A lot of what passes for writing advice, and much of what I’ve written in this series, falls squarely into the category of planning. And that’s for good reason.
You won’t get very far in life or in your writing career without a plan of some sort. And, unless your brain works like Stephen King’s, you’ll probably be better off planning your novels rather than pantsing them, too.
But planning and plotting do present a very real problem …
Paralysis by Analysis
When you get really good at breaking down a problem into its constituent parts, there is always a temptation to keep breaking it down until you’ve analyzed every atom of the thing. That’s a great approach if you’re building a spaceship or trying to solve a complex crime, but it can become crippling in other areas of life.
When you’re buying a house, for instance, you can blow out the inspection report to a thousand-point bulletin of all the deficiencies you want the seller to correct before you sign on the bottom line. Generally, this will raise the seller’s hackles, and he’ll probably reject all or most of your asking points. You’re ticked off, he’s ticked off, and the relationship has instantly become adversarial.
You begin looking for any little reason to kill the deal.
Suddenly, you find yourself deciding whether to buy your dream house based on that one linoleum tile in the guest bathroom that’s missing a corner about the size of your thumbnail. It’s ridiculous.
The same thing can happen to you as an author … in a flash.
Derailed by Details
One day, you’re plotting out your groundbreaking western alien-zombie romance story and, the next, you’re mired in the details of whether the villain sheriff should have four tentacles or eight. Or maybe five would work better?
You start doing some Internet research into the benefits and drawbacks of octopus arms for Old West lawmen with deep space origins. You make a spreadsheet listing pros and cons of each configuration, along with the relative probabilities of each evolving naturally in the vacuum of space. But then you remember that maybe — maybe — your gunslinger has alien ancestry but grew up here on our own rock. How would Earth’s environs change his development?
Sounds crazy, right?
Maybe it’s a little off the rails, but only a little.
I would bet my next chapter that you’ve been dragged into the muck of analyzing, in minute detail, every aspect of at least one of your stories, from cover font color to character names to minor plot points to back cover blurb. All of these are important to some extent, but Holy Crap, none of them are worth spending more than a few minutes on (usually).
Analysis is great and useful, but too much can kill your progress.
Luckily, you’re an author, which means you always have a powerful tool at hand that you can use to slay analysis paralysis any time it threatens you: intuition.
Instinct as Tie-Breaker
Truth be told, I’m not sure I even believe in intuition as a “sixth sense” or an innate knowledge of what is best. It’s not some mythical entity that steps in to save us from the disaster lurking beyond that next corner.
But I do think we all have, to some extent, a natural grasp of aesthetics as they appeal to our own tastes and values. And that sensibility presents itself to us almost immediately in most cases if we’re willing to let it.
That old house on the hill with 10 acres of woods will be perfect for the gentleman’s farm you want to build. Who cares if it’s going to take a bit of work?
Of course, the ET sheriff is going to have an even number of tentacles! Why would any sort of nature unbalance him? Unless, of course, he’s a villain.
We’re writers, so our intuition for setting and characters should be fairly well-developed, and it’s something we improve all the time. After your 50th short story or your 10th novel, character names and predicaments should roll off your fingertips as you slice into your next work.
Do your research where necessary. Agonize over your choices to make sure they’re the best they can be. But don’t spend too much time.
Your intuition — as we’ve defined it — will lead you in the right direction and let you move on with your life, and with your writing.