Preparing the ground (writing)
You can walk into a piece of virgin bushland and scatter your seed. You can, but other than achieving some snickers at the double entendre, that’s about all you’re likely to succeed at.
Trust me on this: as one of those skilled gardeners who can make one plant struggle to survive where ten flourished before I attempted to grow them, I know. I tried this method in earlier years…
It was a great reason to learn to forage for bush-food, because you can’t feed yourself like that. Not even on plants that are little more than glorified weeds.
And it’s not just the domesticated weeds we eat that need prep to have a better than pure luck chance at success: From engineering to writing the same applies. Different people do this in different ways – my gardening is rather more like letting the war materiel catch up with the advance column as and when it can. This is not a great way of fighting wars and it isn’t too crash-hot for gardening either. I do get results, we feed ourselves and sometimes produce a bit of surplus of life’s essentials, like zucchini.
Oddly, it’s not the way I build (or write) where I tend to spend a lot of time assembling the materials I will need, making sure I have the necessary tools and skills… and then getting it all to go together in double quick time… or at least until the careful planning hits reality and things fall apart. Either new plans and unexpected ingenuity comes into play, or I find myself paused again while the next essential bit that I should have anticipated but didn’t gets bought and delivered to our remote island, because, no, you can’t just nick out to the shops. It tends to color your way of seeing the world. I have not yet learned to build with zucchini, but I am sure it is just a matter of time.
Now this probably hasn’t bypassed those you who have military or disaster-response experience, but that is just about the key feature of any real (or realistic) story. Just as in life, there are unexpected consequences, and no plan works quite as you hope it will (in all too many situations – whether it is a pick-up in a bar or open conflict, or both, as can happen) the other players aren’t pawns and won’t think like you do, or do what you expect them to do. Hell, even the waves and weather don’t.
That doesn’t stop it happening in a lot of books. There are no hard and fast rules for writing, but clockwork plans I would say chuck me out of a book faster than the open-conflict pick-up line does. The problem is, the author is, de facto, playing God for his characters, and of course God being omnipotent could actually have his plans work. It’s a very tempting line to follow.
But this wasn’t actually what I wanted to write about. Preparation is more than just one thing. Ask me. I am trying to do at least 11 different and largely unrelated tasks with our house building project, ranging from tractor repairs to scavenging red ironbark posts, to dealing with expensive and mindless bureaucratic crapola without losing my cool and vaporizing the legislators and administrators, to learning a whole bunch of new skills, to trying to play chess with the effects of each of the steps I take (take down a tree. It will take 20 years to replace if you find you need it there), put in an orchard without clearing the ground properly and allowing room for large machinery – and curse yourself for 20 years). Books are creating a whole damn world, not just a property. You CAN wing it. Many do. I spend a huge amount of time on research. It’s terribly useful at times. I now know for example (as a byproduct of reading about a shipwreck for the WIP) that in 1835 British surgeons’ were treating syphilis with large hypodermic syringes with which they would inject mercury up the patient’s urethra. How could I possibly write without this valuable information?
I think I kinda made my point. That way lies madness, and not just from mercury poisoning and tertiary syphilis.
There is a huge temptation –because you have prepared for a book by doing a Master’s thesis worth of research – to put it all in. Once again I speak with the voice of experience: research is like zucchini plants. You may feel it wise to put in an entire row of five varieties… but you can’t actually use all of it – not without turning your entire family in zucchinophobes (and doubtless the PC police will persecute them for that. You must love the entire alphabet soup, A to Z.).
However, the key here is the same as with disaster-management or when a battle plan meets the enemy: you won’t have prepared right, but in my opinion you will have a better chance to adapt your plans.
Which leads me into the truism that preparedness is a state of mind, not just a stock of canned goods. And this holds true IMO with writing too. The characters, if they’re worth having, WILL stray from the plan (if you have one, which is why sometimes not having one has plusses.) and their interactions with other characters. You have to be prepared for that change. Otherwise you run the very real risk of the reader expecting the change inevitable from the shift in character (often with the 20:20 vision of hindsight) and not getting it. It’s a profoundly unsatisfying experience – and that is something you never want your reader to have.