It must be the storyteller in me, but I love endings and beginnings. December and January are my two favorite months of the year, in part because of the way they invite us to pause and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re headed. I’m a planner and a goal-setter by nature and by practice, and I thought I’d share with you how I design my creative year by approaching it like a story.
As I’m sure you’ve all discovered, there’s a long-standing divide in the writing world between those who write by design (the “plotters”) and those who write “by the seat of their pants” (the “pantsers”). The plotters craft premise lines, story and scene outlines, character maps, and perhaps even write treatments before they ever hit the page. They attempt to ward off the dreaded writer’s block by having a plan and sticking to it. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it helps. Aggressive plotting as an approach to writing can feel a bit like a “fill in the blanks” exercise that seems to cut out the workings of the Muse.
Pantsers, by contrast, start with a concept, an inkling about the characters, and perhaps a notion of the ending and hit the page. It’s the literary equivalent of tossing some clothes in a suitcase, filling your tank with gas, and hitting the open road without any clear itinerary and only a vague idea of where you’re headed. “That’s real creative freedom,” you might say to yourself. No rules, just write -- am I right?
Let’s take these models and apply them to life. Some people -- the “plotters” -- take a very structured approach to life. I fall into this category myself (both as a writer and in my life). I use a planner system that helps me to keep track of all the various aspects of my life while I make deliberate progress toward my big creative career goals. But there are many others -- the “pantsers” -- who are much less structured and follow the pull of their creative energy. There’s tremendous freedom in this model and a lot of room for the workings of inspiration.
There are, of course, pros and cons to both approaches to writing and to our creative life generally. And as in most things, I think the ideal is a balance between these two extremes. So as we set ourselves up for creative success this year, let’s consider where to plot and where we can (or should) just pants it.
We’re starting with the biggest picture because everything else flows from this. If you don’t know what you’re headed toward in terms of your long-term dreams, it’s very difficult to make the decisions that will get you there. In the workshop I conducted recently, I encouraged participants to get clear on their 3-year and 5-year projections.
Where do you want to be three years from now? Five years from now? What about a decade from now?
I’ve seen a lot of life coaches encourage a visualization and journaling exercise to go along with this. Once you’ve owned your dream goals, describe what your life looks like. Get as detailed as you can. What does it feel like to be this Future You who has achieved her creative goals? This exercise is powerfully motivating, and if you want a visual reminder to go along with this, you can create a vision board and put it up in your writing space.
Projecting where you want to end up is the equivalent of roughing out the ending of your script before you start writing. It doesn’t lock you in and nothing is set in stone. We definitely leave room for evolution and inspiration -- more on this in a bit. But without this initial destination point in mind, it’s very difficult to make the right decisions that will move you forward every single day.
Once you’ve set your vision, you’ll work backwards to discover the steps you need to hit along the way. These are the “mile markers” that define your creative journey, and being aware of what they are is critically important for your decision-making.
We’re going to face setbacks and obstacles along the way, just like our characters do in our stories. But keeping our focus on the big picture will hopefully help us navigate these challenges with intention and perseverance. So if you haven’t set your long-term creative vision yet, I highly recommend taking some time with this one. It’s well worth the effort.
Once you’ve settled on your vision for your creative future, it’s time to figure out which projects are going to get you there. I first learned the development slate technique from Stephanie Palmer, former Director of Creative Affairs for MGM. Put simply, a development slate is a list of your ideas, sorted into categories. It’s more organized than your story ideas notebook or your Evernote folder of random bits of inspiration, and ideally it should be updated frequently. I use Google Docs for mine, but you can set yours up however you wish.
My own development slate is organized by genre and includes (at minimum) the following information about each idea: story type (feature, TV, novel, short story), premise line, stage of development, submission status, awards/recognition. I try to update it at least quarterly so that it gives me an accurate picture of my creative work.
Each year, I take some time to review the projects I completed and decide which ones I’d like to tackle next. I’m fortunate to have a manager who weighs in on these decisions now, but when it was just up to me, I’d select projects based on creative “pull” and my larger career goals. For example, one of my goals is to establish myself as a science fiction writer, so I selected projects I was most excited about from my sci-fi roster, even though I have a growing number of historical fiction stories that I really want to tell.
Your projects are the stepping stones that create your path toward your goals. Choose them carefully and lay them with intention.
Every living thing follows two processes in life: growth and development. Growth has to do with magnitude. Development is about transformation and increasing complexity. They have to go together, and there is often a pause in growth to allow development to take place.
