A Plan So Cunning…

Right now I’m gearing up to participate in NaNoWriMo, the great November writing marathon where tales are spun upon gossamer threads, fingers develop calluses as tough as the sole of a hobbit’s foot and stories are shaped and forged in the fire of imagination. You might think I’ve been spending this time warming up my writing muscles, working on my plot or rereading the start of my grand opus (where exactly did I leave it)?ย  But you’d be wrong. Things have been happening to make made writing time as elusive as the One Ring itself.

So am I going to give up? Flag away NaNo before day one has ticked over on the widget? Absolutely not! I’m just going to pull out my diary and make the best of the time I have available.

The Problem with the Best Laid Plans.

I am a planner – utiliser of lists, charts, corkboards and highlighter pens. In my house, they’re used to me rubbing my hands together and quoting Blackadder with the passion of a zealot:

I have a plan Baldrick! A plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel…

The problem with a plan is you can’t cover every eventuality. This morning I planned to get up at 6am and have at least an hour working quietly on the blog before the family woke up. At 6.15 the first child came out rubbing his eyes, delighted to find he had his mother all to himself…

When a Character’s Plan Goes Awry.

In a story, thwarting the plan is a good thing. Not for the character perhaps, but definitely for the writer. If we’ve done our job well the chance of success was slim to start off with, but as the plan goes down the toilet, so does our character’s hopes. The reader is pulled in – how are they going to get out of this one?

In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf hasn’t even finished giving Frodo his super-secret-brief when he finds Sam Gamgee ‘not listening‘ outside the window. Gandalf can’t risk leaving a hobbit with loose lips running around the Shire with news about the location of the ring of power. It’s not like Sam, the gardener, has any skills to recommend him to the mission either. What’s a wizard to do?

The second grand failure of a plan was the creation of the Fellowship. Carefully crafted at the Council of Elrond to include a Wizard, one of the Dunedain, an Elf, a man, a Dwarf and a few Hobbits, – it only lasts about five minutes when the chips are down. The Elf and the Dwarf squabble, the man always thinks he knows best, the hobbits almost freeze to death at the first taste of unnatural snow and the only one with any power to hold them together falls at the hands of a Balrog. The man tries to take the ring and the whole group are scattered when the enemy turns up. Not a resounding success any way you look at it.

Yet in the scheme of the story both of these deviations work really well. Could Frodo have made it all the way to Mordor without Sam? Didn’t the Fellowship accomplish much more after they broke up?

So let your character make plans. Good, intelligent plans. And then mess with them any way you can…

Roll with It.

The most successful plan in TLOTR is Frodo’s very vague idea to head in the direction of Mordor and see what happens. On the way he and Sam do the best they can to negotiate a hostile landscape – forced to rely on an unstable ally, are taken against their will by the I-know-better-than-you brother of Boromir (the attempted ring-stealer), and are captured by Orcs a mere stone-throw from Sauron himself. Yet they never stop looking for chances to get back on the road to Mount Doom.

I’m starting to see the benefits to this kind of planning when you’re on an epic journey. Plan today and see what happens. As long as you’re putting one foot in front of the other, you’re still in the game.

A Good Attitude.

In a story when a character’s plan doesn’t work out they don’t throw in the towel, they just make another plan. Occasionally they’ll fail spectacularly and end up in the gutter (like Syracuse, Colin Farrel’s character in the sublime movie Ondine) but they always get back up again and make an effort to finish what they’ve started.

Just because my own writing plans haven’t gone well lately, it doesn’t mean I haven’t lost sight of Mordor (er – NaNo). So as the start draws near I’m consolidating: Getting my house in order, stocking the freezer so no one starves next month, sleeping. By the time November rolls around I’ll be a lean mean writing machine.

Don’t Give Up.

Of course at times the task seems insurmountable. What was I thinking – writing a novel? Me? Although it sometimes feels it would be easier to just enjoy other people’s stories – I still believe my writing has purpose; enough to encourage me to keep going when it seems too hard.

When Frodo and Sam were at their lowest, with no food and water, in hostile enemy territory they became a little philosophical about their circumstances. Sam sums it up well:

‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to all them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.ย  We hear about those as just went on…

I have a small Amanda Cass card on my desk entitled Follow Your Heart (you can view it here) of a girl running after her heart as it flies before her. It’s a beautiful, visual reminder of why I’m on this journey.

How about you? What kind of a planner are you? Have any of your character’s plans gone spectacularly wrong? Did that ever lead to something so much better than the original plan? How about your own plans (especially in the lead-up to NaNo)?

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8 thoughts on “A Plan So Cunning…

  1. I’m not going to do NaNoWriMo (day job takes up too much of my time unfortunately), but I definitely have my characters’s plans go awry in my WIP… And thanks for sharing a quote from LOTR, my day is off to a good start now ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. When I was writing my first book (you can grab a free PDF of it at my blog ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) I was merrily heading towards the probably somewhat predictable conclusion one night when I sat down to write. The characters held a council the night before the big battle and made a plan and set the watches and went to sleep. Then, as I finished the scene, I found myself typing “It was the third watch of the night when everything went wrong.” Suffice it to say that from that moment forward, nothing went according to plan. The bad guys acted unexpectedly, the battles took crazy turns, and the book finished up its story arc but left a major hook to be picked up later (which, since I had already planned a second book, worked well).

    Yes, plans which are carefully laid and revealed to the reader lead to predictable (and boring) books. Plans laid by characters off-screen to deal with eventualities and hinted at make for exciting drama. In LOTR, it is revealed in the appendices that Aragorn and Gandalf have been working behind the scenes towards the restoration of the kingdom for decades, and this is how and why Aragorn is so familiar with Gondor and Rohan – he has been there before as part of the plan. The plan comes to fruition, but the reader only got tantalizing glimpses of it when Denethor talks about recognizing Aragorn and when Aragorn talks about having rode with the riders of Rohan many years before.

    So, as a rule, if you reveal a plan in all its glory, spoil it to avoid being predictable. If you conceal a plan, give vague hints at it and you can let it succeed.

    1. I agree. I think when we’re starting out our planning can be a bit linear (read predictable) – but I’m loving trying to be more subtle and mix things up a bit. I’m picking up my NaNo novel just as my group is getting ready to join / start the resistance. Yet as soon as the decision is made someone turns up and scuppers the whole thing. Need for a whole new plan while separated and on the run… Actually can’t wait. NaNo starts today!!!

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