Sunday 13 March 2016

Sticking to the plan

Amongst writers of fiction, there are two distinct camps: those who plan a book down to the finest detail before they start (the plotters) and those who start with the first line of page one and fly by the seat of their pants until they see where it takes them (the pantsers).

Of course, not everyone fits into one category or the other, and, of the people I’ve discussed this question with, the majority come down at some point in the middle, although most seem more inclined to the plotter end than the pantser. At the very least, they are likely to have some idea of the beginning and end of the novel they’re working on, even if they are not entirely sure what is going to happen in the middle.

The advantages of intense plotting before you start are obvious: if you have a careful plan, you will never be stuck wondering what to do with your characters next and you shouldn’t end up with a manuscript full of holes and inconsistencies. You can work in all that stuff writing courses and manuals talk about: narrative arc, point of no return, hero’s journey … You can make sure your subplot doesn’t take over and that you never put a gun on the mantelpiece and don’t fire it.

The disadvantages are just as clear: if it’s all mapped out before you put hand to keyboard, isn’t the actual writing going to be tedious writing-by-numbers? Certainly that’s how the arch-pantser sees it. For them, the joy of writing is waiting for the muse to strike, the penny to drop, the lightbulb to appear above their head.

Have you seen those walls covered in post-its that some writers use to work out their plots? Those terrify me. What is on each of those tiny bits of paper? How do you remember if you’ve worked each one into your novel? And the graphs with the lines that build up and plummet and build up again. 

What does that mean? When I started using the trial version of Scrivener, the writing program, it just confused me. I need to make a page (card? panel?) for each character? And for each setting? I suppose it makes sense, but, I thought either it’s all there in my head, or else it’s not but it’ll come out when it’s needed, no need to spend an age working out what some minor character’s mother’s called, not if it’s not important.

The trouble with going for the plotter approach is that plotting is a lot like doing exam revision. You may know that once you do it, you’ll be able to achieve your best work. But there’s always something more exciting to do than revision, and people keep telling you so many different ways of going about your revision that you get confused and then you’re completely turned off the whole thing, and, you know, what the hell, it doesn’t matter that much, you’re clever, you’ll manage perfectly well without bothering.

In my writing to date, I have generally started with a setting and an idea where I’m going, plus a few of the stops along the way, I might even have a couple of pages of planning. But it’s only when I’ve finished that I review how the plot has worked – or how it hasn’t. As I do my first edit, I make a spreadsheet of what happens in each chapter, what the timescale is, the setting, the word count and notes about what needs fixing. I suppose, in essence, it’s what serious plotters do before they start.

With my first book, I worked this way because I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, or whether I’d ever even finish the book. Now that I know a bit more – from talking and reading and thinking about writing as well as quite a few years of practice – I’m beginning to acknowledge that this is an approach that wastes a lot of time. As I write, I’m concentrating too much on where what I’m writing is going and not enough on the fine detail of the scene I’m currently working on. And when I reach the end, I have no easy way to judge whether what I’ve written really works. I rely instead on instinct, which is, I suspect, skewed by the fact that this is my new baby. Putting the manuscript away for a while works, but adds yet more time to the process and means I have to keep coming back to a previous story when my head’s already moved on to the next thing.

Recently I’ve been struggling with an unruly plot that seems to be taking far too many words to get to where I’m headed. I’m on the brink of finishing – I’ve written the end – but I know there’s something wrong with it. I feel unable to stop and take stock until I’m certain that I’ve supplied whatever it is that’s missing. I’m perfectly well aware that some of what I’m writing is going to have to go, but I can’t see a sensible way to pull out of the story without making it harder to sort out.

I’ve also been reading The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and my dog-walk listening of choice is the Story Grid podcast. The Story Grid is a system for planning and editing your writing. It’s intense and precise and requires a lot of work beyond actually putting words on screen, both before you start and once you’ve finished. Gradually all that stuff about points-of-no-return and inciting incidents and rising and releasing of tension is coming into focus for me. It’s not that I didn’t understand those things before; I just thought they’d come naturally as I wrote, the same way spelling and punctuation do.

I was just starting to come round to the idea that serious plotting before I start to write is a good idea. I like to experiment with my writing method. (I may even write by hand one day – but probably not; imagine all the crossing out.) I’ve been asking all the writers I know about their writing methods, and one of them mentioned that she’d spent six weeks at the end of last year doing intense plotting. My first thought was, “Six weeks? That’s way too long. What a waste of writing time.” But then she told me how much quicker writing the actual book was when she’d done the plotting first. And not just quicker, but also more immersive. She started each writing session already deep in her characters’ world and didn’t leave it until she stopped.

That’s the thing that’s sold plotting to me: the idea that you can step so lightly into the world you’ve created.

So, I’m considering working out my next book to a scene-by-scene level before writing a word. I’m planning a series of four so I suppose I’ll have to give due consideration to what happens in the sequels too.

Though I have to admit, I haven’t been able to stop myself from writing a few scenes already...

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Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.

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