Thursday, 1 May 2014


I am surprised how often writing feels more like maths or a game of logic than anything free, creative and expansive.

I say this as one  who avoid all sums if at all possible,though i am not proud of that fact.

  Recently, I have begun wrangling with the Tome again.  
  Note: My use of “Tome” is not a comment on the to-be-book’s quality or importance. Tome is my name for how the heaviness and unwieldiness of the project feels. The Tome lurks there, on my mind’s shelf, weighed so heavily with all the hope, fear, faults, characters and complicated plot-lines that,  if it slipped, it could probably crush me. It did, combined with other factors, certainly halt me in my tracks for a good while.
However, the Tome is now out of hiding, and into the daylight of the real world. All the existing short and tricksy chapters are spread across a pasting table in my workroom, so I can observe the flow of the novel, and see what still needs to be done.

Planners, you are now totally welcome to roll about laughing on the floor, fling your stashes of post-it notes in the air, or aim paper arrows at your detailed wall charts here. Ha. Ha. And Ha.

Although I could write on – and how happy I am now to see how the ending could actually be done! -  this particular plot is at a stage where I need the structure to be very secure indeed. So, as well as dreaming and noting and playing with the ending and all that creative stuff,  I am toiling away, almost at SUMS!    

Or, in other words, I am REVISING. Slowly. Bit by bit. Analysing the details. As well as listening to the sounds of and flow of the words and voices, I am constantly thinking “Does this bit make sense? Of itself, and within the story? Does this bit fit? Or is it a diversion? Does it come too late or too early? Is this bit even needed? ”

Today I have been working on a small “aside” scene. The scene has a double purpose. First, to let readers know that practical preparations for a major scene and plot moment are advancing. Secondly, the scene also increases the menace of the setting, the place where the two young heroes will be soon arriving.

I’d originally written the scene some months ago, and though it read quite well. Then I looked properly, and - "hides head in stupidity and shame" - saw that I needed to re-structure the conversation. All this tiny scene contains are three very minor characters, brought in partly because of the historical context: a scullion, a servant and a cook. They are shown gossiping around the fire, caught between the attraction of their master’s suspicious activities and the need to keep quiet about what’s going on.
Yet, when I truly studied the scene, the “sum” did not really work out. The logic I had presented was all over the place.  The dialogue flowed between the three, but it was too much like real life chat and I don’t mean those “er” or “um” or “like” utterances, or similar.   

In ordinary conversations – in my experience – people often suggest one fairly random viewpoint, meander to another angle, suggest another and so on until eventually the conversation shifts on to something more practical like Do you want a chocolate biscuit with that?” or Are we nearly there yet?”

However, in the much tighter conversation of fiction, each character’s words represent a point of view and a step in the story.  
Which “argument” won at the end, status-wise if not morally? 
Which character was dominant within the interactions, even if not by the number of their interactions?  

 In other words, by the end of even a small scene, the reader needs to know the “sum” of the talk and where the writer is taking them, and this is especially important for the young reader.

So I re-thought and re-allocated the lines, and on the way, developed the small character relationships. The scullion is the troublemaker, the fool that won't stop asking why.

The servant is the one easily lured into speculation and unwise suggestions. 

What about the cook, sitting in his chair? In the new version of the scene, he is no longer the main, expansive conversationalist. 

Now he sits almost silently, murmuring an occasional  brief response. Then, at the end, he dominates the scene:  
The cook suddenly leaned forward, his smile spread with menace.
“Which means that my advice is that we all keep our noses out of it, right?  I’m telling you now that the Master don’t act kindly-like when he’s been crossed, and the river’s often tricky round here. Understand?”
The servants nodded, eyes full of  fear.
The cook eased himself back into his chair, folded both arms over his wide stomach and dozed.
They tried not to notice what was going on, they really did.

I’m happier. I feel as if there is - now - an inner logic behind the total run of lines. The “story maths” are working perfectly. For the moment, I’m giving this scene a mental tick and moving on to revise another. Or do I mean check my next calculation?

As Oliver Postgate once wrote:

“Writing a story is not simply a matter of writing lines of words, but calls on the writer to assemble sentences in such a way that the reader receives them in the right order for stacking in the mind.”

Even so, whether you’re thinking “writing” or “sums” when you are revising, getting those small details right can be very slow work indeed. Good luck.

Especially in a Tome . . .

Penny Dolan.


Nick Green said...

This post supports my theory that there's no real difference between so-called 'planners' and 'pantsters'. The only difference is that sometimes they do certain parts of the process in a different order!

Penny Dolan said...

Well said, Nick! Maybe pantser writers just do the "sums" once they've got the words there?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Loved this post because I'm a pantster. Yes we do have to do all that stuff eventually just as Nick says... but somehow being a pantster seems more exciting. It's like looking for treasure with a bit of the map missing. And because you're solving problems as you go along you almost take on the role of the characters. You're right Penny ... it involves a lot of sums but frankly I'd rather have some sum work distributed through some nice creative processes and not all at the beginning. even if it takes longer when the sums don't add up. At a winter ABBA week-end someone demonstrated an App to plan your book. It gave me such a headache I had to walk out! It was like advanced Algebra. Thanks Penny for the great post!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Lovely to read that the tome is on its way! I think of the stage you're at as untangling the knots. Good luck!

Carole Anne Carr said...

Well done. And yes, the process of fitting it all together is decidedly a mathematical problem!

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post, Penny. I'm definitely a panster. Like Dianne, I prefer doing the sums while I go along because it's somehow easier than doing them all at the beginning!

Nick Green said...

"I prefer doing the sums while I go along because it's somehow easier than doing them all at the beginning!"

This makes me smile, Savita. I think a lot of pantsters are under the impression that planners are all Field Marshall Montgomerys with wall charts and diagrams and spreadsheets. Just for the record, we don't do all the sums at the beginning. All I do (I can only speak for myself) is get the key events of the story established before I begin. Enough to write a one-page synopsis, in other words.

There's still just as much discovery on the way, as much detail and drama to be worked out in the course of the story unfolding, and yes, the ending (or any other part) can and does often change. I just refuse to drive in the dark without headlights or map. But I suspect that most pantsters would say that that's not how they work either.

I think we're all closer in method than we realise. We just have different definitions of 'plan'.

Joan Lennon said...

It's a strange job, this writing lark, however you look at it! Excellent post, Penny!

Penny Dolan said...

Having been involved with all the last moment admin for a local library quiz most of today, it will be a pleasure to return to both sums and pantsing tomorrow. Thanks for all your comments.

Becca McCallum said...

Really interesting post, and the 'tome' sounds fascinating. I like seeing how other people go about the process of writing, and comparing it with my own, which is mostly to scribble down an idea, decide what events need to happen to make that idea a reality, and then blunder around writing scenes until I actually figure out what is going on...