Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Plan B

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 12•12

Jessica P. Morrell ©
Everyone needs a Plan B. Criminals, if they don’t want to get caught, create a Plan B; movie directors formulate a Plan B when they shoot various versions of the same scene or alternate movie endings; and writers need a plan B so that they’re always facing forward, always moving ahead. Now, I’m not referring to tossing aside your writing dreams in favor of spending your free time watching reality television, hiring yourself out as an assassin, or taking up watercolors. I mean that for every project that you’re writing, every publication strategy that you’re brewing, you need a back up, a contingency plan, and a set of strategies as deep as a magician’s trunk.

I know that in my role I’m supposed to exist as a cheerleader for the good times, full of pep talks and bright-eyed optimism and reassurances. So here’s the truth of things: Sometimes, in fact, often what we write will not get published. First novels often languish in a faraway editor’s slush pile or are merely an embarrassing rite of passage, or a draft seen only by your writer’s group who you’ve sworn to silence

Here’s another hard truth: often our grand schemes morph into small successes or our baby steps seem to take forever. If you’re lucky some of your not-so promising jottings will end up on your blog and will be read by your friends and a few faithful fans. Or, perhaps you believe you’re destined for a National Book Award and instead you get published in a community newspaper, an online site, or win an honorable mention in a regional contest.

And yet another harsh fact of the publishing biz, is that outcomes are often not fair and people who deserve to break in or break out, or see their name in print, don’t. This is especially difficult when you’ve paid your proverbial dues and built your skills and your writing is finely honed and imaginative and worthy of an audience. Your situation is made doubly difficult because daily hacks and so-so writers with more ego, chutzpah, or flash than talent sign multi-book contracts while you keep receiving form rejection letters.

The truth of this industry is that sometimes you won’t get lucky and sometimes you don’t deserve to and sometimes you’ll wander too long in the wasteland of the unpublished.

So after you’ve sent out forty-six query letters without a nibble; after no matter what subplot you add or subtract and your story still doesn’t jell; after agents don’t return your letters, editors ignore you, or your writing group squirms when you bring in another version of the novel you’ve been slaving over for five years, perhaps it’s time to make your luck.

Perhaps it’s time for a Plan B.

If you have a Plan B in the ready it proves that you’re adaptable, not afraid of change, and see your career with a clear-eyed and business-like view. If you don’t have a Plan B you are ignoring the reality that sometimes your ideas or manuscripts are not golden, your timing is off, or the marketplace is already jammed with Harry Potter spin-offs.

A Plan B also addresses the inevitability of change that is part of every life and career. The publishing world and the world of media at large are changing fast. Nowadays the buzz is about downloadable movies. Who knows what will be next innovation? If you don’t believe the world is rapidly changing, spend about ten minutes writing down every new invention that has come along in the past 25 years from IPods to air bags to e-books. The point is, what was a great concept two years ago might have already peaked and died and besides your former editor is on maternity leave and the agent you met three years ago now has launched a sock start-up company. (this last scenario is true)

So, when you’ve got a Plan B stashed away like a life raft or a parachute, you don’t place all your hopes into a single outcome or all your energy into promoting a single manuscript. Write your novel or essay or memoir and start marketing it and then as you keep trying to get published, start writing your next project.

Every writer’s Plan B will vary and be based on his or her particular situation. You might start saving every spare dime and attend writer’s conference to wrangle face-to-face meetings with agents. If success has eluded you because your writing isn’t up to snuff, Plan B might include an on-line writing course, a Community Ed writing class, enrolling in grad school, or joining a writer’s group.

Perhaps your Plan B means you’ll take your writing career more seriously. You’ll start logging your hours or word count or you’ll attend every book signing that comes to town so you can ask authors how they broke into print. It might mean you formulate your own version of NaNoWriMo and kick out 50,000 words in a month just because you need to get into the habit of writing constantly. The more detailed and forward thinking your Plan B, the better.

