It is possible you’ve heard enough from me about my latest writing endeavour. I picture you sitting there going, ‘stop bloody writing about writing, woman, and get on with WRITING!’ But think what a fool you’ll feel in x-number of years when you’ve spurned these insights into my creative process and I’ve turned out to be the you-know-who of the 2020s. Ha! There you’ll be, sitting there like the editor who sent a standard rejection to Robert Galbraith telling him to join a writers’ group and read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook…
So, if you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that my friend Gill and I have been on a do-it-yourself writers’ retreat (little wave to Gill – she’ll read to the end, even if YOU don’t – thanks Gill!). I stress the ‘do-it-yourself’ because writers’ retreats exist in many different forms: some cost money (writing turns out to be much more expensive than you’d think); some are in exotic locations (too distracting, plus also expensive); some you have to apply for (NO! It’s bad enough getting publisher rejections)… Our retreat involved three days of me and Gill staying at Gill’s house in the very unspringlike Scottish Highlands with no dogs and no people. And I also chose to have no internet.
|bit bleak for me
So for a good amount of time, Gill and I sat in separate rooms in front of our computers. I’ve no idea how much time we actually worked per day. Five hours? Six? Not much more than that. It was enough. Every couple of hours we’d stop and eat or drink or go for walks in the wet and the cold (it’s good though, clears your head so that when you sit down at the computer again anything’s possible). And we talked and talked and talked, about what we were writing and writing in general and the state of the world and our lives and books we loved and … everything.
And when we weren’t talking and walking and eating and sleeping, I made my plan.
It’s a beautiful thing, my plan. It’s the skeleton of the book I’m going to write. I’ve mapped out forty-nine scenes on a spreadsheet. For the first time, I’ve taken into account all the things I’ve been finding out about plotting: I started by thinking of the book in terms of three sections, beginning, middle and end, each with an inciting incident, complications, a crisis, a resolution. I thought about my genre (genres actually) and what the obligatory scenes of these genres were. I thought about the one true thing I want my novel to express and how I would make sure that the story told that truth.
Using this method of rules and structure is an experiment for me. All those things – inciting incidents, obligatory scenes and the like – have always sounded like unnecessarily complex jargon to me. I am sure that the novels I have written or partially written previously have taken them into account even though I did not deliberately set them out before I started, but rather found them in the course of the writing. I felt that considering a story in such a technical way before starting might be more of a barrier than a help. It seemed to me that the natural structure of a story is just that, something that comes naturally.
As well as my scene-by-scene plan, I have created a character spreadsheet with details about each character from what they look like to what their favourite TV programme is. I also started to map out the three books that I plan to follow this one, but by the time I started on that it was the afternoon of day 3 and I’d had enough. That’ll have to wait.
The next stage is to write. I already have 12,000 words, random pieces I’ve written when they popped into my head and I hadn’t yet done my daily 500 words. I have two other books I’m working on, both almost finished, but needing editing. I think I’m going to focus on completing these others, but continue to write the new book when I have the inkling. After all, it’s all planned now, should be a doddle.
While it’ll take some time to discover whether my planning experiment is a success, the retreat experiment gets a big thumbs up. And judging by the way my creativity was flagging by the end of three days, it was the right length too. Unless next time we go somewhere exotic and allow ourselves to get distracted now and then…
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?