I can plan all sorts of specific aspects in a novel such as characters, locations, and the plot in general, but I struggle to actually write it the way it is in my head. How do I learn to write rather than just think about what I want to write?
It really comes down to two things, and nearly all professional writers recommend both of them: read a lot, and write even more. Just like anything else, you need to practice. Practice, practice, practice.
You need to develop your own unique voice, and the only way to do that is through trial and failure. See what works, see what doesn't, and if you persevere, you'll learn.
The relationship between planning and doing is a bit tricky, isn't it? I used to have a great deal of trouble with this, too. In my case, it was because I planned things that I didn't really know how to write. I would envision scenes in which someone dealt with a difficult, emotional situation that I have never experienced; scenes in which my characters would convey various informational tidbits to the readers (I wasn't quite sure how); or scenes that looked good in my outline but just wouldn't come together. For me, planning a novel was a little too much like making an overly-ambitious to-do-list (the kind that can never be completed because it isn't realistic!).
Of course, as has been noted in the other answers to your question, the solution was to practice. More experience writing was really a double solution: it helped me to execute more of my plans, and also to know how to make plans that are more realistically useful.
Several things helped me get the practice that I needed.
Starting small: When I worked on vignettes and short stories, it helped me to plan something that I could actually execute, because the entire piece centered around a small and manageable event. As I worked on these pieces, I learned about my own writing abilities, and was able to build a more realistic sense of how to plan.
Choosing familiar material (the old adage about writing what you know): I realized that I needed to write the kind of stories that I have read most often. For me, it helped a great deal to take the typical outlines and tropes of folk tales and rework them.
Learning to start over: My writing got a whole lot better when I was forced to take several longer pieces and trim them down to the bone. This practice helped prepare me to cut my work with new ruthlessness. It is hard to abandon a scene that isn't working, especially if it seems vital to your novel outline, but sometimes you just have to do it.
Linking the writing and planning process: for me, it is important to be writing scenes from a story while I plan the overall plot. If I don't, I still lose my feel for reality and plan stuff I can't write.
There are really two distinct challenges to writing:
If you are stuck emotionally, then you may feel as if everything you write is just a waste of time. If this is your challenge, then you simply must change the way you perceive the writing that you do.
Not Writing Is The Only Failure
Instead of considering it a failure to write poorly, begin to consider "not writing" your only failure.
The truth is that no matter how poorly you write, if you do in fact write, then you can begin to learn how to make things better. Of course, if you do not ever write, there will never be a way to evaluate whether or not you write well.
Many writers love language and have read great books and the emotional problem they have is that if they write and it turns out poorly then they have an idea in their mind that they will only have proven to themselves that they are not the actually great writers they dream of being. All day long they dream of sitting and writing but are crippled by this fear of failure. They start and stop continually without ever achieving anything significant in fear of proving to themselves that they are not great writers. This is too bad and is summarized beautifully in a great quote:
No one ever became perfect by doing nothing. ~Anonymous
Much writing advice often concentrates on (and often becomes distracted by) emotional difficulties and unfortunately does not provide very much technical help.
A Great Thought Experiment
Imagine if a publisher contacted you and said,
"I'm writing up a contract that guarantees you $10,000 if you'll simply complete a 250 page novel. I don't care how good you believe it is. All I want is a completed text of 250 pages. Can you please churn it out in 6 weeks?"
I'm betting that you'd at least start in the 5th week and churn out 250 pages of something. Well, why do you need that motivation? Why not write 250 pages just to see how it feels? Why is it that the money would make you feel as if you weren't wasting your time?
For Help, Try This Book There are a number of books over the last 20 years that I've read that have actually helped me become a better writer. I may not be the greatest writer, but I am far better than I was 20 years ago, so it must be something. I must've learned something. One of those books is very old but has some great information that the author stumbled upon about how your brain works with writing. It's Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Am I allowed to add links to books here? I hope so. Amazon link to Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande
That book walks the reader through a lot of the emotional and has you set up Writing Appointments. You determine an exact time each day to write and then you watch yourself to see if you follow through. Basically, she says, if you never show up, your not a writer. Interesting and much more.
Technical Difficulties Now to the technical difficulties. If you are worried about your writing not being good and learning that you are not the Great Writer of Our Time, then you need to work on your technical ability so that you can be a better writer, so that people will actually enjoy your writing.
The first problem however, of getting technical help, is the problem of defining what great writing actually is.
I define it here as: Writing That Works (more in a moment on the inspiration of this phrase) But, what does that mean? That seems very loosely defined. That is why I further define Writing That Works as:
- Writing that is appropriate for the context
- Stimulus / Response Writing
- Smooth transitions
If you were to successfully achieve all of these with your writing, then it would be great writing -- and, of course, great reading.
Some quick notes on each of these.
Clarity If readers cannot tell what you're saying and are forced to re-read your sentences they will not suffer your writing long. Make it clear.
Appropriate If you are writing about the mating habits of the swallow tail butterfly in your novel about a bank robbery you are not writing a novel about a bank robbery. If you show a gun in the first scene, have it go off in the third scene - ala Chekhov's Gun. Show the reader, only what is appropriate for your story. Consider this at every moment as you edit your story and you'll get something done.
Stimulus / Response Writing Learned it from Jack Bickham's book, Scene & Structure (at Amazon). Once I learned this little gem I understood what to write and what not to write. Make things happen. When it happens follow the natural response. Continue on. A story will break out and your readers will be able to follow what is going on.
Smooth Transitions When you write the next thing that the reader is thinking because you've led the reader to think that, then you know you are writing great.
Music I hope you know that the sound that the words make in your readers' heads actually matter. That's why some people can write anything and you want to read it. It's about phrasing and sentence lengths and more. You can learn this stuff.
Style Many authors have such a strong voice you can tell it is them writing even without knowing who wrote a piece. Write like you talk. You can learn style by reading various authors and counting the words in their sentences, examining closely what types of words they use. And then finally learn like the artists of old, by copying what they've written. Try to get your sentences phrased so they sound like their sentences. It's a fun game and you'll learn a lot.
Desert Island Book
Finally, if I were marooned on an desert isle and could only have one writing book it would be the one that teaches all of this: Make Your Words Work, by Gary Provost - Amazon link.
Solve Technical, Resolve Emotional
Finally, as you concentrate on the technical you will find much of the emotional just slides away. Most likely that is because you are distracted by the work and learning but it is also because you'll become a better writer and you'll know it. As Norman Mailer famously said,
Writer's block is only a failure of the ego.
Once you trust yourself you'll probably find the block falls away.
I think you deserve some credit for being able plan and envision your story. When it comes to writing, you can be more of a Plotter, someone who outlines beforehand, or a Pantser, who is someone led by their gut feeling. A Google search yields some hefty results like this article that can give you the down low on how both approaches can help you get the best results.
That said, as far as translating the vision in your head onto paper, the journey of a writing a story begins with the first word. I recommend looking at Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" for some inspiration. Here are some great passages that I look to whenever I face a blank page and can't seem to start:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.
If perfectionism is your enemy, you can consider this passage:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
Remember, it's okay not to get it right the first time:
“But how?" my [writing] students ask. "How do you actually do it?" You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”
In short, you just have to take it word by word. Without the words, there is no novel, regardless of how planned your story is.
For a more pragmatic take on this issue:
Every writer has to have (at least) two contradictory personalities at work, the inner producer, that puts words on page, and the inner editor, that criticizes the work and makes it better. If your inner editor dominates, you'll never write anything, but if you don't have an inner editor, your work won't have any quality control. Planning work avoids your inner editor, because you know it's just for your own benefit, but actual writing wakes your internal editor up, and that can stop some people from ever writing ("writer's block"). So here are some tried and true practical methods for getting around your internal editor.
Write at your "worst" time. I learned this recently (suggested in the excellent book Rest, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang) and it's more than tripled my productivity. The idea is if you are a night owl, get up early and write, and if you are a morning person, stay up late and write. Your internal editor will fall asleep (or not wake up) and you'll produce reams of material in a hazy dreamlike state. If you want additional efficiencies, you can then go over the material again at your "best" time.
