No Plan Survives Contact with Reality

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” — Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke

That’s one of my favorite quotes, and I’ve applied it to just about every facet of my life. These days, I’d amend it to “No plan survives contact with reality.” Or, really, any contact at all.

Plans rarely work out exactly the way you think they will, especially not the big plans. The bigger the plan, the better the chance you’re going to have to deviate from it at some point. To surmount this, you must be flexible, ready to change course at a moment’s notice. This is as true for writing novels as it is for waging war.

That’s certainly the case with The Lost Mark trilogy. The final book in the trilogy (The Queen of Death, which hit stores yesterday) bears absolutely no resemblance to what I originally pitched to my editors. It doesn’t even come close to the final version of the pitch that won me the contracts for the trilogy.

I always plan—with an outline—any novel I write. I want a road map of the book to show me where I’m headed and how I might get there. It helps me keep the pacing fast and tense, and it keeps me on track so I don’t wander too far from the story’s main plot. As I write, though, I always end up coming up with better ideas for how things should happen.

That’s the magic of the process of writing. If I knew exactly how a book would turn out before I started, it would be little more than paint-by-numbers with words. I’d be bored to tears long before I got through it, and I’d guess my readers would be too.

So, I always start with an outline, but I allow myself latitude to use any better notions that come my way. The Road to Death (first in the Lost Mark Trilogy) is a perfect example of this. (SPOILER ALERT!)

When I started the book, I meant for a vampire named Tan Du to be the main villain. Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, Tan Du runs into a nutty elf wizard named Majeeda, and she kills him. It shocked me when I saw the words on the screen, even though I’d written them. I figured if I could do that to myself, I should leave it for the readers to enjoy too.

That shoved my outline straight off the rails though. I re-outlined the book from that point on and charged down the new path instead.

This usually happens two or three times with each book. Imagine how different The Queen of Death is, then, from how I first envisioned it. I went through four to six major direction changes before I even started the book, and I changed course again and again as I wrote it. I suppose my editors (the inestimable Mark Sehestedt in the case of the Lost Mark Trilogy) would have the right to complain about it, but they never do. A better book is a better book.

In the end, the book comes out the way I want it to, even if I didn’t quite know what I would end up wanting when I started. It keeps the writing and the plot fresh, and hopefully it keeps you, the readers, engaged and entertained.