Sunday, 18 May 2014

That 'not planning' thing, and how it works for me - Linda Strachan

I've been thinking a lot recently about how I write, and reading some of the many blogs and books about how other people write. I find it fascinating to see how many different ways there are to get those ideas from inside our heads onto the page.

Some writers who plan their books seem to make detailed outlines, lists, high points and subplots, working out where problems might appear and try to resolve them, even before they write a word.  I have tried this approach but each time I try it I find that I seem to get bogged down and quite frankly bored with the idea, however enthusiastic I was about it before I began.

I recently started my own personal challenge to write 2000 words a day, usually first thing in the morning before 9.30am, and when I read Miriam Halahmy's post a few days ago on her editing process I was interested in a book she mentioned by Rachel Aaron.  In Rachel's book she mentions that she is a planner and talks about her process for writing more words in a day (2,000 to 10,000). Her planning is incredibly detailed and I can see logically how this would enable you to write a lot more and quickly because you always know what you re going to be writing about. It is a detailed road map. It obviously works, not just for Rachel but also a number of writers I know who do plot their books in great detail before they start.

But not only is this the complete opposite to the way I work, it sounds like something that would (for me) take all the pleasure out of writing.  I get such a buzz out of a new idea, even if I have no idea where it is going.  
I might have an image in my mind, that I have seen or imagined, and something about it will have triggered my interest and sparked an idea.  

Is it a log or a creature from the swamp?
It could be an animal or a person in a particular situation that sets my imagination off.
I often have no idea where the story will go, or what exactly it is and I need to start writing to find out.   Something about sitting at the keyboard, or putting pen to paper seems to bring the story out so that I can examine it and see what shape it is going to take.

Usually once I get the first idea down and I begin to explore it, I find that I need to know more about the main character. At that point I will often write in the character's voice letting them have a bit of a rant, which may or may not end up in the story. But crucially it lets me understand what is important to them and what problem or several problems the character is facing.  

Now and then I will start to write something and it does not become a complete story, so I save it and leave it to one side if that happens, because nothing is ever wasted.  

Wandering in the forest of imagination
The story I am writing at the moment includes two of these short pieces that I wrote at different times, years apart. 
I'd been juggling several ideas in my head that were gradually coming together and as I started to write they coalesced into an idea for a novel. When I started writing it I realised that something I had written long ago was exactly what I wanted to begin a strand of the story, quite separate from the main storyline.  It was soon after that I remembered the other completely unrelated piece, and it too feels right as another element that will build on the first ideas I had. 

I am having a huge amount of fun writing this, that is not to say there aren't times I am fighting with the story, trying to wrestle it into place.  I have a vague idea of where it is going to end up and what is going to happen close to the end of the book, but no more than that.

Recently, in view of trying to write more each and every day, and after reading about all those plotters and planners out there, I tried to plot out the story and lost two days struggling to get my head around laying out the whole story.  In the end I gave up, I am fairly sure my brain is not wired that way, because I could not dig out a single idea beyond what I had already written.

I went back to one of the story strands where I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next and started writing.  The following day I went to another part of the story and continued that bit.  I discovered one thing. If I wasn't interested enough in writing what happened next then the chances were it was not right and would not be interesting for anyone else, so it needed to be cut or rewritten.  

I have decided that planning and plotting are fine, if that is how it works for you, but it is not for me. It drains all the joy out of writing and while the way I write may not seem the most logical way to do it, for some reason it works and best of all I can't wait to get back to it.

I don't think I am the only person who doesn't like plotting but I would be interested to hear about your method of getting the words on the page. 

Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords


catdownunder said...

I just write (which is probably all too obvious to anyone who reads my blog). Things just happen. The characters tend to take control and I have a horrible time hauling them back into line.
Sometimes something will happen at the beginning and I have absolutely no idea why it is there. I might try to cut it out and then I will get to the end and realise that there was a reason for it.
I suppose it means that, subconsciously, I do have some idea about what I want to say but it doesn't come consciously to the surface until I have written it.
Those people who consciously plot and plan in detail are to be admired - but I do wonder if writing anything is quite so exciting for them. Do they ever suddenly realise half way through that something different is going to happen? (I'd really like an answer to that.)

Stroppy Author said...

I've tried plotting and planning, usually after things have gone wrong, but it doesn't work for me either, Linda. If I do have a plan it just feels like writing-by-numbers and I get bored. I probably waste more time ending up in dead ends than plotters spend plotting but, like you, I feel plotting just doeesn't work for me.

Penny Dolan said...

It's a real dilemma, Linda, and I do like the way you describe the process. Planning always sounds so much more sensible than letting the story write itself. Besides, as a habitual pantser, I must mention the huge relief I felt when I suddenly "saw" an essential final scene for a central character.

John Dougherty said...

I'm absolutely with you, Linda. I've taken this to extremes with my new series, where - as I think I've blogged here before - my rule is that if an idea pops into my head as I'm writing, it goes into the story (first draft, at least).

