Ray Bradbury once wrote about our hesitation to begin anything because of uncertainty and fear.

If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or, “I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore . . .” Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.

Ray Bradbury

He was talking about life in general — taking the chance and doing the scary thing — but I’m finding his metaphor applies perfectly to my creative process, especially right now. I’m ten days into NaNoWriMo 2022, writing a 50,000 word novel from scratch during the month of November. I’ve done this sixteen times before, so you would think this would be old hat by now. But this year I am trying to write purely by the seat-of-my-pants, literally making the story up as I go, and it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff every single day.

This isn’t completely different from my normal writing process. It’s because of NaNoWriMo that know that I’m a pantser, or more formally, a discovery writer. I have many more ideas of what might happen with a character as I am writing about her than I do thinking things through ahead of time. But in the past, I’ve forced myself to try other methods: outlining, deciding on major plot points, making character charts, worrying about motivation, delving into backstories.

Over the years I’ve read plenty of books on writing that promote planning and thinking-before-you-write as the best way to work. Then I found a book for discovery writers, Patricia McLinn’s Survival Kit for Writers Who Don’t Write Right. A fast read that encourages all writers to do whatever works for them, it details McLinn’s own seat-of-the-pants technique, providing writing tools I’ve never seen mentioned before.

Excited about this book, I made using her methods part of my goal for this November. I usually start NaNoWriMo with a single sentence idea for a story and make it up as I go, but I have never allowed myself to flit around and “write what I know when I know it.” Normally, I plod through the story start to finish and make notes when ideas for a different part of the book pop up so I could write them later. McLinn says don’t wait. Write it now. And that’s what’s new for me this year.

As a result, every day this month working on my novel has felt exactly like jumping off a cliff and frantically building my wings on the way down. I come to the computer with no more idea what I’ll be writing than the few notes I left myself from the day before. It’s uncomfortable, sounds completely insane, and is totally working for me.

The jump doesn’t look any better from below…

To take the plunge with so little preparation requires a lot more courage than I would have thought. I’ve caught myself trying in vain to think my way into my story instead of just writing it, motivated by the worried voice in my head that fears this will all be a waste of time. I remind myself this is an experiment, an attempt to find an even better way for me to write, and I get back to it.

All the planners and plotters and people with charts: I wish I was like you. Because this feeling of free-fall until the wings are working? It’s vertiginous, uncomfortable, and down-right terrifying. But I’ve tried outlines and planning ahead and pre-writing and character profiles, and all it does is suck my story dry. It’s not for me. Not until after I have a handle on what my story actually is. And the way I find out what my story actually is? I jump off a cliff and start writing.

Is there anything you do that feels like you’re jumping off a cliff without wings?

2 thoughts on “Taking the Chance: Writing Without Planning”

  1. I would find it hard to do that with my writing. I write better if I know at least where the beginning middle and end are supposed to be. But we are all different and we have to do what works best for us. It would be boring if we all were the same. I was thinking about that “Survival Kit” in the photo. It could as easily say “Survival, Kit.”
    That little comma could change the whole meaning.

    1. I’m very big into having everyone do what works for them. There aren’t many resources for people who aren’t trying to plan or figure things out in advance, so I was really excited to find this book. And thanks to you, I will forever after read the title as “Survival, Kit, for Writers Who Don’t Write Right.” Happy to take this as something written just for me! 😀

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