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Craft of Writing

Why I’m Not Planning My Work in Progress

Those of you who follow this blog will be saddened to learn of the passing of our friend Jon Zech this past Friday. He was a writer and a friend. He fought a long battle with cancer. Death may have taken him, but it did not win. Jon’s work lives on in his books, and his spirit lives in the hearts of his friends.


Here’s this week’s blog:

In the last six weeks or so I’ve been hard at work on a new novel. I’ve written five chapters as of this blog, and have the writer’s excitement that this is the project I was meant to write and which will someday prove successful.[1]

But unlike my previous, unpublished attempts at novels, I’m not outlining this one. There’s a general plan, of course—a central idea, a major theme and several sub-themes, and a group of characters I have been living with and getting to know, but I have not planned this book to the end.

Nor will I.

The first novel I wrote was my thesis project in the MFA program at NILA (a fabulous and fast-growing program, I’m proud to say). About half of it was based on the events in the last week of the life of a French politician and newspaper editor who almost single-handedly stopped World War I from starting.[2] Despite the fact that I had a historical template from which to build my plot, I outlined and re-outlined events and timelines, more than a dozen full revisions and countless smaller ones.

But as I’ve changed as a writer, I find outlines of less and less use. First, I’ve come to realize that setting a long-distance, immovable goal for a novel is futile, since I have so much to learn about the story while writing that it must change.

My second novel, Mr. Neutron,[3] also used many outlines, but by that point I began to realize their diminishing value. Most of them were constructed after I was about a third to halfway through the writing, when I had a clear sense of direction. I believe that keeping the path of the novel open led to a more fulfilling character revelation and a much more profound climax and dénouement (which, of course, someone will have to publish before any of you gets to read it).

A novel, they tell us in grad school, is supposed to make a statement about life, what it means to be human[4]. If that’s true, then we can only plan so much, and expect that our plans will change as the results of our decisions to achieve our goals become clear. We adapt in life; our characters adapt in theirs. And just because I’m the author doesn’t give me the right to restrict my players to rigid, predetermined paths. I’ve given them histories and goals, and a boatload of problems, but they’ll have to take it from there.

At most I’m going into each chapter with a single thought—after what just happened, what is X going to do next? It’s a bit scary to proceed this way, but then, it’s not much different from what we do every day in our real lives. And it keeps me wanting to write, because I want to know how it turns out.

[1] Which is why writers never allow themselves to get too excited.

[2] And I still believe Curtain Calls will see publication someday.

[3] For which I also still entertain high hopes.

[4] Not that anyone does that anymore—more like they make statements about their lives.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


21 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Planning My Work in Progress

  1. It is a great idea to free flow and go off track on an adventure sometimes ….it brings in spontaneity and fun and don’t we all need that in our over controlled lives…you can always go back later and reframe your masterpiece.

    Posted by maztracey | January 25, 2014, 2:11 PM
  2. I’ve been letting go as well. Easing up on the reins, like I tell my students. Even though I’m working on a historical novel with a lot of research, I’m using the large dates and events as a scaffold but letting the characters move through and around the loose framework.

    Posted by Valerie Nieman | January 25, 2014, 3:07 PM
  3. I’m letting go as well. My current WIP is a historical novel, so a lot of research going into it, but I’m using the necessary dates and places as a scaffold and letting the characters work their way through and over the framework.

    Posted by valerienieman | January 25, 2014, 3:14 PM
    • Even a novel that follows historical events can have a lot of options in the plot. As you said, it’s the characters who determine the path.

      Posted by jpon | January 25, 2014, 11:43 PM
  4. Dear Joe, Please accept my heartfelt sorrow at your loss, and my congratulations on your new work. It’s good to hear from you again after the last hiatus. Perhaps it will help to think of Mr. Zech’s spirit looking over your shoulder as you write and encouraging you onward as he did in life. Good luck in the next few weeks and always.

    Posted by shadowoperator | January 25, 2014, 3:15 PM
    • Despite his long illness, it was still a bit of a surprise to hear the news. I will pass your condolences on to his family. Thanks.

      Posted by jpon | January 25, 2014, 11:45 PM
  5. I’m very sorry to hear this. Jon reached out to me once here in a friendly, collegial gesture. Funny how even with people you only see or meet in writing, so much comes through.

    Posted by girl in the hat | January 25, 2014, 4:07 PM
    • That was Jon. Always looking to get to know people. He helped so many of the members of our writers group. Often, we didn’t even know he was doing it.

      Posted by jpon | January 25, 2014, 11:46 PM
  6. Dear Joe, Sincerest condolences—so sad that Jon has passed. The memory of his kindness and courage stays with me.
    Re: writing—-I think the direction your writing is taking will prove very positive. (still looking forward to reading Mr. Neutron!)

    Posted by miriamagosto | January 25, 2014, 6:34 PM
  7. So very sorry to hear about Jon’s passing. He seemed like such a great guy. He gave me the longest autograph I’ve ever received from any author, when he signed his [Sparks] book for me! It was a truly touching effort you and the others did in bringing his works out into the public, with Sparks.

    Re: your new organic writing style—GO FOR IT! I write the same way, and much prefer it! I love discovering the book along the way, and this shows in the writing! Everyone’s different and I applaud your gutsy effort, Joe! Enjoy it!

    Jon: thank you for spending some time in this framework with the friends you had and the lives you touched. I hope you enjoyed your time here. Wishing you all the best on the Other Side!

    Posted by fpdorchak | January 26, 2014, 2:00 AM
    • Discovery is maybe the most fun an author can have, especially when it’s so tough to get published. Glad to see you do it that way too.

      Thanks for the note about Jon.

      Posted by jpon | January 26, 2014, 11:18 AM
  8. awesome. can’t wait to read it! I think the chapter strategy sounds great, and the strategy corresponds with Miriam Gershow’s talks at this past residency. She works without an outline altogether and puts the structure in after the first draft. GO GO GO, Joe!!! :-)

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | January 26, 2014, 7:28 AM
    • Scary stuff. I’m actually surprised at how many writers ignore the traditional “make lots of outlines” advice and just go with the flow. If I ever get out there, I’d love to have you look at the WIP.

      Posted by jpon | January 26, 2014, 11:20 AM
  9. I think a writer needs to do whatever’s necessary to breathe new life into work. Pantsing works for some, planning for others. It’s great that you’re excited about the new project. Without that, you’ll never get it out. Glad to see you’re posting again; hope all’s moving forward with your move.

    So sorry to hear about Jon. You spoke very highly of him in earlier posts.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | January 26, 2014, 10:45 AM
    • It’s an interesting strategy, that’s for sure: Essentially I’m pantsing the plot, but I wrestle with every sentence, sometimes taking a half hour to get the wording just right in one.

      I’ll talk about the move soon. Michigan is making it tough to leave.

      Posted by jpon | January 26, 2014, 11:26 AM
  10. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. And sometimes letting loose and writing is the best thing you can do for the story. Besides, you probably have an understanding of flow by now enough to keep the plot from running wild all over the place. Too often, anyway.

    Posted by Elisa Nuckle | January 27, 2014, 2:29 AM
    • I still have to be careful about the plot getting away from me. That’s what happened with my last novel attempt. I am really working on slowing down and not just taking the first path that presents itself.

      Posted by jpon | January 27, 2014, 11:27 AM
  11. I’m so sorry to hear this news about Jon. Sending love and best wishes to you.

    Posted by Averil Dean | January 27, 2014, 1:43 PM

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