The Writing Road

As Yogi Berra once said: “If you come to a fork in the road, wash it before you put it in your mouth.” Good advice if you ask me.

I can’t just sit down and write off the cuff. I need a plan. I need to know who the characters are, where I want to take them, and where they’re going to end up. Only after all that stuff is nailed down am I ready to write.

Almost all of that preliminary work takes place when I’m doing something else – showering, eating, or working at my day job. Much to my wife’s chagrin, it also happens late at night in bed. I scribble notes. I make doodles. I outline. Sometimes it takes a long time to do all this preparation, but luck favors the prepared, so I do it.

When I finally sit down to type, I have a tall-ish stack of notes and doodles and outlines by my side.

But then I type – and  the plan I spent oh so much time crafting is pushed aside and ignored. My carefully constructed characters are no longer the characters I had once envisioned; they say things I never considered, they do things I had never imagined, they shove the story in directions I never contemplated, and I am transfixed and fascinated by it all.

It is at that moment I know that I am on a creative roll. I’m in explore mode. It’s a kind of heaven.

Since I am so eager to abandon my writing plan once I begin writing, one might assume that I don’t need a plan at all. But I do. I’ve tried working without one, and the results have been uniformly terrible.

I’m not exactly sure why this is, but if I was to guess, I think it is because I need something rigid to rebel against. I need something to thumb my nose at and say, “Pfft. I can do better than that.”

The only other time I have ever abandoned my plans with such reckless delight took place years ago when I embarked on a solo cross-country trip. I had my route, and my maps, and knew where I wanted to settle down each night. Once I got in the car and started driving, however, I was all “Oh. My. God. The world’s biggest rocking chair is just 100 miles north of here!” And, in a twinkling, I was off down a potholed two-lane blacktop passing an alarming number of stores that sold both fireworks and alcohol.

I discovered this big guy on one such unscheduled detour. His name is Big Amos and, if you push a button by his knee, he will beg you to try the shoofly pie.

Sure it might be a colossal waste of time to drive hours out of the way to someplace that might as well be called Lickspittle County just to see a ginormous chair, but none of that mattered to me. I was in explore mode. I found joy in the journey.

67 Replies to “The Writing Road”

  1. I know exactly what you mean! I used to just sit down and write the moment an idea struck. I didn’t pause to consider whether the idea was worthy of my time. I just wrote. Now I really spend time on fleshing out my ideas, from topic and theme, to the inciting incident (which I like to call the EXCITING incident), complications and all that jazz. But once I sit down, I can veer off course so easily. The characters and situation are no longer my own. They have their own lives and they won’t be constrained by my notes, dammit!

      1. Yikes, it was reckless of me to say reckless! Exaggerating life as I stumble along lol.

  2. I’ve had a similar experience, Mike. Once I put out an all-points bulletin for ideas, they come as notes and scribbles. Never thought of them as an outline, but you’re right, they are a structure, the Thing taking shape. But — did you try the shoofly pie??

  3. I’m generally an off-the-cuff writer. When I got to a point where I needed to research something, I’d go off in that direction, then brought the info I found back to the table (laptop). With my current WIP I thought I should do more planning, but it’s completely stalled me because I’m trying to do all the research first and plan around my real character’s timeline. It’s not working too well.

    So, like Christy says, whatever works for you is what you should do. Have fun with your new project. 🙂

  4. I like drafting out ideas, because it sometimes just gives me another idea when I begin writing. I tap (type) out a lot of ideas on the iPhone. It’s convenient, but I know people think I’m “tied to my phone.” It’s just an easy way to capture ideas.

  5. No wonder you have insomnia, Mike! I don’t usually write with a set plan. I’ve tried, but it just never works for me. I end up deviating from it almost immediately. I like that you have a plan and then rebel against it–it’s a structure of sorts, with a twist. And obviously it works for you!

  6. I love that you took a 100-mile detour to see the chair. That is sooooooooo something I would do. My husband couldn’t be in the car with me though. He is Mr. I-Have-A-Plan-And-I-Am-Sticking-To-It-Goddamit.

  7. Me? I can’t write if I have an outline or any structure at all. Give me paper, pen, a timer, and say… write about a bat, a clock, a beach, and a dog – and I’m off! The words are what get me going.