The thing is, the publisher keeps asking for synopses before commissioning the next one!

Linda Strachan said...

Cat I do think those who plan leave room for things to surprise them, at least that is what they have said when I asked!

Glad to hear it is not just me who gets bored, Stroppy!

I agree Penny it is not always easy and there are times when I have been worried that I would never find the right ending. When I wrote Don't Judge Me I had no idea who had done it - until I got almost to the end. The characters kept on surprising me and there was one point when it could have been any one of at least three of them. So I was pleased when it resolved itself and finally seemed obvious to me who had done it. Perhaps that is why I have often had people say to me that they had not been able to guess who had done it, possibly because I had not even subconsciously left any clues, as I didn't know myself.

John that is what I love about it. I write something and then reading it back I realise that what I had thought was a casual comment, or statement turns out to lead to a new direction or plot idea. It is like a journey of discovery.
Yes it is a problem when a publisher needs a synopsis and you feel like saying trust me, I know what I am doing, it will work I just don't quite know how, yet!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I do more planning now than I used to, especially character studies, a bit on crises and the climax but I quite agree that planning on the whole just seems to prevent me from writing. I prefer to get started and if I get stuck for a bit then I go back to some of my planning tools.

Emma Barnes said...

I plan, but then I change it all as I go on, which often seems the worst of both worlds. Although "Wolfie" I didn't plan at all - and yet I feel the story works really well.

I think it's important for children to realise that writers go about writing in different ways. In school, they are encouraged to plan in a very prescriptive way, and it often comes as a (pleasant) surprise to learn there are different approaches.

Nicola Morgan said...

Yes to all that - and doesn't your heart shiver a little bit when a teacher asks, with admirable intention, "Could you tell us a little bit about how you plan?" The truth is what you've described but I always feel I've somehow killed a fairy when I say it! (Even though I haven't. Really. Well, except unplanned...)

Becca McCallum said...

Thanks, Linda - it's interesting and really helpful to find out how other people write.

I tend to have characters, and an idea first of all, and then let it go from there. Sometimes I roughly plan out what is going to happen, and then just try and get it all down on paper. Sometimes I just have to write to actually find out what is going on!

However, I only write for my own enjoyment (sometimes it doesn't feel like that!) so I have no troublesome deadlines or anyone waiting for a finished manuscript.

Linda Strachan said...

Hi Miriam. I do my character rants (less of a character study, more that they grumble at me!) when I feel I might not know them well enough, and I do take notes on the chapters as I write them otherwise I get irritated going back to try and find things, but that's about as far as it goes.

Emma I have found I come at each book slightly differently and write it as it demands. Wolfie is great and shows that it didn't suffer for lack of planning!

Linda Strachan said...

Nicola, absolutely no fairies were harmed in the writing of this blog, or comments! But I agree it makes my heart sink when teachers ask about planning. My fear is that they will take it too far and insist that their students plan every bit of life out of their stories, just in case they might not work out. I always stress that this is what I do in the first draft, to encourage them to see it as a possibility to be more flexible.

Linda Strachan said...

Becca I think you should always try to write for the sheer joy of it and I love it when the story comes out of the blue as I write, as if it was just waiting there to be discovered.
Sometimes when there are deadlines or editors waiting for a book it is easy to get wound up with the pressure other people put on you you, or the need to earn from your writing. But most writers write because they cannot stop and sometimes a deadline is a good thing. It makes you get that first draft written and stops you finding excuses to avoid it when things get tough.

Nick Green said...

I don't plan... my stories plan themselves.

I honestly can't understand how any writer can not plan. That's not me being atrociously prescriptive and saying, You must plan!! That is me confessing that I can't get my head around the sheer concept of writing a story without knowing what the story is about.

For me it's like saying, 'Don't think of an elephant.' (Yes, we've all heard that one). You have to think of the elephant. And if I've got a story in my head, then my thoughts will automatically run on, uncontrollably, until they reach some kind of end. I CAN'T STOP THEM.

It's worth noting that the ending that I actually write may be very different from the original one that I 'planned' (more like 'involuntarily spewed out'). But an incomplete story simply won't rest in my head. It has to conclude itself, or self-annihilate.

And as for catdownunder's question: no, I don't find that knowing what is going to happen damages my enjoyment at all. Because I still get lots of surprises in HOW it happens.

Linda Strachan said...

Interesting to hear how it works for you, Nick. My stories roll out a bit like meeting someone new and gradually getting to know them, then discovering we have friends in common but one of those friends is in desperate trouble and needs our help, but they have a weird great aunt who was an explorer and may have the key to solving their problem but in the end creates a new crisis...
You can never know all about someone until you get to know them better and my books seem to evolve.
It is not until I start to delve into the first idea that another seems to present itself and often that suggests more, and off it goes in directions I would never have expected.

The wonderful thing is that there is no right or wrong way, just what works!

Splotches said...

I really enjoyed your blog post on the different ways we all plan :)

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Splotches.