On Plans, Purpose, and Writerly Progress
By Christine Carron
Toward the end of last year, I shared two facts about my reading habits. First, that in any given year I bought a ridiculous amount of books, many only to be later culled due to limited shelf space—culled often before I even read them. Second, that I started reading many more books than I actually finished.*
I wanted to change those habits, so I came up with my Great Reading Reset Plan in which I identified one measurable target in the post: I would only purchase one book this year—Playing Through the Turnaround by Mylisa Larsen, who is one of my writerly peeps. I also set one slightly fuzzier target where I set aside books from my shelves that I would read this year. As the new year neared, I clarified that second target: I would finish at least one hundred and four books this year, for an average of two books per week.
I made one final adjustment to the plan as I was setting up the Weekly Dollop—our newsletter—for the first post of the year. I would share my stats weekly in the Dollop, leaning into the research that shows when we publicly share our progress toward our goals, it helps us reach those goals.
Reviewing the Original Plan
Last week, being the project manager I am, I decided to go back and review the Great Reading Reset Plan post. It’s a useful exercise to reflect on our original plans to see: what we decided based on the data we had at the time; how we thought we would best achieve the end goal; how we might use any insights to create stronger plans going forward, etc.
What struck me was how focused I had been on setting books aside. That pile of books, dramatically organized in a basket and placed in a highly visible location in my home was a key focal point in the original plan. It became a massive motivator. I also used it to build anticipation, setting up a game that I could not touch any of those books until the new year.
I even had an empty basket next to the full one where I would put all my finished books as the year progressed. That way I would have a visual of my progress. It was a great plan. A stellar plan. An awesome plan.
It was also a plan that totally failed.
At some point this year, I cannot remember exactly when, I reorganized all my bookshelves. It was freeing to do the reorganization knowing that I no longer had this steady inflow of books to deal with. Which meant, I would be able to reorg and not have to redo anytime soon. So everything was reconsidered. Everything came off the shelves and out of that to-be-read basket.
The books never made it back to the basket. I wanted every book to have a place on the shelves. A permanent home. I didn’t give the basket another thought, completely forgetting that the basket (and the books in it) were a key component to my original plan.
The Purpose of a Plan
When I help writers integrate project management and process improvement techniques into their writing processes, I often run into the worry that specifying a plan will cage them in. Stifle their creativity. Murder their muse. This comes up in particular in the great plotting versus pantsing debate novelists have, i.e., do you plot your novel in advance or do you plot as you go?
Before anyone gets their plot-pants knickers in a twist, my position on that debate, and indeed on any plan/process polarization, is that I do not care where your preference sits between those two poles. Really, I could not care less. What I care about is that:
- you feel fully confident in your writing plans and processes,
- your plans and processes are actually getting you the results** you want, and
- you are loving the writing adventure more than you are hating it.
If you can enthusiastically respond “yes” to all of the above, then in my mind you are golden. I don't care if you’re doing your writing upside down, strapped onto an inversion table, listening to heavy metal music, while chugging kombucha. If it's working . . . you go!
So, in my opinion, if you do have a plan that is actually caging you in (versus holding you accountable in ways perhaps you are not used to), then you have the wrong plan. But even when folks land on a great plan, they can get overly attached to the plan, even beating themselves up if they don’t execute it perfectly.
Say a writer decides they are going to write every day for twenty minutes. That is their plan. They maintain that streak for fourteen days, making more steady progress in those two weeks than they did in the past six months using a “sporadic writing” plan. Then they miss one day.
Cue the inner pile-on. A real writer would be able to write every day. Stephen King writes every day. You’re a loser. Loser. Loser. Even if the negative voice is not that emotive, there still may be some inner disappointment. Less enthusiasm to get back to the desk the next day and carry on.
When something like that happens, there has been an unhealthy fixation on the plan. An unhealthy elevation of the plan. If something like that has ever happened to you, please write this next phrase on a post it note and stick it front and center in your writing space: The plan is not the purpose, progress is the purpose.
Our imaginary writer was making massive progress. The plan was actually working. They could have decided to look at the missed day as an anomaly. They could have decided to adjust their plan, setting a target goal to write only five days per week, which would have made their plan more flexible (and realistic.) Instead, they made sticking (or not sticking) to their plan more important than the progress they were making with their writing.
Along with creating potential mindset landmines, another way elevating a plan gets in the way is that it forces us to complete tasks that are no longer relevant just because the are on the plan. In project management tools when you finish a task it gets a status of Done. But it also gets a resolution code.