      1. The no-good, uselessly-wasted day began with a big hunk of shoofly pie. Really. My mother-in-law made the best in the world (she came by it naturally, being Pennsylvania Dutch). I rarely looked forward to visiting my husband’s family, except for the fact that I knew Ma Jean would make at least three or four pies for our stay. I insisted we’d only stop over for two days. My father-in-law, Joe, had been jail-free for almost 20 years, but I still didn’t like the kids hanging around a grandpa who served 15 years for grand larceny. (He still insisted he didn’t know how that bag of stolen cash ended up in the trunk of his car, but neither the judge [nor the jury] believed him.) But no matter, as I savored the warm molasses filling, I suddenly jumped out of my seat, screaming like a banshee. Unfortunately it wasn’t a ghost that scared the bejesus out of me, but a “GIGANTIC RAT,” I yelled, waking up the rest of the family, divulging quickly that I’d been into the pie at 6:30 a.m. “I just saw a prehistoric rodent,” I insisted,” pie crust sputtering out of my mouth. “Oh no, that’s just Peter, our pet capybara,” Ma Jean explained. “He escaped from the Wild Animal Farm, and Pa Joe couldn’t bear to send him behind bars again.” I bit down on my words of disgust so hard that I cut open my tongue, finding me in the dentist’s office for the rest of the afternoon of a no-good, uselessly-wasted day.

      2. This. Is. Wonderful.

        I loved every word — but I was especially fond of the reason why Pa Joe bonded with his capybara.

        I’m so very glad you won a copy of my book. Here’s hoping you have one coming out soon — ’cause I’m gonna buy it.

      3. Thank you thank you! My book is suspense (with a touch of romance) and Pa Joe isn’t in it, but some good FBI guys and one really really bad guy. :+0

      4. Written, critiqued, ready, I just need to get my act together and put it up on Kindle. :+) Looking for book cover help – if you have anyone to recommend, pass it on. Thanks.

  8. It’s not actually you rebelling, it’s your characters. Blame it on them.

    I guess I do a combination of the plan/no plan thing. I have a story arc, but then the characters take off, and by the middle of the book, I start wondering: what’s going to happen to this bunch? It never quite ends up the way I plan.

  9. Creepy – I was thinking about this last night.
    I have a plot, characters, and a world. Then I start writing and the title of my life kicks in: “change”.

  10. I create a rough structure/outline to build to, but then like to allow spontanaiety to kick in. Thinking of the Yogi Berra quote as an analogy, I tend to reach a point in my draft, realize that I’m in a fork in the road of my original outline, and then have to ‘pick it up and clean it up.’ It’s one of those stalled moments when I realize my original plan doesn’t fit what the character has become, so I have to go back a few steps and adapt. I just got past one of those issues, and am having a lot of fun with this new territory.

    1. You make a great point. Writing leads us down so many unexpected paths.

      Full disclosure, however: The quote at the top of my post isn’t really from Yogi; it’s my attempt at a parody. The real quote is “When you see a fork in the road, take it.” A number of people mistook it for the real thing. Sorry about that.

      That said, the info in the second caption is 100% true. I did eat at Zinn’s, the big Amish guy out front is named Amos, and he did recommend the shoofly pie (which was delicious, by the way).

  11. love yogi-isms! and flying by the seat of your pants vs planning and outlining? they all kinda work out the same, eventually the characters speak louder and demand attention and it’s NEVER convenient when they do, LOL! Great post! 🙂

  12. Hmmm…I like the photo and the quote but am somewhat worried now. 🙂 My blog “about the author” page has a similar but different Yogi Berra quote “if you come to a fork in the road, take it”, which makes me think that one of us is wrong. Or both of us, perhaps. But I have no intention of looking it up, because I don’t want to have to change the quote on my page if it’s wrong. 🙂

  13. Strange, I do this for my nonfiction, too. Also works well in film. You can write it all down on sticky notes and then rearrange them. Burn the nonstarters, add those Eureka’s!! from the middle of the night, color code, and overlap all those sticky notes to your heart’s content. I don’t call it rebellion. It’s more like a springboard to a scaffold to a long and winding road to…

    1. Yep, it sure works for nonfiction. I just finished another picture book biography –and, as usual, I tossed out my planned story arc once I began writing.

      I also think you’re right. “Rebellion” might be too strong a word. Maybe all my notes and sketches constitute a very, very rough first draft.

      On an entirely different note, I was thinking of you the other day. I was at a 4H fair. As I rode the rides and petted the goats, I — not infrequently — wondered when I would see Jilanne’s picture of The Butter Cow. 🙂

      1. School starts tomorrow, meaning my son will finally be fully occupied for the day. However, we’re remodeling the library at school, so the butter cow may need to wait until next week. I’m looking forward to sharing the pics. I remember being in 4-H. I was stuck showing my limp, 3rd place vegetables while my brother got to show the lambs. When I was in Peoria this August, the talk of the town was how a friend of my brother’s from his 4-H days just sold his Precision Planting operation to Monsanto for something like $250 million.

