The Power of a Plan

Last week, I wrote about setting goals for your writing and mentioned a famous quote from Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

A man, a plan, a canal—Panama. This is much more than my daughter’s favorite palindrome. It’s a blueprint for success.

When Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of building a canal through Panama, he didn’t just pick up a shovel and start digging a ditch. He seized an opportunity and made a plan. French efforts to build the canal had failed miserably. After years of digging, the French had spent nearly $300 billion on the canal. 20,000 French lives had been lost in the work. After all of this, the French had only 11 miles of canal to show for their effort. When the French abandoned the canal effort in 1888, Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of building a canal across Panama.

In 1902, after becoming President of the United States, Roosevelt negotiated the purchase of the canal property from France. He then came up with a plan. Roosevelt first studied the reasons the French effort to build a canal had failed. He then used what he had learned to create a workable plan which included addressing the previous obstacles to building a canal across Panama. He negotiated a treaty with the country of Panama and obtained their permission to build the canal, as well as their cooperation. He enlisted the financial backing of some of America’s richest and most powerful citizens, including J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt then organized a building effort and hired qualified people to oversee various aspects of the construction. He hired Chief Engineer John Stevens, who designed a plan to clean up the canal zone. He hired Dr. William Gorgas to oversee sanitation, including the eradication of disease-carrying mosquitos. He provided workers with comfortable housing and good food. He later hired Stevens’s successor, Thomas Goethals, who carried on an organized and persistent building effort.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” –Yogi Berra

In 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, forever revolutionizing international travel and trade. But Roosevelt laid a lot of groundwork before he started work on the canal. He visualized where he wanted to be, then he figured out how to get there.

Coming up with a plan is the first step to building your dream writing life. Where do you want to end up? Visualize your desired end result and work backward, writing down a list of steps to help you reach your goal. Then, pick something from your list you can do right now. Today. Do you want to write your first novel? Write down what they call in the movie industry a logline or tagline: In one or two sentences, what is your novel going to be about? Or start an outline–a map within a map! Are you writing a historical novel or a novel that will require some research? Spend an hour doing some preliminary research that will make beginning the writing of your novel easier. Do you want to get a short story published? Research ten “markets” (literary journals or magazines) where your story would be a good fit. Are you struggling with writing consistently? Set up a dedicated writing space and a writing schedule—will you write three pages each morning? or write for an hour each evening? Whatever it is, start building the habit of consistency.

Do your homework, decide what it will take to achieve your dream, and then map out a plan that will lead you to your ultimate destination. If you follow your map, you can’t help but reach your destination.

WRITER TIP: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Goals can seem overwhelming when you only look at the big picture. “I want to publish a bestselling novel” is a daunting goal. But when you break it down into its tiny parts, you can get there, one step at a time. As novelist E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

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