One of the possible resolution codes is Done. So if you ever see me write Done-Done, that is project-manager speak indicating something was really done. Another resolution code is Won’t Do. You use Won’t Do when a task you originally planned to do is no longer relevant or necessary. It means you get to close that task out and never have to think about it again. Many individuals, including some project managers, don’t use Done-Won’tDo enough.
That’s unfortunate as Done-Won’tDo totally helps to keep you in charge of your plan instead of your plan being in charge of you. Let’s go back to plotting for a moment. And let’s say we are working with a writer who is an extensive pre-plotter. So they’ve really outlined that book to the nth degree.
In that plot outline, at the end of the story, the writer’s intrepid hero Buttercup is going to ride off into the sunset on her handy steed after saving five dudes and one damsel in distress. Awesome! However, after our pre-plotting writer has drafted half the book, a new thread has worked its way in, and the author knows in their bones that the stronger ending is that Buttercup (gulp) dies.
A writer not in charge of their plan will not be able to follow the informed instinct that drafting has gifted them with. They will not be able to mark the original ending Done-Won’tDo. Their plan will still be in charge of them, and they will write the less effective ending just so they can make the original plot point on their outline be Done-Done.
Luckily for my Great Reading Reset Plan, I love Done-Won’tDo.
Back to My Great Reading Reset "Fail"
So, yes, I totally did not hold myself to the original plan around reading the specific books in the basket. Do I care? No, because the plan is not the purpose, progress is the purpose.
The basket served a useful interim purpose for motivation and inspiration but maintaining it was not necessary to my progress. When I reflected on that part of the original plan, I did not go into a mindset tailspin nor did I frantically try to recreate the basket set-up. I Done-Won’tDoed that whole part of the plan.
It was an easy decision to make, since I’ve been rocking the progress. (Which is the purpose, right?) Publicly declaring my stats in every Weekly Dollop is working like a charm for me.
How much of a charm? Yesterday, I pre-ordered Playing through the Turnaround, which brings my official books-bought count for the year to exactly . . . one! Totally on track with my book buying measurable objective. All I have to do for the rest of the year is not buy any more books. Which is totally doable. I’ve had five and a half months of not-buying-books practice and my library card is always with me, so steady on there.
On the book finishing front, I’m ahead on my goal for the year. Using the ISO Week Date System, last week was the nineteenth week of the year. To be on target with my book finishings, I needed to be at thirty-eight. I actually finished my forty-eighth book last week. Ten percent ahead of schedule. Yay!
Claim Your Planning Superpower
Being in charge of your plan (and your processes) is a superpower. You can nimbly hold yourself accountable without boxing in your enthusiasm or creativity. Just remember to ask yourself: Do I feel confident in this process/plan? Is this process/plan actually helping me meet my goals? Are my processes/plans helping me love the writing adventure more than I hate it?
If you cannot enthusiastically answer yes to all three points about a particular process, then start making some adjustments. If you can, then carry on. No adjustments needed. Either way, you have got this!
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* I distinguished between books that I started and found were not worth my time versus books that did engage me. I was only concerned with finishing the latter.
** Results that you can measure and are in your control. Writing and sending out a query letter that effectively captures the essence of your book is a result in your control. Getting an agent to sign you is not fully in your control. But you have to do the things in your control to better your chances of getting results in areas that are less in your control.
The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week
- Post-in-Action Prompt: Reflect on your current writing plans/processes. If you have never formally written down your writing plans/processes, then sketch that out briefly first, i.e., how you regularly approach getting your writing done. Then ask yourself, are their things that I am doing that really aren’t serving my progress? If so, experiment with marking them off your plan (as Done-Won’tDo) and stop doing them. See what happens. If it turns out they were useful, add them back in. If not, you’ve saved yourself spending time on no longer valuable/relevant work.
- Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your main character gets fixated on doing a set of tasks that really are not moving the needle. Think busy work. The main character can’t see it, but another character can. Have the two characters get into it, with the main character defending their tasks, the second character trying to get them to see the tasks differently, their futility. Let the conversation go very, very badly.
- Journaling Prompt: Do you agree with the three measures presented to validate if a plan/process is solid: Do I feel confident in this process/plan? Is this process/plan actually helping me meet my goals? Are my processes/plans helping me love the writing adventure more than I hate it? If not, what are the criteria you use to validate if your writing plans are solid?
- Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps and discuss the utility of the concepts of Done-Done versus Done-Won’tDo in context of the writing adventure.