Off-plan~~by Mark Huntley-James

I’m pantser, not a planner. I don’t analyse, I just write. Except when it all goes to pieces in the middle of writing a book and a bit of structure is needed to dig my way out of a hole.

There has been a lot of that lately, with my currently book proving unusually troublesome, and at a time when my plans in general have been upended. Two years ago, set up with both life and writing plans that stretched over two years, I suddenly found myself struggling to write whilst sitting in various hospital waiting rooms. A year later, with diagnosis and treatment plans established, enter COVID.

That’s the trouble with plans – the vagaries of life can upend them in a moment.

All of this came together in my head recently as I had a breakthrough with a shambolic plot where everything was floundering, going nowhere, and completely failed to have any relationship with the overall story. Somewhere in the back of my mind there was a plan of sorts, probably a sentence or two at the most, but never written down. That plan, however, was nothing more than a random collection of minor triumphs for my characters, their own grand plans coming to fruition in an almost linear and distinctly pedestrian progress towards success.

Real life isn’t like that, and all the people I know who talk about the theory of writing tell me that fiction shouldn’t be either.

After weeks of struggle, that mess became a coherent plan in the space of two days (including grumbling on social media and feeding the sheep in the rain). I put that sudden success down to the weeks of effort finally paying off, leading me to a moment of insight, the desperately needed plot-twist to provide the point of failure in the plan.

So, I have a new plan. Not a plot outline, though, because I’m still too much of a pantser for that.

To explain my moment of insight, I need the writing analysis, which I never do, unless I’m desperate. A great many stories seem to follow a very simple structure which I found was particularly noticeable in some episodic tv shows. I happened to do that noticing recently whilst watching some old favourite DVD box sets during lockdown.

It goes like this.

Set up the conflict. Devise a plan which will resolve the conflict so that everyone lives happily until the next episode. Drop in an unforeseen factor that derails the plan completely. Devise a new, more desperate and challenging plan. (Add to taste, optional, extra-desperate plan-C for final twist if desired.) Deliver a nail-biting, skin-of-the-teeth success in the alternate plan. Final credits.

Funnily enough, that’s not unlike real life. The last year has had more than its fair share of sudden phone calls from the hospital “that terribly urgent test you are booked in for tomorrow has now been cancelled due to COVID-19, press one on your keypad now to reschedule.” That might be less dramatic than “your plan to save humanity from the deadly plague from outer space has now been cancelled due to the Zarg invasion, press one on your interdimensional confabulator to connect with the subspace resistance fighters” but it comes down to the same thing: no plan entirely survives contact with real life.

So, now I have it. My plot twist. The unforeseen factor. My original pedestrian plot is no longer a walk in the park. The plan is derailed, the new plan is there to rescue the mess, and now it all feels like fictional real life again.

Maybe I will add a line to the dedication, thanking the hungry sheep who helped my thought processes along.

Oh, and the “new plan” actually fits with the theme of the book, which is completely fortuitous, because I never plan or analyse for that. Not consciously, anyway.

Oh. Not consciously… Now I have a plan for my next article. Not what I was originally planning…

OMP Admin Note:  Mark Huntley-James writes science fiction and fantasy on a small farm in Cornwall, where he lives with his partner and a menagerie of cats, poultry and sheep.

He has two urban fantasy novels out on Kindle – “Hell Of A Deal” ( ) and “The Road To Hell” (  ) – and is working on a third.

He can be found online at his blog, his website (, and occasionally on that new-fangled social media.

Our short story anthologies written by over 100 writers are now available (links below) with all proceeds being donated to the charity organizations our group supports.

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2 thoughts on “Off-plan~~by Mark Huntley-James

  1. I love ‘happy accidents’. They just reinforce my belief that not having a plan is the best way to go.


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