Making Plans

The eternal question (well, one of them, anyway): how much planning should you do before you begin to write?

Plan of the old railnetwork

Obviously, this depends a lot on a) what kind of writer you are; and b) what kind of thing you are writing.

Some writers can’t start ‘actually writing’ until they’ve exhaustively planned every last detail and diagrammed it all out, with every detail of their characters’ lives already known. (This can result in gratuitous prequels – I am looking at you, George Lucas.) If you dream of index cards and colour-coding, you may be this kind of writer.

Weapons for work

Others just let it all bubble away in their heads until the time is right. Isabel Allende, for example, always starts writing her books on the same day of the year – an approach that would drive me batty. If you take this approach – well, you have a better memory than I do.

Others just leap in there and figure it out as they go. This tends to result in a very… catholic first draft, in which both beginning and end can seem to belong to different works from the middle.

A Year's Work

I’ve just realised that I hate (strong word – perhaps feel very uncomfortable with) not knowing where I’m going – or at least where I’m up to. With no plan, there is little to measure progress against. Which is depressing. Call me a feedback-hound, but without encouragement of some sort my motivation to keep going rapidly dwindles.

On the other hand, if I plan too completely (or concretely) I lose all motivation to write the blessed thing – there is no element of discovery, no reading the tale as it unfolds.

Now, as previously mentioned, this is also affected by what kind of thing you are writing.

Prose, I find can be happily wallowed through until you get to the other end and find out what it’s turned into. Then the rewriting begins.

Scripts – particularly for the screen – need a lot more structure. (Unless you are an avant-garde script-writer, in which case you get to make up your own rules but largely have to pay for them yourself.) There is the oft-mentioned board (ideally pinned, but more often floored), on which is plotted out the course of the story, in varying levels of detail.

Nanowrimo Story Board

Poetry, I suspect, requires a balance of the two. Or it might be that this form is the most dependent on the person writing. I usually just went for it in the beginning, with whatever inspiration came to hand, and then shaped the rest around that, although I don’t know that I’d recommend it as a poetic approach. (Thoughts?)

At the moment, my Works In Progress include mostly scripts (stage and screen) and one novel, which is the WIP I’m actually W’ing on.

I tend to try planning everything out ahead of time with the scripts, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

One of my stage scripts can be redrafted mostly from the first draft (plus new material); the other will want new plans drawn up. It’s like the difference between building an addition and doing a complete rebuild with recycled material from the original structure.

The film script is still very much in the early planning stages – more blueprints than actual building at this point.

With the novel, I have a rough structure in mind – a sketch map, in fact – but I don’t actually know exactly what I’m doing with it, or how long it’s going to take. I am, in fact, making it up as I go along.

Fairy tale map

Entirely new characters show up and demand to be included. Simple places turn out to be complicated little worlds of their own.
It feels like it’s taking forever, but at least when I reach the end everything will be in there. Although I may need to do quite a bit of retrofitting.

But here’s the hard part: I am a structure junkie.

Vladimir Propp did not appear on this blog by happenstance. Three act structure, five act structure, the Hero’s Journey – if there’s a pattern, I want to know about it.

But I think sometimes (all right, often) I use it as a means of procrastination – of abdicating responsibility. The structure will tell me what ought to happen next, and which roles need to be filled, and then I won’t have to work it out the hard way, by actually writing the thing, and finishing it, and then going back and thinking no – that shouldn’t be there, and this should be over here, and why are so many people doing this and no-one doing that?

So there is my struggle. Bit by bit I must bring this thing into existence, and not know til the end (if then) how malformed and lifeless it may be, how much of my work, how many dark mornings and weary evenings, must be cut away and cast off like excess clay from a sculptor’s model.

The pen is mightier than the sword....

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

Drafts and Duty

Not, I hasten to add, the military sort. (“Conscription is slavery, and I don’t think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called.” Robert Heinlein).

Since my present WIP is the first draft of what for want of a better title I am calling Tsifira, the difficulties of the first draft loom large in my mind.
So I thought I’d share with you the wisdom of a few other writers on the gnarliness that is the first draft.

I love this analogy from Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Sandcastle Competition

Sir Terry Pratchett has gems on both the first draft:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
and on where the first draft stands in relation to the redrafting (at least for him):
“First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft.”

The writing/sculpture analogy is one that has been around for a while, but here is one of my favourite versions of it, from Anne Pillsworth: “The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you’ve laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you’ll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.”

Marcus Aurelius Louvre MR561 n02Ducks - 1

Jennifer Egan puts her finger on a leading cause of first-draft writer’s block, one that I struggle greatly with:

“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.”

So what’s the solution? Just sit down and write it. (Just!) Dare to be awful – just get it down. Write it.
Easier to say than do, I know, but the only way to come out the other end is to keep plugging away at it.

And this is where the Duty element comes in. We do it because we must, not because we find this moment, just now, to be enjoyable.
As the good book says, they who go out weeping to sow the seed will return with shouts of joy, bringing the harvest with them. (Psalm 126.6).
Or as Steven Pressfield, somewhat less poetically puts it, “love being miserable”.

But this is not to say that the process will always and necessarily be an unpleasant one. As the Mother Superior in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil puts it: “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” Or as writers call it, flow. (More on that in a later post.)

Side note: who is better at loving the misery: Marines or nuns?

Nun getting arrested at five years of Iraq war protest

Not to suggest that either are masochistic, but when it comes to the All-Time Hacking-The-Nasty Tougher-Than-Thou contest, who’s got the edge? Those who face death (although quite possibly someone else’s), or those who die daily? Who would like to see that contest? Show of hands?

But the final word on Duty, Discipline and Devotion is brought to you by the letter D the late great Pavarotti: “People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.”