Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Plan B from Inner Space

Like the wheels of Soviet industry, I always work to a plan. Some book plans are more detailed than others, but without them, I don't think I would get very far. The difficulty is knowing when to stop planning and start drafting.

Plans appear less difficult and often less troublesome than producing prose - you can fill a screen with story notes in a fraction of the time it takes to write a page of finished text. For that reason, it is tempting to skimp, and get on with the "real" work of writing. This is a mistake, at least for me. In my experience, the writing you do in your head, the ideas that fuel the drafting process, are pretty much the make-or-break. An effective story, poorly written, can always be re-written (although that doesn't mean it will be, heaven knows). A bad story well written is still a bad story, and will probably remain so, no matter how you primp and polish it.

It's a pity nobody teaches the dark art of outlining. It’s much trickier than it looks. As you develop your premise, a huge number of narrative possibilities present themselves. You want to give each of them due consideration. You want to be sure that you are developing the story in the most interesting and original way. But spend too long pondering and the whole enterprise can lose its freshness. You need a degree of uncertainty, the possibility of discovery (even revelation if you're really ambitious) for the business of writing to be enjoyable. Because, ironically, it is in the act of writing that originality most often arises, when you are familiar with the particular world of your particular story, and can see its possibilities most clearly. Nail down too precisely what is going to happen ahead of times and the you can find yourself navigating through an imaginative desert, where nothing very spontaneous occurs.

Fortunately right now I am at a stage in the cycle - well, two cycles, actually - where no hard planning is required. The main book I’m working on is at the research stage. This means that I have a rough plan (most detailed on the set-up and main characters), a setting and some notes suggesting narrative possibilities. As well as factual background, I am hoping the research will turn up some little gems of knowledge that will help me refine the plan. (For ‘gem’ read anything truly surprising, arresting or downright shocking. When researching, I’m part scholar and part tabloid hack.)


Katy said...

Very true Philip, and most interesting, thank you. I agree completely that allowing time for those ideas to develop in the head is absolutely essential and not to be rushed.

(Having said that, I do wish sometimes that I could download the ideas straight from brain to page without the tricky capturing-the-words-and-writing-them-down bit in the middle...)

Philip Sington said...

Like architectural vision to finished building, without the need for blueprints or, for that matter, builders. What would the planning officers (a.k.a. publishers) do then?