... we have to accept that many of our ideas of “done” are often the enemy. We think something is “almost done” and is thus a solid thing, immutable, unchangeable. When a change comes it offends our sensibilities of “done.” But, if we think of “done” as a point we navigate towards, tacking here and there, we can embrace change. That late change means it becomes “done better.” By accepting “done” isn’t as solid as we’d like, we can find ways for the actual “final” product to be more what the customer wants.
The point Steve is making in this piece, and especially in the above passage, complements a metaphor I've used often for how working on a book can unfold: the open-ended road trip.
When I was a kid, National Geographic published, across the course of two issues, a greatly condensed version of travel writer Peter Jenkins's story A Walk Across America. The book is invigorating and eye-opening, and reading it at a young age helped me form an idea of my country as being a lot more than the suburbs and the cities. I recommend it.
Jenkins's overall plan was to start on the northeastern seaboard and make a rough V — southwest, then northwest. Everything outside of that was totally open-ended. He didn't know where he'd be stopping, or how long he might stay. He didn't plan to meet specific people, certainly not the woman whom he eventually married. He didn't even have a timetable. But he had a direction and a set of motivations, and he just let those guide him. It took him five years to reach the West Coast, and by that point both he and the country had changed drastically.
My metaphor for writing a story goes something of the same way. You know that you're going to start in a particular place — not just a locale, but a set of conditions for its characters — and you know that you're going to end up in a particular place as well. Sometimes that place isn't so much a plot point ("and they all lived happily ever after") as it is an emotional condition you want to evoke in the reader ("and they all lived happily ever after, but we feel weird about it").
What you don't always know, though, is what steps you're going to take to get there, or in what order you may take them. We don't always know what specific fights are going to erupt between which specific characters, or whether they'll end up freezing in the tundra or baking in the desert. But you don't have to. In some ways it's better not to commit to too many of those details off the bat. Treat them like cards in a deck that can be shuffled and dealt as needed, rather than records in a collection that must be in alphabetical order. (And is that order by artist or by album title?...)
The point I'm trying to link back up with Steve's insight is that you treat the whole thing as an arc, an arrow flight that eventually hits a certain target but has room for plenty of wobble and wind shear along the way. We talk often of giving characters "freedom of speech", where they express themselves naturally on the page and even surprise the author. You could think of this as giving yourself "freedom of social mobility", where you use the plans you have more as a general set of suggestions for Getting To Done than as a dogmatic plan.
As someone else once said, dogma is for dogs.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind