in the writing process, and I am not now making a blanket statement to the contrary. However, I encourage all of you to take an honest look at your own writing habits. Is planning, for you, a helpful part of the writing process, or has it begun to hold you back?

I believe I need the chair pulled out from under me from time to time. To test this theory, I will no longer allow myself to do any planning for my young adult novel without first completing a significant portion of it. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

But for now, it’s lunch time. And I could suddenly go for some Thai food…


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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2 thoughts on “Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Planning?

  1. I’d like to draw a distinction between planning and agonizing. What I did for years was agonize, writing pages and pages of character studies, maps, genealogies, letters between characters, etc. It wasn’t a complete waste of time because it helped me develop a full, rich understanding of the characters. What it didn’t do was increase my word count in actual drafts.

    I return to these draft-like-documents-which-are-not-really-drafts all the time. Just last night, I pulled one out dated 1999 (yes, 13 years ago!) and used it to begin planning the next conversation between two of my characters, a section I will probably complete before the weekend.

    Lately, my strategy is to write a quick “chapter plan,” just a list or a few paragraphs defining what I definitely want included in the chapter. There’s no dialogue or description in this, just a list that I can check off as I write, and check the draft against at the end to make sure I didn’t get carried away and leave anything important out.

    I just have to watch myself. If my “planning” is getting too far away from drafting, then I need to tell myself to move on. If it’s helping me solve a problem in the plot or characterization, then that’s fine. When I look at the core emotion keeping me in the agonizing state, it’s always fear.

    Great post, as always, Sara!

  2. Thanks, Julie! I agree that it’s all a matter of watching oneself. There’s a fine line between planning with a goal in mind, and holding oneself in an agonizing state. Like you said, the core of that is always fear.

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