BATTLE PLAN Part Five: Improvising for Success

I want you to drop and give me fifty push-ups.  No really.  Yes, right now.  No, this isn’t the Drill Instructor.  Just little ol’ Jon Paul.  That’s right, fifty push-ups.

Trouble?  Oh, I see.  That’s alright.  Maybe we’ll do them later, shall we?  OK.

To tell you the truth, before I joined the military, I could barely do twenty-five push-ups myself, so I understand.  I’ve had a few “practice sessions” in the last eighteen years so I could do the fifty now, if need be.  In fact, just about anyone who’s spent time in the military could probably knock out fifty push-ups without hardly thinking about it.

Here’s a different proposition: what if there was a book deal at the end of those fifty push-ups?  Yeah, like the magic lamp and three wishes–sorta.  If you did the fifty push-ups, then there would be an agent there ready to sign you and ready to pitch your book to anyone and everyone.  Oh, OK.  I’ll wait.  OK.  Oh, you’ll  figure out something?  Great.  OK.  I’ll tell ya what.  Let’s knock out this post and we’ll come back to this idea.

Hiya!  Today is Part Five of my six part post series Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer’s Battle Plan.  If you missed any of the first four parts, they’re linked on the right sidebar.

So far in our Battle Planning sessions, we’ve identified goals and tasks and organized them into a staged schedule.  In other words, we’ve built the Battle Plan–or BP for short.  Having finished BP construction is a great accomplishment, but that only gets us half way there.  Your BP is still untested.  The quality of the effort we make to execute the BP and to judge our success are as critical to our long-term writing success as having a plan in place in the first place.

Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke, a late nineteenth-century military strategist, famously said: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”  This is the military corollary to Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  This will be true of your BP too; I can almost guarantee that day in, day out, month in, month out, your BP will not go the way you planned it to go.

What does this mean for us writers?  It means that we can have the best plan in the world, but there’s also this thing called real life that sometimes gets in the way.  Cars break down.  Kids get sick.  Sometimes we have to work late.  Sometimes an event occurs which changes the entire rhythm of our lives, but that shouldn’t mean that the writing doesn’t get done.

The trick to being successful has two parts:  1) get up on the writing horse, but equally if not more important 2) stay there!

When we talk about improvising and being flexible in the execution of our BP, what we are really saying is “Find a way to get the writing done, regardless of other demands on our time.”  Expect things to change.  Expect the two hours we set aside for writing this morning to become thirty-minutes.  Compensate.  Practice re-arranging your schedule to accommodate your writing tasks.  Sacrifice.  Make hard choices.  Give up the television show you love.  Buy voice recognition software for your laptop so you can record yourself on the drive to and from work.  Stay up a half hour later.  Get up a half hour earlier.  Get creative.  Do whatever it takes to get the job done. 

Think of it this way: every day you delay is another day before you get your book deal (or whatever your long term goal happens to be).  For success in the writing business, we need opportunity, but as Malcolm Gladwell argues, we also need to put our time in.  He believes that a person cannot become an expert in a field until they’ve put in 10,000 hours.  Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview following the release of his book Outliers:

Anything that is cognitively complex seems like it requires at least 10,000 hours. … It’s deliberate practice, so it’s focused, determined, in environments where there’s feedback, where there’s a chance to really learn from mistakes. What’s fascinating about this notion that expertise arises only after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is that it seems to apply incredibly broadly to an astonishing array of different professions – from playing chess to writing classical music to being a brain surgeon to playing hockey.

So putting your time in is key, and the key to finding that time is in learning to improvise and be flexible.  Practice writing, but also practice being absolutely ruthless with yourself in the pursuit of your goals.  Find a way to get it done.

Now back to the fifty push-ups.  Being able to do fifty push-ups without thinking about it comes from being physically fit.  If you want to succeed as a writer, you also have to attain a kind of improvisational fitness–beyond simple practice, until finding time for your writing is no longer a conscious effort, but an integral part of the day-to-day fabric of your life.

Years ago, when I graduated from Officer Candidate School, the Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant who ran the school gave each graduating officer a placard which I still keep handy and go back and look at from time to time.  It says “Be a contender, not a pretender.”

I believe that to be a true contender, you have to get the job done, come hell or high water, no matter what else is happening or what circumstances have changed.  Make yourself a contender!  Build flexibility into your BP!  Give your writing the planning, time and attention it deserves and you’ll be ready when the big writing opportunity presents itself.

Homework.  Take a look over your BP and identify tasks which may go by the wayside or are in conflict with other activities in your life.  Brainstorm and write down the work-arounds you’ll take to accomplish the task anyway.

Thanks for stopping by.  Part Six, Assessing Your Progress will be next week!

For fun, I leave you with this scene from “With Honors” starring Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci, highlighting how important flexibility and improvisation can be.

(Visited 5 times, 1 visits today)


  1. Crimey said:

    After finishing up writing, editing, then boxing my first manuscript, I didn't have a BP going into the current WIP, but in January I gave myself a little talk and nailed down a goal of writing at least 1,000 words a day everyday until the first draft was done. I did it! Now my BP includes polishing chapters until they shine and I'm in a routine where I work at least five days a week, usually seven but this week's been harder than usual.

    March 31, 2010
  2. You're spot on – and if we are truthful, the things that take up our day are not quite so significant as cars breaking down and kids, I know I'm very good at meandering. During NaNo I was good at scheduling writing first but seems I need that Drill Master to push me (oh and I still owe you 46 push-ups – effort?)

    March 31, 2010
  3. Yvonne said:

    I could do fifty push-ups if that was the reward. Did you say I had to do them all at once?? You're right about the time spent and the sacrifices that must be made to be a writer. I'm right there with you.

    April 1, 2010
  4. Claire Dawn said:

    That was beautiful JP. I love the structure of that post. How you start with the pushups and leave our minds to mull it over as you go on to improvisation.

    And I loved the clip.


    April 1, 2010
  5. Everyone has organization. I totally suck at that. I spent the last three days jotting down little bits of plot for the next two chapters on scratch paper around the office, and sat down tonight to write the first three pages of chapter 3. There's my system :-)

    April 1, 2010

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *