For what seems like the first time in decades, I have nothing much to do, think about or worry about, or plan for, or worry about not planning for – you know how it goes. No matter how many things you’re juggling, there’s still the worry that you’ve missed something vital that will scupper everything and it will all be your fault. Not familiar with that feeling? You are truly blessed.
Maybe it’s something to do with the weather, which has been unusually consistent, and not consistently grey and wet as it often is here. Day after day of dry, sometimes windy, sometimes a little cloud, but no rain. Not for weeks. The current daily routine consists of exercise, watching sport on the tv – cricket, World Cup football and now Wimbledon – occasionally seeing friends and relatives, and watering the garden evening after warm evening.
I do have the odd commitment, and ‘engagements’ will arrive quite regularly over the next few weeks as I do the usual round of libraries, bookshops and groups talking about the new book, and hopefully selling some. That means getting in the dusty car and driving, meeting people, talking to them, answering questions, signing and selling – all of which I enjoy. Once the routine is established I’m prepared, and it doesn’t take much effort.
Inevitably, people ask about my writing, what am I planning, when the next book will come out, and my answer is now always the same – ‘I’ll think about that after the summer.’ And I will. Maybe when the weather finally breaks, which will probably be just when the kids finish school, I’ll get twitchy and start thinking about the next big project. That could be writing, or it could be something else.
I have a perpetual urge to be doing, creating something, but there are other ways to scratch that itch. I’ll just wait a while and see what turns up.
Every writer has a different approach to planning their work. Some claim not to plan at all: they just have an idea, start with a blank page and ‘Chapter 1’ and go from there. How they do it, and make it work, I have no idea.
The rest of us will need to do more merely thinking ahead. There’s so much to juggle, setting – both time and place, research where necessary and how much of it to use, and – probably the most important – characters and their backstories. Maybe some people can hold all that in their heads or a few scraps of paper, but I can’t.
Of course there are apps and software that you can use, to organise everything and make it easier to access and use. I have tried to use Scrivener, more than once, but having started my writing in the old days using just a Word document for each chapter, that’s the only way that seems to work for me. Although I started writing fiction only a few years ago I’d spent my professional life before that writing documents, papers, and books too using Word and the habit was too deeply ingrained to change.
My first novel was a planning disaster, with failed attempts to develop a complex story without a clear consistent idea of chronology and how the different threads of the story would weave together. It took two years to salvage the chaotic first draft and I never want to go through that again. Then, on a wet Saturday in Winnipeg, I heard an ad. on the radio for a talk at the central library by Andrew Pyper, an author from Toronto. I braved the rain and walked into town from Osborne Village and wondered whether it would be worth it. It was, definitely.
When Pyper talked us through the way he puts the key events, people, twists, conversations, climaxes, scenes on separate sheets and then pins them up on a wall, it was all so obvious. Think of the big boards they have in police investigations, with photos and names and events, arrows, links, questions and ideas, and you’ve got an image of a plan for a novel. It’s a form of simultaneous visual display: you can see links and connections that don’t present themselves from a ‘list’. This may have something to do with the way our minds work: I happen to be a visual thinker, and quite random sometimes, so this form of display will probably work well for me.
This way of working is useful for developing the structure of the novel too. If you’ve got the key points of the story on separate cards you can move them around, arrange them into a time line, into chapters and then into ‘Acts’, either three or five. If you’re not sure what that’s about, Google it and you’ll find endless advice, diagrams, and so on. It’s the way most movies are constructed, and has seeped into the structures of others genres too.
I did warn you I’m a random thinker! So you won’t be surprised that I want to go backwards for a moment, to the very inception of the story, way before you get to the storyboard stage. Something has to spark you off. Pyper calls this the ‘what if’ stage: you read a piece in a newspaper and ask yourself, ‘What if that happened in the last century, not now?’ or ‘What if the key person was young and female not old and male?’ or ‘What if there was a storm and all phone and email communication was lost?’ or ‘What if DNA hadn’t been discovered when the story happened?’ or ‘What if you write this in the first person, not the third person?’
The ‘what if’s’ are endless. I recall that Pyper asked members of the audience to sum up their story in twenty five words and tell us. He then took ‘what if’ questions from the audience, and what a creative five minutes that was. You could see sparks flying all round the room. I asked the inevitable question: ‘Has Pyper ever written all this down, so we could go over it again?’ No, he never had. So all you’ve got is what I’m conveying here, although I’m sure other authors operate in much the same way and have written books about their writing process that I haven’t read.
So, you have an idea, twist it around with ‘what if’s’ to make it more interesting, start thinking about characters – their appearance, clothes, gait, speech, passions and fears, then weave them together and place them in a time and a place, and see what happens.
When you’ve got this far, go to the next stage, the ‘storyboard’ and the structure, and when you start to write, start at the beginning. I know it’s tempting to start on a big scene that’s set somewhere in the middle or right at the end, but you could be wasting an awful lot of time. I know, I did.
Just a caveat about planning too tightly…no matter what you plan on the page, and how detailed may be your vision of an ending, don’t assume that it will all work out exactly as you envisaged. When you get into the detail of your writing things will occur to you for the first time. Your characters may say something that throws the scene into a different direction, and from that all sorts of unanticipated things may happen. My advice is to plan tight for only three or four chapters ahead as you write and leave the future more flexible. If you’ve spent too much time on the long term plot you may want to hang on to it when the best decision would be to change it.
If you’re a teacher, you’ll recognise this dilemma: you have a plan for the week or the semester but learning is less predictable than teaching. For the sake of learning, the plan needs to change, so change it.
‘Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?’ is the question. Being a planner is obvious: the alternative is to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, hence the use of this odd word. (I could elaborate on the origin of this phrase, but not right now.)
If you’re writing non-fiction or for academic reasons, planning the order of your piece is pretty crucial. Can you imagine an instruction manual written like a novel? But when you’re writing fiction as I am now there are more choices to be made. The ‘pantsers’ make various claims for their preferred approach. Once you have strong characters, they say, these characters will take over and influence the direction of the plot. Another ‘pantser’ rationale is that half the fun of reading mystery, thriller or crime fiction lies in not knowing how the story will end, and the writer needs the same. ‘Where’s the fun in writing?’ a well-known crime writer asked me, ‘if you already know how it’s all going to turn out?’
Could it be that different fictional genres encourage different approaches to planning? If the story is principally character-driven, then surely the development of the characters during the story will drive the shape and narrative of the story. But crime fiction is surely different, isn’t it? Unless the author is capable of holding a mass of detail suspended in her head without the need to write it down in advance. The final stages of a crime story are heavily dependent, it seems to me, on the detail. This could be about ‘chronology’ – when exactly did certain events happen, and in what order? Or it could be about forensic detail and its role in the denouement.
Specific things said or done and mentioned, or not mentioned, in the text are what the reader relies on to work out what actually happened. That’s part of the challenge of crime and mystery fiction: it’s a game between writer and reader, dependent on the careful planting of clues which are then spotted and interpreted by the vigilant reader. If that’s the heart of the genre, it’s really hard to envisage how the writer could succeed without planning.
I need to plan. I wrote my first novel without a proper plan and got into a terrible mess as a result. It took two years to disentangle the web of plot, sub-plots, confusions and unnecessary scenes and characters, and once or twice the whole thing nearly ended up in the bin. Never again, and as I turned towards crime fiction the need for planning became more intense. There’s still fun in working out how all the threads will tie together, and how the reader will be keep on turning the pages, but the fun’s now in the planning, not in the actual first draft.
The planning takes time, going back and forth, adjusting, adding detail, making sure the backstory fits together and propels the action forwards. For the structure of the story, that’s the creative stage. When the first draft is started, following the narrative structure established in the plan, then the creativity of language, dialogue and setting are to the fore. For me, it’s the plan that enables me to write quickly and fluently: without the detailed outline I’m constantly stopping and starting, losing the flow.
So, are you a planner or a pantser?
In next week’s post, I’ll try to explain how I actually plan. It’s pretty messy!
How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?
I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.
Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.
In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.
There’s a Woody Allen movie – which one is it? – which opens with the young Woody talking to a psychiatrist. The boy is appalled by the idea that the universe is expanding, which he sees as a sign of impending doom. After the ‘angst’ of the past few months, I think I understand how he feels.
First there was the UK referendum decision, which was a shock. I went to bed before the first results came in, and when I turned on the radio the following morning I just sat in bed and cried. The immediate political implications – Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Michael Gove? – were dire, and the bigger picture – retreat to an offshore island cut off from Europe – was worse. Since then the future looks no better, with years and millions wasted on untangling a 40 year old legal, commercial and cultural framework that needed tweaking not tearing up.
Then there was Trump, and my mounting disgust at the man and everything he represented and stood for.
I longed for him to be not just defeated but annihilated.
Again, I woke the morning after the US election to find my worst fears realised. I sat with my head in my hands for a while, trying not to think seeing and hearing the ghastly man for the coming four years, and grieving the departure of the current President whom I and millions of others admire for his intelligence, rationality, optimism, grace and humour. The contrast could hardly be more extreme and disheartening.
There’s nothing to be done about either of these events and all their nasty consequences, but it’s taking me a while to pull myself around. For days I didn’t want to do anything. The new book seemed like a futile gesture, a waste of time. Future writing projects held no interest. But slowly the energy is returning. My writing is something I can do on my terms, inspired by my ideas and the glorious landscape all around me, which is still there and will continue, unless Mr Trump’s nasty little fingers stray too close to the nuclear button. My tiny contribution to creativity can’t overcome fear and hatred and racism and misogyny, but it might just push back a little, and every little helps.