DIY Writer’s Retreat: Not as Planned


The first zucchini sprouts

Before I planted vegetables (and a melon!) in my garden, I planned. Some plants, like radishes, required containers to prevent ground-pests worming their way in. Others, like squash (and melon!) needed room to sprawl.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten a seed-packet of zucchini which I bought last year.  After I planted it, I had a leftover of a different breed.*  There were no more open,  sunlit spaces with clearance all around…

… except the sinkhole where a tree used to be, which I keep re-filling with dirt and grass seed summer after summer.  It’s in the lawn, midway between the shed and the house.

What a nutty idea, I thought. Then, of course, I did it.

Guess which zucchini came up first? And they were the first sprouts to make an appearance! (The melon’s absence worries me.)

In a similar way, I planned out my book (twice!) yet the draft grows in unexpected ways. The first plan was a sparse three-column outline of twenty-seven chapters. By “sparse,” I mean the last chapters looked like this:

23. Guvnor – the coward – is unpersuaded, but Favius’s passion convinces others to help him.
24. Boy meets girl (again) – meets monster (again).
25. Battle
26. Climax
27. Farewells: boy stays; girl goes.

A second, more detailed outline followed. I used a three-act template in an effort to figure out where plot points fall.

However, the draft diverged from outlines. Chapters alternate between protagonist and secondary character before the two meet, which knocks the plan askew. The inciting event (the destruction of the protagonist’s normal life) is two chapters ahead of the key event (he enters a new world), which is a few chapters removed from the turning point (he makes a forward-looking decision).**

It’s daunting to think the draft is wrong – except it’s not. When authors advise “This turning point occurs a third of the way in the book” or “The midpoint falls halfway,” it’s like they’re giving directions to build a raised garden bed. The dimensions may be mathematically precise, but the plants won’t grow symmetrically.

To put it more bluntly: Story-telling predates the framework that Joseph Campbell built to contain it. Let your story grow in the rough draft. It’ll be strong and healthy when you prune it.

*Those who know zucchini aka corgettes may be tempted to warn me that they are prolific, that I will grow tired of them, that I will be creeping around after dark like a reverse cat burglar to leave them on my neighbors’ porches, etc. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

**K.M. Weiland has a succinct explanation of the differences between these.