Take the pressure off. Tell yourself, it's just a rough draft, no different really from planning. No one else will ever see it, because you'll completely replace it before you move on.
Prime the pump: Start by writing a full page of complete nonsense, no self-censoring allowed. If that doesn't work, see if you can write just five minutes (or one paragraph) of your book, and then stop cold, and resume the next day. Sometimes that first step is the hardest. Once you get going, a lot of writers advise breaking off for the day in mid-thought so you don't have to start from a stopping point the next time.
Participating in National Novel Writing Month (November) helped me with this same problem. No excuses, no edits, no revisions, just write, for 30 days. I had a few friends who participated, and we supported each other in the Writers.SE chat room.
It helped me break out of the idea that I needed to compose in my head so that what I put on paper was the perfect expression of my thoughts. It helped me get over the notion that I always had to know the whole story before I could consider writing it. These were two major road blocks for me prior to two years ago.
I'd like to add to @Elliot's excellent answer by saying that it doesn't really matter what you write, so long as you just keep practicing. If you're reluctant to start writing your "dream project" because you want to do it justice, then work on a different project first. Try improvising a story, without planning anything about who the characters are or how it'll turn out--just start writing and see what happens. Do some other writing exercises or participate in workshops. Commit to NaNoWriMo. Or do what I did: keep a journal and write something in it, anything, every day.
Most importantly, don't get discouraged if you end up writing a lot of garbage--in fact, you should expect to. If you're challenging yourself enough to get better, most of your writing will be way worse than if you'd played it safe--but the stuff that's worth keeping will get much, much better.
At the heart of all art is vision. The artist is an artist because the see something and find a way to express what they have seen so that others can share in the experience. No work of art can succeed without vision. If you have not seen, you cannot show.
It may or may not be necessary or helpful for an artist to make a plan. But a plan is not a vision. You can plan till the cows come home but that will not give you one iota of vision. A plan can serve a vision by introducing discipline into the expression of the vision. But the vision stands outside the plan. The vision is not in the plan.
Fundamentally all stories are about the same thing: what is it like to X. The X's themselves are pretty mundane:
- fall in love
- go to war
- fight a bully
- make a friend
- return home after a long absence
What sets good stories apart is not that they come up with some extraordinary new experience to write about, but they they write about the ordinary experiences that everyone cares about with a particular vision. The more vivid and true the vision, them better the story.
Read the plot summaries of any of the great works of literature (Wikipedia is full of them). You will find nothing remarkable about them. Their greatness does not lie in the plan but in the vision.
Unfortunately, we don't all have an artistic vision. Some people can prattle on happily without one. Others stall at the starting line because no matter how much the have planned, they have no vision. There is nothing that is burning in them to be said to the world. When the vision comes, the words will come. Alas, there is no promise that it will ever come.
If you are using clay to make a sculpture, would you stop after two minutes because the brown heap in front of you doesn't resemble the Rodinesque masterpiece you envisioned?
Most people understand intuitively that making a sculpture involves a period where your work doesn't look anything like the thing you want to end up with. That's just the nature of clay.
Well, that's the nature of words as well. But somehow, most people (myself included), have the idea that words have to be perfect as soon as they hit the page. Maybe school have something to do with it, or maybe the act of writing words down gives us humans the notion that the words are immutable.
Two remedies that work for me (sometimes):
Write fast, without looking back, and without correcting spelling. This is the equivalent of throwing clay at the armature (your outline). You need this to have something to work with. Many writers have a problem leaving spelling errors uncorrected, but editing text that may not make it to the final draft, is a waste of time.
Find other stories that have descriptions of characters or settings that you like, and steal them. This would be the equivalent of taking a dolls head you find inspiring, and put it on top of your heap of clay. It gets you started, and you shape the rest of the body around it. In later revisions, you will probably makes changes to the head and face, to make it fit better with your own sculpture (this is where the doll face metaphor looses its power). At this point, it is no longer plagiarism, since you have made it your own.
Don't get it right, get it written. The mess is part of the process (rhyme intended).
I can plan all sorts of specific aspects in a novel such as characters, locations, and the plot in general,
The short version of the below: Plan the first chapter, plan the first scene, and experiment with the first dialogue: The first interchange between two of your characters. Or really ANY interchange between two characters, you can decide if it is first or needs something before it, after you write it.
I'm an analytical and logical writer (a computer science professor with graduate degrees in mathematics and statistics), or what I like to think of as rationality in service to emotions.
However, I am also a 'pantser,' like Stephen King. So while I do think of my main character cast including my villain or obstacles, and I do keep in mind at least one possible ending, I don't create a detailed plot or feel obligated to stick to my original ending if something better occurs to me.
The way rational seat-of-the-pants writing works is simple. You have some sketch of your characters, and main character, and your story thread. All the stuff you say you can plan.
Rationally, figure out where this story starts. Something triggers the plot, the problem to be solved. Take your cue from other fiction: In Spiderman, we are briefly introduced to Peter Parker before he is bitten by a radioactive spider. We meet his love interest, and witness his social ineptness.
Superman's intro is loving parents sending him to Earth because Krypton will be destroyed. Or it is the Kents finding him in a field.
The Lord of The Rings depicts an idyllic rural beginning for the hero, before the wizard arrives and the problem begins.
Your story needs a beginning, usually to convey some background information. A normal home life for Joe before his wife is killed in a bank robbery (the trigger). Or before Joe and his fishing buddies accidentally hooked the body of a gangster, with about ten million dollars in diamonds chained to his wrist, that five rival gangs have been desperate to find first.
Think about it, without writing. Either find the first scene, or the first KEY scene (the triggering event that begins the plot). You can pre-fill later. Who MUST be in it?
What do they have to say to each other? Can you write even one exchange of words?
In the seat-of-the-pants approach to writing, each next scene grows out of the decisions or events in the current scene. That can be interrupted by changes in the POV, but basically the rule holds: What you had the characters decide and/or experience in this scene, tells you what they must do next.
There is flow, for each character, including the villain. Where does the story end up? Maybe at the original ending, maybe not. It is much like life itself, we have vague ideas of where we want to be in years to come, but where we actually end up depends on the decisions we make each day. If the characters continue to make decisions and don't give up on the problem, they will end up somewhere: Irrevocably defeated (maybe dead), or victorious for now, or perhaps both, undergoing a transformation of who they are, discovering an alternative to winning (eg love, parenthood) that feels more important than their former goal (eg wealth, fame).
The solution to your dilemma is MORE planning, at least planning in greater detail, until you get down to conversations and individual actions taken. Then the craft (detailed in other answers on this forum) will help you convert those conversations from a wall of dialogue to something readable, and to put your scenes together. Don't do the whole book: Just the first key scene that launches the plot. Rationality will tell you what must have come before it, to set that up, and to not introduce characters and their personalities and skills so cold (e.g. if a significant character is a politician recognizable to the public, that should be set up in some other scene before the key scene, with the main character seeing them on television talking about some crime issue or something else tangentially related to your story).
The outcome of a scene should be either a decision, or a feeling or change in the character, that helps you choose the NEXT scene. If not a decision, a strong emotion: We close on Karen crying. (for some reason, crying is usually a sign of recognizing loss, defeat or surrender, it often sets the stage for deciding on a change in one's life; so the next scene can be Karen discovering what that change will be).
This advice is not the same as "just start writing." Continue to plan in enough detail that you come to a conclusion about the most logical place and time for the Plot to begin. Before that point, you need just enough to logically justify the choices made by the characters at that time. In one of my stories, that is about two days in the normal lives of the characters involved in the Key scene.
Make sure your scene has a conclusion! You will know it does not when you do not (as the author) have any candidate (or candidates) for what the NEXT scene might be. Because in the scene your characters are driven to advance toward their goal (or change their course), so what actions occur as a result of their decisions, or what new decisions come about based on the outcome of actions, is what the next scene is about. For that character, or team.
Don't make them stupid and give them decisions the reader will think stupid or implausible. At least I don't, there may be a market for fiction about fools, but I don't care for it. I prefer heroes that win on purpose against villains that do NOT make ANY stupid mistakes to conveniently defeat themselves.