Writers can be superstitious folk. They only write on a certain brand of paper, or use a particular pencil. They can’t ‘create’ through a keyboard; they can’t write without music.
My own brand of superstition was this: I can only create a story once. If I spoke the ideas out loud; if I did practice runs; if anybody read the lines before they were finished—all of these things killed my story dead.
I even believed—heaven help me—that if I thought out the story too much in advance, this would impede the creative process. As if the creative process were some mystical communion with my psyche that must remain independent of conscious thought.
After several days of thinking but not too much, and processing ideas but not consciously, I would Sit Down To Write, palms sweating, breath hitching, heart galloping. Look at me—I am creating!
And once I was finished, that was it. The job was done, the story told, the mystic process complete.
It’s a job
Most of us just need a few years in the wilderness followed by the company of other writers to get over ourselves and understand that writing is a job. It has its mystical side but so do lots of other jobs. Mostly it’s about methodology, getting words down on paper, and meeting deadlines. Mostly it’s pretty hard work. Mostly you don’t turn out a perfectly formed story first time round—you write and rewrite and rewrite again.
And that’s before an editor gets anywhere near your story.
My superstitious self told me that writing was like hatching an egg: a period of gestation followed by the delivery of a perfectly formed, polished object. Experience has taught me that writing is like giving birth to a human child: what you deliver is a wailing, pooping baby which might contain the seeds of something wonderful, but will require a whole of rearing and raising before it delivers on its promise.
The sow’s ear
I wrote my first novel as a pantser. As in, I flew by the seat of my pants. I had one Big Central Idea and a few themes to explore. I had a key character in mind, but no real idea of what to do with her in order to deliver my themes. I had no plot, in other words. I was certain that knowing the plot in advance would stifle the creative process.
I began to write. My protagonist wandered around a bit, doing stuff, learning stuff, meeting people. New characters emerged to test her mettle and teach her things. It was all very nice and quite interesting, and some of my themes were, indeed, emerging. I stopped writing at a convenient point and that was me finished; I had written A Novel.
Except there was no real story. No tension, no outcome, no achievement. Just a bunch of stuff happening (known in the industry as BOSH). My heroine had discovered who she was, my themes were mostly delivered, if a bit tortuously, but there was no sense of excitement or a problem overcome.
I rewrote bits of it, creating tension here and there, planting problems in my heroine’s way. I changed this and that. I sliced out scenes, inserted new ones. I scrapped a few characters. My nice characters became a little less nice, my mildly unpleasant ones became rotten.
Over the course of weeks and months, I ripped the story apart every which way to Sunday, and put it back together again. Again and again. You know that expression about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? This felt like making a ball gown out of a sow’s ear.
It took me four months to write my novel. And then it took two years to repeatedly take it apart and do it properly.
Afterwards, I promised myself I’d do it differently next time. No more sow’s ear stuff; I was going for a roll of silk and a Vogue pattern.
The Vogue pattern
Let me just say this. Some people are natural born pantsers. Some people can take that sow’s ear, lay it on the floor, cut it this way and that, add bits, sew on sequins, and put their creation straight out onto the catwalk.
It can be done. But not by me.
I approached my next novel very differently.
I started with the premise that all stories are about a quest. Then I looked at the stages of the hero’s journey (thank you GCSE English Lit syllabus)—in other words, the steps on the way to finding the Holy Grail. They are:
- The ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting the mentor
- Crossing the threshold
- The test
- Approach to the inmost cave
- The ordeal
- The reward
- The road back/resurrection
- Return with the elixir
I used this list as the backbone of my story. I wrote out the list in column A on an Excel spreadsheet. In column B, I wrote a paragraph of plot against each item on the list. In each subsequent column I added more and more detail.
Then I created lists of characters and plotted their entry and exit points onto the spreadsheet. I went on adding flesh to the bones of the story, and after weeks of this, I was finally ready to start writing.
You would think this approach stifled all creativity. You would think that it reduced the process of writing to a kind of paint-by-numbers exercise. That’s certainly what I would have thought.
But the opposite happened.
Freed of the requirement to construct plot as I went along, to remember what had happened so far and make up what comes next—freed from these constraints, I was able to concentrate on what was going on. I could see the story playing before my eyes—I could describe actions and reactions, discover what my characters were really made of, investigate contradictions and nuances I simply wouldn’t have had time or the brainspace to even see if I was worrying about what came next. It was intensely liberating.
Smelling the roses
The end result might well be the same, whichever process you favour. To some degree it’s just a question of whether you put the spadework in at the beginning, or at the end; whether you spend more time planning, or revising.
Is my second novel much better than my first because of my different approach? I’m not certain but I suspect that, technically, it’s better. More robust. There’s more happening. Does it make for a better reader experience? I’m not yet sure but it certainly made for a better writing experience.
It might be exciting to set out on a journey without a map, with no idea of what’s ahead, but you have to keep your wits about you; you can’t stop to smell the roses. With a map in your hand, you get to not only smell the roses, but plant, water, grow, cut and stick them in a vase. You can afford to stop and look at the buildings, the stones of the alleyways, the texture of the waterways.
You can really concentrate on what’s going on.
Of course, the process of writing is different for everyone. Pantsers are generally passionate folk that defend their methodology to the death and give ample proofs as to the success of pantsing. Planners do the same for planning. No one is right or wrong. But as a writer, it’s as well to be aware of your options, and find out which one suits you best.
As for me, there’ll be no more sweating palms, no more writing as performance art. Next time round I might start with a five-act structure, or maybe a three-act structure—there are lots of places to start. Whatever I do, I’ll be working to a plan.