Yes, as writers we are loyal to our craft and we build our skills day after day, word after word, sentence after sentence, but we live in a world of reality. We are supple and always poised for what might come next. A Plan B means you’re constantly investing in your career.

A Plan B can also provide security, excitement and opportunity. A Plan B means you’re always on the hunt of new ideas and inspirations, and that you’re honoring your instincts and your growth as a writer. Perhaps while you adore writing young adult novels, you still haven’t sold a manuscript and you’re developing a yen to write suspense. Or, like Janet Evanovich, you grew weary of writing romances and wanted to launch into suspense with a dash of comedic flair and a cast you know from your Jersey family and neighborhood. Perhaps like Evanovich, your Plan B can rocket you to a huge publishing success.

Or, after a career in journalism or public relations or copy writing or law or insurance, your Plan B is to step into the deep waters of fiction. Like the careers of Colin Harrison, Scott Turow, John Grisham, and P.D. James

A Plan B might mean following your heart and experimenting and going where the stories take you. For example, take prize-winning author Orson Scott Card, famous for his Ender’s Game series, who has penned science fiction, ghost stories, a fantasy series, a historical novel, plays, a musical, scripts for audio games and screenplays. If he had stuck with a single genre, the world would be smaller for it.

The simple fact is that sometimes writing the same type of stories or following the same approaches makes us stale. Or, if you’re an evolving, actualizing person, you develop new interests and fascinations along the way. You travel to Greece and realize how you’d love to write about Greek food or set a story on an island or write about an ancient conqueror. Your children leave home and you dust off long-ago dreams and kick into your Plan B. Or, you tumble overboard while white water rafting and once you stop throwing up river water, a story idea emerges, or a haunting memory is finally honored with the words it deserves. If you give yourself permission to unfold a Plan B, you can follow these new interests or tarnished dreams or track fate where it leads you.

A Plan B might mean a more businesslike approach. You want to write inspirational or how-to books but are not well known, so you start building your platform by teaching classes, establishing a web site, and building a mailing list.

Having a Plan B tucked away assures writers that they’re diverse, nimble and creative. It doesn’t mean you’re unfocused or unfaithful or pessimistic. A Plan B just might enrich what you’re working on now; it might be a delightful excursion into a refreshing direction when you need a breather, a view from the mountain top when you’ve been slogging away in the valley.

You might need to armor your heart to shift into Plan B because the novel you’ve been rewriting for years needs to be set aside. It can take courage to stop writing a series you love, especially when the characters feel as real to you as your children. But if after four, or six, or seven years and you can’t find an agent to champion the stories, it just might be time for Plan B. Things change, things don’t always work out, and writers need resiliency and courage to adapt to these changes. And a Plan B to see them through.

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  1. Dot says:

    Thank you.

    I needed to read this right now and you said it very well.

    “… writers need resiliency and courage to adapt to these changes. And a Plan B to see them through.”

    Thank you.

    • jessicap says:

      Lovely to hear from you and that you’re pursuing creative shenanigans in the world. All my best, Jessica

  2. Olivia says:

    I’m giving the novel I’ve been writing on and off for six years a rest. I’m writing outlines for two other novels now.

    • jessicap says:

      Hang in there…..and keep building your craft, even if it’s only reading and trying to figure out how other writers create stories and sentences.

  3. Javier says:

    I’m fourteen and have wiettrn a 90,000 word novel which I have drafted and rewritten and drafted and rewritten etc. etc. and I finally think I’m ready to maybe do something more with it. I think the story and the words themselves are good enough to get somewhere, as do the (not many) people I’ve allowed to see it. Is it possible for a fourteen year old to get a book published successfully? Would a literary agent be put off by my age?

    • Javier–sorry that I didn’t write sooner. If you’re fourteen your next steps are to receive feedback on your manuscript from really smart readers. Show it to people of all ages and when they’re done reading, ask lots of questions about what they liked and didn’t like, what parts of the story worked and didn’t work.

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