Friday, 19 February 2010
The Best Laid Plans Catherine Johnson
Which kind of writer are you are you? Do you sit down and write an outline for each chapter? Do you stick to it religiously, or perhaps you have a kind of route map, with a clear direction that you follow 'til you write THE END
If this is you then I salute you.
Most times I am happy with the way my stories get written, not by some kind of magic, but by trial and error, having an idea of where I want to get to, but finding out plenty of new stuff along the way if needs be.
Sometimes, though, I am jealous of those planners who know exactly where they are going and how long it's going to take.
I know I could never write like that.
I am a mess. My desk is a mess, although I do know where everything is, honest, sort of, mostly. My story begins the same way with a nugget, a little seed of an idea which I roll down a hill gathering stuff. I have a vague idea of where I am heading, and a kind of mission statement which I remind myself of daily, but inside my head is a bit like one of those computer games where you can go absolutely anywhere within the world.
And usually things go just fine. The seed grows up and out, I prune, I train - enough plant metaphors - I play around with it. I THINK I am going in the right direction and I usually am.
However I have just wasted near on six weeks where my story has taken me deeper and deeper down a dead end. I invented a whole raft of characters (facebook friends will have heard of the tongue harvesting professor, he was a kind of early victorian speech therapist with a side interest in electricity, phrenology and of course tongues) but they were all useless.
In the last week I have had to cull them all. My lack of planning has meant I followed my nose far away from the heart of the story into another book entirely.
I think I'm back in the right place now. It feels right. I had to stop and remind myself exactly what the story I am writing is really about. What the first few (lovely, though I say it myself) chapters promised.
I would like to say that from now on I will be more rigorous, but I know it's not true, I can't imagine working any other way.
Two quick things. I have been taking part in a local (Hackney) schools writing competition. I was in a primary school a week ago where every single one of the children were brilliant writers, confident, funny, insightful, sometimes rhyming, lovely, writers. The teacher, (hats off to Aidan) was fantastic, his secret? An hour of free writing every week, where his class writes in any way about anything they like.
Other thing; I just finished Andrea Levy's new book The Long Song, it has made me cry and laugh and think deeply. The characters are wonderfully drawn and it shines a light on an important but neglected part of the history of the British Empire. What more could you want from a book?