Monthly Themes as Planning Tools for Writing

This month, instead of my usual haphazard blog writing, I’ve been doing the A to Z blogging challenge. It’s an entire month of 26 blog posts in alphabetical order, organized around some central theme. What’s different about my blogging for this is in the subject I chose: woodworking tools. All of these posts are non-fiction and have nothing whatsoever to do with writing, editing, publishing or the writing life.

My blog is a “writing blog”, which means it’s supposed to be topically focused on that. However, I deliberately chose something outside the normal scope because I needed a break from the usual; frankly, I’ve been wondering if my readers needed a break from my usual, too. I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations around my writing so much that I feared I was doing little more than whining and replowing the same ground.

From a planning standpoint, it was nice this month to have a solid structure within which to select topics and theme-related objects for each day’s post. It helps to stave off the dreaded “What shall I blog about today?” question. Does this mean that I’ve abrogated the responsibility for creativity in selection of subjects for my blog posts? Not at all. I view this as akin to using a writing prompt as the basis for a short story. Thus far, I think I’ve written more (and better) blog posts than I have in a long time.

Another effect of this A to Z Challenge is that the arrangement of letters in the month caused the letters E, K, Q and W to fall on Fridays. Since I’ve been writing and posting a new flash fiction story every Friday for several years, I saw this as another layer of writing prompt to work within. After picking the woodworking tools for each letter in the alphabet, I worked up a series of related story plots using the E, K, Q and W items. The first three stories – “Exotic Wood”, “On Bended Knee”, and “Quickly, Staunch the Wound”– were based on “E is for Exotic wood”, “K is for Kneepads” and “Q is for Quick-set epoxy.” (As of this writing, the final part of the story – i.e. the W-associated item – has yet to be revealed.)

In general, I don’t plan out extended story arcs for Friday Flash pieces. I want each piece to stand alone, so I rarely make serials out of them. This sometimes means that my stories whipsaw around in style, tone and genre from week to week. That’s probably poor planning for building an audience other than the “Surprise me again, Tony” type of audience. As with the non-fiction posts about the woodworking tools, I think these stories are among the better ones I’ve produced in recent months. I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted that for stories that had to feature a specific item like kneepads or quick-set epoxy. Nevertheless, there it is.

What has this month of thoroughly planned blogging taught me?

First, nonfiction can be as much fun to write as fiction. Second, nonfiction can be as engaging and entertaining as fiction. Third, structure and planning are foundations for productivity, but commitment and prioritization are what make good intentions turn into words on the screen.

I planned out this month of blog posts as completely as I ever planned out any of the novels I never finished. The difference? The planning I did for those novels was so complete that I lost any interest in writing out the novels themselves – I already knew what happened. For these posts, I knew what tool I was going to write about for any given letter, but I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say until I started talking.

Maybe that’s the big takeaway lesson here. Instead of looking at a thoroughly outlined book and feeling like I’ve already created the world for myself, I need to imagine a listener sitting across the table from me to whom I’m telling a story. What part of planning does that fall under? Self-hypnosis? Psychology? Autodidacticism?

I’ll say this: planning your work and your writing structure is tricky, especially when you’re trying to trick your own brain into giving up its secrets in an entertaining way.