Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Planning

I feel vaguely human again today - or at least vaguely fish. Certainly animal as opposed to vegetable. And I was going to write about planning...

When it comes to any creative project you can name, there are some of us who plan meticulously so that everything is perfect first time and there are those that rush in and spend the time perfecting things later on. Both methods have their merits and their pitfalls. Sometimes it is necessary to do a little bit of forward planning – if you’re painting on a canvas in oils, you can paint over any mistakes, but with watercolours, slip up bad and you’re in trouble. At other times, it helps to get hands-on as soon as possible. If you have never used clay before, you’re going to have to have a few practice-runs before you get the final piece so you might as well get on and get your fingers dirty.

When P D James talks about the way she writes her detective novels, she explains that she has the whole thing planned out to the last detail before she sits down and writes. She does however, admit that even then things don’t always turn out the way she imagined. Minette Walters on the other hand openly confesses that she never plans anything and three-quarters through a book she’s writing she won’t yet know who did the murder (or whatever). The books of James and Walters are quite different – although they often appear on the same shelf in the library – and I think if you’ve read some of each author, you can probably see how each method lends itself to the sort of story each author writes, at least to some extent.

The point I’m trying to get to is that it strikes me that, when it comes to fiction, planning is an entirely personal thing. For me, I always rush in with stuff, but then there are certain points where I have had to stop and organise myself better with, for example, a timeline of events to help me keep a hold of the order of things. Next time I will probably be much more organised.

There are only a few tips I would give from my experience.
  1. Like the advert says, Just do it. There is an argument that claims procrastination is part of the creative process, and indeed there are many times where anybody else would think you are doing very little when in fact you are making leaps and bounds of invisible progress. However, for every person who has actually written a book – published or not – there are probably a hundred people who have written two pages or have this really good idea that they’re waiting to come together. The creative process – any creative process – is a bit like love. There is a certain amount of magic involved, but you’ve got to do your fair share of work in order to keep the magic going.

  2. Whatever happens you are going to have to edit and re-arrange things a little – probably quite a lot. So don’t worry about getting every word right the first time. It is far more important to believe in the characters and events you are describing. Realistically, a first draft should attempt to be a good story badly told. You can worry about the telling later. At the end of the day, people can forgive lazy, clichéed and uninspired writing if the narrative is compelling enough. Unless you are Laurie Lee or Virginia Woolf you will not get away with beautiful prose slung around a poor or non-existent story.

  3. Be prepared for the long haul. I am very fortunate in that my impairment has adjusted me to the concept of having to pace myself and achieving goals over a long period of time. Clinically, I am described as having poor mental stamina, but in another sense I have a lot. Most popular authors produce one book every year and that’s when they’re healthy people working full-time at it. So whatever your circumstances, it will take time and you need to be prepared to stick it out.

  4. When approaching the next book, I am going to keep a ring-binder containing;
  • A timeline – which I can build up and perhaps revise completely as I go along
  • Character profiles, as and when they arrive. Characters develop and change as you go along. Their names might change. Their back-story might change. Little details like what car they drive might change. It would have been so much easier if I had had this written down and not relied on my memory to keep a hold of it all.
  • Notes about research. You think you can remember it all because it seems so interesting at the time, but you don’t. Also I have discarded information thinking I didn’t need it only to find it crops up again later on.
  • Pictures. Pictures of people, places, interior design, food and anything else I think of. The novel is a bit like a dream; certain things come vividly – like the faces of my main characters. I don’t know anyone who looks like them; they are purely my invention. However, the minor characters are kind of fuzzy, certain rooms of certain buildings are vague and I am just rubbish when it comes to food.
  • Things that make me feel good about myself and my ability to write. Doubt has truly been my worst enemy throughout this exercise. Even now, despite anything I might say, my heart would give fifty-fifty odds on it never getting finished.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi Goldfish, I am glad you are feeling better.

    About planning a novel: in his autobiographies, Dornford Yates claims that he never planned a book (he wrote thrillers and comedies in the 1920s and 30s). He claimed he was always as surprised by how it came out as were his readers.

    On the other hand, F Scott Fitzgerald planned his novels meticulously, practically drawing flowcharts of the action.

    So it takes all sorts...

    marmiteboy said...

    Hi glad you're feeling a bit better.

    I don't think I could ever write a book. I never plan anything I write (which is probably evident frommy blog entries). I have to do a fair bit of writing on technical subjects for my job and it's probably a failing of mine that I never plan. I'm a great one for editing afterwards. I would love to be a planner, it would certainly be beneficial, but I don't think I ever will now.

    I'm sure you'll finish the book by the way.

    R said...

    Glad you're back in the land of the vertebrate, Goldfish.

    I'd offer some soup but I've probably contaminated it with Fresher's Bug germs by now.

    Hope you keep feeling better...

    Anonymous said...

    I have just read that EM Forster claimed he didn't know what really happened in the Marabar caves even *after* he'd finished writing the book.