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?


Sandie Lee said...

Great Blog. I enjoyed your posts :)

Katherine Roberts said...

I think it can be just as much a mistake to overplan.

I tried some fairly strict plotting with my latest offering, hoping this would result in a simpler storyline than my usual messy way of arriving at a plot all tangled up like the Gordian Knot... only to find that I lost sight of my characters and was attempting to force them into doing stuff they really didn't want to do.

Sorting it out is taking just as long - maybe even longer! - than the messy way. There must be a happy medium. Sort of planned, but messy enough to allow the characters some freedom too?

Catherine Johnson said...

I think the best way is the way that works for you! And I hope that's you on the horse Katherine, it looks the most fun, x

Linda Strachan said...

I write pretty much exactly as you described it. If I plan too much I lose the excitement I feel when I discover the story as it builds, but I too have written my way into a few dead ends, thankfully most of them have been short detours. Perhaps you may discover this dead end is really another story and the characters may come into their own another time?

catdownunder said...

Phew! Thankyou. It is such a relief to know that 'real' writers work like this.

Penny Dolan said...

A very true post, Catherine. Thanks. Finding most of my current "planning" is done in minute, often re-trodden steps in some general direction, shaped every now and agin by flashes of plot lighting up in the brain around Essential to have pen & paper beside the bed.

Inspirational to hear about young writers and wonderful teachers such as Aidan, and thanks for a useful book recommendation.

Brian Keaney said...

This is exactly whi I changed from being a make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer to a planner. There is so much less heartache.

Brian Keaney said...

or even 'why'

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh Brian! I love a bit of heartache now and again. But I am secretly jealous of your planning skills....
Catdownunder, I was pleased to know that this is what 'real' writers do too, I was sent off by my first publishers on a week at hay on Wye with Bernice Rubens who told me that 'of cousre you never know what's going to happen? Why would you bother writing it if you did?'
But she was probably just making me feel better, I had two smallish children and hadn't been away from them and blubbed a lot(!)
And Penny, I though The Long Song was brilliant.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I'm with you Catherine... I'm a messy writer! I think if I had to stop and plan too much I'd actually give up writing. It would take away some lovely surprises. In my other life I was a porcelain potter (strange that someone so messy could work in porcelain) When the piece came out of the kiln there were always unplanned mistakes... a fleck of blue cobalt, a flash from another glaze, a thumb dent that re-emerged at high firing because clay has a memory. And there were pots that slumped in the firing and were thrown away... but whatever happened the process was always a revelation and afterwards I could claim any magical happenings as my own! I'm off to buy The Long Song... thank you for that. Just watched the video on Amazon.

Nick Green said...

I used to assume that all novelists must plan. Since getting to know some, I've realised that the majority don't seem to. It's weird! I plan in obsessive detail; I don't write the beginning till I know the end. I used to think this was normal - not just normal but the only possible way. Now I discover I'm weird. How funny.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm with you, Catherine - definitely not a planner. And if I try to plan, the plan just gets abandoned. But maybe having it helps me get going - a bit like being dumped in a strange city with a map, you may not look at it, but you can if you want to.