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No Plan Survives Contact With The Muse

So, on a writing forum today someone was asking about how much planning to do, and that made me realize why planning beyond the first book in a series might not be the best way to do things.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to know what you’ll do next and to have a idea where you are headed (at least I think so, I’m still learning about series writing)… the thing is, when I look at writing something I can not help but think about Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder’s perspective on war, taken here from Wikipedia…

Moltke’s main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since it was only possible to plan the beginning of a military operation. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes. His thesis can be summed up by two statements, one famous and one less so, translated into English as “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”) and “Strategy is a system of expedients”.

So, let us rephrase that for a moment replacing Moltke with some famous average Joe writer…

John Q. Author’s main thesis was that plotting a story had to be understood as a system of options since it was only possible to plan the beginning of a story. As a result, he considered the main task of writers to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes. His thesis can be summed up by two statements, one famous and one less so, translated into English as “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the muse’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the muse”) and “Strategy is a system of expedients”.

Writers are caught in a battle with their muses wherein the writer is trying to devise the best way to get from the blank page he begins with all the way to the end of the novel to type -fini- at the base of the last page. He can make all of the plans he wants, but he has to know that he has a whole army of crafty adversaries standing before him and that they are lead by a master strategist and planner: The writer’s own muse.

While the writer navigates the reams of empty pages between that first word and -fini- he will be facing hidden assaults from all directions. Ideas will come crashing out of the dark woods he is writing about to ambush him… the cave or basement his main character just looked into will suddenly start getting the reflection of thousands of eyes staring back at him, all wanting to come out of the shadows and play too…. the sandy beach he is having his main character walk down will be struck by a tsunami of “What if…?”‘s that could throw any plan he may have had for the story into a struggle for survival.

The goal of the writer should not be to have such a strictly structured plan that he is not even catching his muses’ notice. I mean, you muse is a skilled tactician, why should he even pay attention if there is no challenge for him? If you truly want to get from the first word to -fini- then you need to give your muse a challenge, otherwise you will walk out onto the field of battle and find that you are the only warrior there and, while you can easily claim that field, there will be no real feeling of accomplishment because the enemy you should have faced determined you to be too uninteresting to even bother to show up. You will have written your book, but your readers will likely see that there was no struggle during the writing phase to get to the end.

[I want to take a moment to say that I do not mean here that your novel should read like you fought to figure out what to say, no, once you get to -fini- you will be doing plot edits and line edits and all of that, it is the undertone feeling of ‘oh, I wish that had gone different, what if the writer had…?’ that you want to avoid.]

Give your muse a reason to meet you on the field of battle, give them a reason to bring with them the biggest and meanest and nastiest, most cunning, army they can muster to challenge you. When you make it across that field you want to be able to hold up the page with -fini- at the bottom of it and know that you have earned that word. You want to feel exhilarated because you fought a good battle for it against an army filled with all of the best and brightest minions your muse could muster.

Just be warned that the army you are facing will be filled with spies that will sneak behind enemy lines, YOUR lines, look into you planning notebook, and report your plans back to their leaders so that counter plans can be worked out for how best to assault the things you are planning to write.

So, remember, fellow writers… no plan will ever survive contact with the muse.

Plan how to start, and have the best system of options you can construct for how to get to where you want to be when the battle is won, have extensive preparation for all possible outcomes, but be ready to make changes based on the things your muse will bring with it into the battle.

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