Four Rules for Surviving a First Draft

3.      Forget the plan, trust your idea.

Your plan is the only thing you may be certain will not happen.

My father was fond of quoting from his Marine Officer Candidacy training, which turns out to have been said by Helmuth von Moltke a 19th-century head of the Prussian army:

“No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.”

This is no joke. When you run into an antagonistic force, nothing ever goes as planned. Largely this is because the actual field of action contains far more variables than any plan could ever account for. The same might be said for your story; the field of possible decisions that might be made by your characters, of people they might meet, of problems they might suffer, is so vast, it cannot possibly be contained in a plot outline.

Here’s somebody who was both a master at planning battles and penning books:

Writing a book is not unlike building a house or planning a battle or painting a picture. The technique is different, the materials are different, but the principle is the same. The foundations have to be laid, the data assembled, and the premises must bear the weight of their conclusions. . .

The whole when finished is only the successful presentation of a theme. In battles however the other fellow interferes all the time and keeps up-setting things, and the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans. – Sir Winston Churchill

As you write, things change, and grow, and weirdness occurs. It’s possible to get lulled into a bog by the will-o-the-wisps, but it’s also possible that gleam of gold off the beaten plot track is actually gold. In my experience, some of the most interesting things happen when characters you didn’t plan for point their scimitars up off the page and declare they have taken your story and if you want it back you’ll have to give them ten thousand unmarked, untraceable words.

But how do you decide if you’re chasing swamp gas or fairies?

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. – Dwight D. Eisenhower 

Your plan provides you with a deep set of understandings about the context of your narrative. Through the process of planning, you’ve learned about your world, characters, problems and skills. This contextual information should let your intuition engage with the question of what is or is not a good road to take through the woods. If that’s not working and you’re really hesitating, then go back to the planning board, adjust your plan, and always remember two crucial competing factors:

  1. If an idea is fun or compelling to you, then it will be to someone else. Pursue good ideas.
  2. There will be another project. If it’s too big a change, consider shelving it for use on the next project.

How do you know which way to go? Trust the idea. That initial wave of inspiration should have come with a sweet flavor of delight. Capture that flavor early, and keep a vial of it ready in your memory. This particular flavor is what your story is; it’s the cornerstone on which everything is built. Go back to that initial concept with each new idea, and throw away those which would change the flavor too much.

And remember rule 1 because…

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