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I can plan all sorts of specific events ins a novel, the general plot, characters, etc...

but can't actually put it onto paper the way it is in my head. How do I learn to write rather than just think about what I would write?

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Question: when you say "the way it is in my head", what do you mean? It seems to me that you're not certain how the story formulates in your mind. Are you a very visual thinker? Do you see the story as a series of images? Writing from a visual perspective isn't always easy, but it can be done. In order for the story on paper to match the story in your mind, you need to analyze the way you think about storytelling. It's possible that prose isn't the best medium for you, also. –  lea Jul 24 at 6:54
@lea I think of it on a very small and detailed scale. Individual characters and their lives, interactions, and role. It's not heavily visual. Sometime I do think about how a scene would unfold visually, from a thrid-person perspective. –  user10166 Jul 25 at 2:43

3 Answers 3

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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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.

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