Let’s apply this principle to our creative careers. Growth is taking that next step forward on the path. When we grow, we have “more” -- more completed projects, more reach or influence, more forward progress.
But what about the development part of the process? If we try to grow too rapidly, without the necessary transformation in our skills, the growth won’t be sustainable. Every project you write has a purpose. It conveys a story that’s in your heart and on your mind, first and foremost. But it goes so far beyond that. What skill set does it showcase? What is it going to teach you? How does it help you to grow?
I’m a huge believer in building awareness of the skills we need to reach those markers on our creative journey. We learn to write, but we also write to learn. Every project has the potential to further our growth and development as writers. So how do we plan for this kind of growth?
One of the things I do regularly is to assess where I am in my writing. One of the best ways to do this is to submit a recent project for coverage. Look at the feedback you get, identify areas for improvement, and then decide the best way to remedy them.
Could you take a class or attend a workshop? Are there books or articles on the subject? Is it a matter of just writing a reminder on a sticky note and putting it on your desk or monitor so that you remember to avoid that particular pitfall? Could you join a writing group for additional feedback and accountability? Or would hiring a writing coach fast-track your development?
As you plan your creative work this year, don’t forget to examine your current writing toolbox. Don’t be afraid to hit pause on growth to make room for development.
I’m not a huge Law of Attraction person, but I do think that our brains are wired to help us find what we’re looking for by filtering out the stuff around us that doesn’t match up and alerting us to possibilities that do. (Mel Robbins talks about this -- it’s called the Reticular Activating System).
The process of setting our goals, visualizing them, and understanding the stepping stones that mark our progress allows our brains to step in on a subconscious level and start cutting through the noise. I think that inspiration flows from intention, and that this kind of clarity sets us up for the very best kind of serendipity.
Let me go back to the parallel to story creation for a minute. As a plotter, I get pretty granular. I’ve gone through multiple revisions of the premise line, I’ve done narrative outlines of the characters, I know my theme and the governing “big idea” I’m working with, and I spend a lot of time hammering out the plot in the beat sheet. But all of this groundwork is simply there so that I can let go and let the story flow as soon as I hit the page. I write better and faster and make smarter decisions about inspiration in the moment because of the story foundation I’ve laid.
That’s what I mean when I say that there has to be a balance between plotting and pantsing. The very best planning leaves you free to follow inspiration in the right way -- whether in the pages of a script or in the story of your life.
If you know where you’re headed, you have the clarity of vision to discern when something is a genuine opportunity and when it’s a distraction. You can feel free to take a chance and walk through that open door because you know it’s ultimately taking you in the right direction. We leave ourselves open for the most amazing surprises -- those chances we never dreamed would come our way. And those are often the surest leaps forward we can take.
The start of a new year is the perfect time to reflect on our habits of setting our creative intentions. Have you just been “winging it”, hoping that things will change and that opportunity will show up? Do you make a plan at the beginning of the year, but forget about it by March?
I’m over here raising my hand -- because we’ve all been there. Learning how to plan is a skill in itself, and it takes time to find what works best and to build the habit of working with it so that it can work for you.
If you’re new to the process, or if you’re just ready to recommit to a practice of intentionality in your creative work, I recommend starting with the high-level areas I talked about here: your long-term goals, development slate, and skill toolbox. Everything else flows from your awareness of where you’re headed and what you need to get there, so this is the perfect way to begin.
If you’re ready to refine your planning process and you’d like a checklist of other things you can plan for and track, broken down from the annual to the weekly level, I have a free printable available for you here.
I wish you all the creative success in this new year! Happy planning!
Shannon (S.K.) Valenzuela is a novelist, ghostwriter, and award-winning screenwriter. Her curiosity about pretty much everything means she loves writing research-based stories: grounded sci-fi and historical fiction are her particular playgrounds of choice at the moment, though she also loves a good science fantasy adventure.
When she’s not penning her own stories, she loves her work as a story coach and creative entrepreneur at The Story Scene. She specializes in helping new and emerging screenwriters and novelists, and she’s coached dozens of writers through their first drafts and rewrites.
She’s also the host of the Subject Matter Expert podcast, which is designed to inspire and inform sci-fi writers through interviews with scientists, thought leaders, and writers working in the genre.
In real life, she’s a university professor with a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, so you’ll also find her in the classroom exploring the poetry of Homer and Dante. She loves teaching stories almost as much as she loves writing them.
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