  14. Those detours are the best, but so hard to do with kids in tow. “Where are we going to eat? Where are we going to sleep? Where is a real bathroom?”. Blah blah blah. Ok, that last one is more likely to come from me… I seriously hope getting older doesn’t mean we can’t just wander aimlessly anymore. Truthfully, I think some if the joy comes from absolutely no expectations, and therefore no expectations to be dashed. I mean, who would plan a vacation around Big Amos? But those surprises are the things we all remember years later.

    1. Oh, I have a sneaky suspicion that when we get older we will wander aimlessly all the time.

      Sadly, Alex will have to have a search party on speed dial to regularly track down his doddering, senile old parents.

  15. I love this post! Can’t remember how I got here, but so glad I did. When I first started to read I had this clear idea of you as a writer – and then suddenly everything turned on it’s head. I’ve definitely experienced the same thing with planning, and then rejecting. For me the planning makes me totally familiar with my territory – a bit like the way a dog comes upon a new scene and sniffs around. Then, once I feel totally at home, I can let loose. I feel safe and in that safety I can take all those crazy turns that, when I’m in planning mode, I don’t consider. Great to be here. Look forward to following!

    1. What a nice thing to say, Gabriela! Thank you.

      I’m glad you found me, too. Stay a while and have a cookie.

      I love the way to describe your writing process, by the way. And you’re right, of course. In order to let your creativity go wild, you need to start your journey in a relatively safe and familiar place.

      I sometimes like to use an architecture metaphor: even the most wildly designed homes need a solid foundation on which to build.

  16. This is a cool post. I end up doing the same thing when I write, but I usually go in with only mental notes of where I’m going. I could probably use a little more structured planning, but plans feel like poison ivy on my brain.

    1. I agree. Overplanning can certainly can inhibit creativity, that’s for sure. That’s why I use my notes and outlines as a jumping off point. When I find myself sticking to those notes and outlines, something’s not going right. The inspiration to noodle around isn’t there and my prose is lifeless.

  17. Great post! I want to see that Big Amos guy. I think all your doodling and outlining is all a part of processing of your ideas. Very interesting, indeed. Also, the idea that once you have a plan you have the right to abandon it or to try to do better (I like that). You can’t break a plan unless you have one. I also must do a little processing before I sit down to type at my computer.

    1. Thanks, Bumble!

      Sadly, Big Amos is no longer at Zinn’s Diner. I went to revisit him a few years back and he was gone!

      He didn’t travel far; I found him again, if memory serves, in Strasburg, PA. I have no idea if he is still talking about pie, though. Here’s hoping.

  18. Haha love this post 🙂
    I definitely agree with having some kinda plan/outline/pile ‘o doodles first, even if it’s going to morph into something else later on! Even with blogging, I always go into a post with a good sense of what it’s gonna look like and if it deviates from that in any way, I know it’s only to make it better.
    Your header photo rocks, btw 🙂

  19. Hey Writer fella. Interesting thoughts about planning vs not planning. I know I do much better when I have something to write off of to provide some sort of direction to go in (or head away from). I think any plan I have usually serves as a wall from which to bounce my imagination off of and on to. But the wall, itself, rarely shows up in the story! 😀

  20. You sound just like me. I mull over characters and situations before I can write a thing. I love taking those obscure roads and discovering new places and crazy things (which may just find a place in my stories). I’ve seen this giant Zinn’s Diner guy in PA – I find LOTS of interesting places to explore in PA – those small towns never let me down! 🙂

  21. It sure is a kind of heaven, being in that flow. I’m not as much of a planner but I can see how it would help (depends what I’m writing – I don’t plan poetry) and when I do, I often rebel, but at the same time I also sometimes return to the plan again once I’ve rebelled and think – you know what, I was right the first time. I’m also now getting how the planning is a bit like building up the excitement and anticipation, like a race horse in the blocks. Then when it comes to the writing, its easy and just comes running. Yeah the early stuff happens anywhere but the desk. Shower’s a good one, and walks. Luckily I have quite a good memory so I don’t need to carry pad and pen everywhere. Brilliant post Mike, thanks for directing me to it.

  22. LOL. It’s nice to meet someone whose a hybrid. 😉 I love having a plan. But my story usually takes detours and the characters correct me on what really happened.

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