I fail planning. Hard.

You would think this would make me also fail at the end result, but no. I have a perfectly clear idea of what I want, and also a decent idea of what I'm needs to be done in order to get there, so the project I'm working on usually stands a pretty good chance of success. I'm not bad at doing. I'm just really, really, really, fucking atrociously, sometimes dangerously bad at the part where I take the things out of my head and lay them out before me in an orderly fashion, so that I can use it as a guide to the process.

I have had this problem all my life. When I was in school, I hated those assignments where you had to write a paper in graduated stages, all of which were due at different times, and all of which were graded. I used to just write the motherfucking paper and then reverse engineer all the brainstorming webs and outlines and rough drafts I needed for the points. It hurt my shriveled little grammarian soul to introduce errors into my "first draft", but instructors give you the hairy eyeball if you don't have enough to "correct" for the finished piece, so.

I had no way to articulate why at the time, but many years and many failed attempts to use other people's explicit planning techniques later, I think the problem is twofold. One is just that everything in my head is insanely high-context. Everything. Even in fiction, where nothing really exists. I can write a one-sentence description of any given scene on an index card that would allow you to find it, if I gave you the completed story, but it would not suffice to categorize the scene and all of the necessary links well enough to make it a useful bubble in a flow chart of the plot.

Part of that problem is one of the few explicit rules I have when writing fiction, which is that no scene should ever serve just one purpose. I, like the writers for the Phoenix Wright games, am a devout worshipper at the First Universal Church of Chekhov's Gun. That scene at the café might serve as a meet-cute for Aloysious and Brett, but it's not just that. That scene establishes that:

  • Aloysius (A Spy) is involved, right now, in Supar Sekrit Spy Bizniz;
  • This Supar Sekrit Spy Bizniz is taking place around said café;
  • Brett (A Coffee Fiend) is a coffee addict, and a regular at the café;
  • Brett spends a lot of his time in the café, to the point where he notices non-regulars coming in;
  • Brett is also so brain-killingly attractive that Aloysius cannot keep his mind on his Supar Sekrit Spy Bizniz and misses part of it;
  • Aloysius and Brett like flirting;
  • Brett is stonkingly bored with his life;
  • Aloysius is adept at not-quite-lying to attractive people in the interests of doing his job;
  • The thing Aloysius is trying to intercept is small enough to be carried by one person and innocuous enough to be handed over at a café without attracting notice;
  • Aloysius becomes unaccountably nervous at the mention of marmosets.
All of which will be relevant at some point in the narrative, somewhere between half a sentence and three hundred pages from where it first occurs. That bullet point, or worse, is every scene in everything. If I wrote it out, all I would get is a stack of eighty kajillion index cards that started with a lot of COME FROM statements and ended in a morass of GO TOs. This would annoy the ever-living bejeezus out of me. It would mean that no one index card would ever contain all of the information needed to write the scene described on that card without also having to go track down all the other things cross-referenced. They would be nothing but a giant stack of pointers, which is not helpful.

If you're more mathematically-minded -- or currently on the right kinds of drugs -- you'll recognize that this configuration essentially reduces to each card describing the Cartesian coordinates of a point in some solution space where all of these mentioned (plot)lines intersect, with the GO TO and COME FROM links describing the slope of the function segment that gets you to the previous/next point. 

This is so far fine. The issue comes when trying to arrange them in space such that the plot lines, er, line up, unbroken. That is, such that for any given plot line mentioned on the card, you can move one card away and find the card that plot point COMEs FROM in one direction, and the plot point it GOes TO in the other. One-dimensional spaces (i.e., a stack) clearly won't work for this, as you could only order them by position in one line at a time, so usually people use a two-dimensional layout, i.e, a flow chart, or a graph, or just laying cards down on a table. 

Spoiler for those who don't do graph theory for fun: You can't. There is not enough freedom in two-dimensional space to do that for scenes that are hooked together like the above. Something will always end up out of place, or have to hop over a different plot line to find the rest of the graph, or sit dangling free at the end of a thread when it shouldn't be. There is not enough freedom in three-dimensional space to do that. It's like one of those logic puzzles where A can sit next to either B or C but not both, B has to be between two of the women, and D refuses to sit more than two seats away from either A or the person who went to France for the summer, except the only solution to the index card problem is to keep bumping up dimensions until n equals the number of plot threads, and enumerating the necessary arrangement is isomorphic with writing the fucking novel.

Exhortations to simplify will fall on deaf ears. I have no idea how. This is how I handle real life, too. My brain is one big game of Six Degrees Of Whatever Random Thing I Am Looking At Right Now. Everyone does to some extent -- "hooking" things to other things that have already been learned is a big part of how memory works -- but the freaked-out looks I get suggest I do it a lot more than most. It doesn't take over my life, as it can in schizophrenia; I am aware that all of these connections are of the form "X for whatever reason reminds me of Y", and are contextually meaningful only to me, rather than them being observations from the common reality. But I do fear that one of the big reasons genius is synonymous with nutjob in pop culture is that, if you don't have this sort of thing going on yourself, and the genius in question is not good at explaining and/or you're not good at following explanations, the two mental states sound much the same.

The brain starts out, in utero and in early childhood, with a lot more cross-connections than it needs; the ones that aren't needed die off, leaving just the circuits we actually need to learn and remember things effectively enough to survive (evolutionarily speaking). There is a theory to the effect that synaesthesia is a side-effect of the brain being a lazy teenager about its yard work and failing to prune away all the counterfactual sensory connections. Given all the semi-connected shit bouncing around in my head all the time, I can believe it.


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