Things Never Work Out As Planned (And Sometimes That’s a Good Thing)

My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was in elementary school, and it got me fascinated with fantasy and quests and epics. So, when my fourth and fifth grade teachers asked me to write stories, I’d always start writing an enormous quest, describing the characters and their cool swords, all the wacky stuff they had in their backpacks, and their special powers.

Inevitably, I’d get bored of writing this after a page or two, and I’d find a quick way to end the story. I’d set up the storyline so that the characters were going to have to overcome big obstacles and fight the villian, and I’d end it with “And they did.”

It was a lot more fun for me to look at the beginning of the story and imagine the possibilities than to actually bother with writing it out. I just assumed that everything went according to plan: my awesome characters did awesome things, the bad guys were defeated, and everyone was happy.

But stories rarely go according to plan–we’d hate it if they did! We don’t want to see a hero easily defeat every foe and waltz into a victory; we want to see him try and fail, and try and fail again, and barely crawl across the finish line against all odds.

One of the great military philosophers, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote the following about battle:

“In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance.”

Clausewitz refers to this as friction: nothing goes according to plan because there are so many variables; the slightest thing could change (ruin) everything.

“…[A] general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. 

The obvious comparison with all of this–especially in the context of this blog–is to our writing: it’s this friction, these try-and-fail cycles, that make our stories interesting. They provide surprises and conflict and drama and suspense.

But that’s actually not the point I wanted to make. Yes, things not going to plan can be good for our stories, but they can also be good for our lives.

In the Spring of 2009 I graduated with my MBA. Normally, the program boasts a 97% job placement rate at graduation, but the economy had just tanked and most of the graduating class was unemployed. We’d expected jobs approaching or above the six-figure mark, but that salary target dropped and dropped over the following months, as we became desperate for a job–any job.

My wife and I (and our three kids) only lasted for a couple of months before moving back in with my parents. Bills went unpaid. We were uninsured. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

Every day I’d go to my dad’s office and work–I’d tweak my resume and call leads and scour job listings. And then I’d write, because I had nothing else to do.

In the fall, my brother and fellow author, Dan Wells, came to me and told me that if I had something to pitch, he’d pay my way to the World Fantasy convention, and he’d introduce me to agents and editors. There were only two problems with that plan: I didn’t have anything sci-fi or fantasy (which is what editors at the con would be interested in) and the con was only two months away.

So, I wrote Variant. I pounded through the first draft in a little under two weeks, and then spent the next month and a half revising and polishing. I went to the con and pitched very poorly (and unsuccessfully), but Sara Crowe (my agent) picked me up about a week after that.

Variant sold six months later to HarperTeen in a fantastic three-book deal. Later that would turn into a five-book deal. It would lead to amazing successes, awards, and opportunities.

But here’s the thing that just blows my mind: if things had “gone to plan”, then I’d have an MBA job (that I’d probably dislike, because business has always been the backup plan), and I’d still write novels in the evenings and and on weekends. But things didn’t go to plan–I failed to get a job. And there were dozens and dozens of try-and-fail cycles in those months of unemployment.

If things had gone to plan, I’d have never written the book. I’d have never gotten an agent. I’d have never gotten a book deal.

Sometimes it’s great when things don’t go to plan.

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