Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Knowledge Adds, Wisdom Lets Slide

By Jay Stringer

Nothing goes to plan. Ever. Not one thing.

Okay, maybe that one time with that safety deposit box and……Ignore that.

I know a lot of writers plan things out, to varying degrees. Some have detailed maps of where they’re going, flowcharts and diagrams, walls and desks cluttered with post-it notes. So far, and please let there be time to change and improve, that’s just not me.

Nothing goes to plan.

Example one; This blog. To take you behind the scenes of how we plan these things –on the rare occasions that planning applies to what I do here- Russel and myself had many chats about how to make a DSD presence for Tony Black. Plan A involved an interview, to be done in advance, which I didn’t do. Plan B involved a podcast interview. And, dutifully, the night before we both attended Tony’s book launch, I laid out my laptop back next to my recording equipment to take with me the following day. And I did remember to take the bag. Just not the stuff that was meant to be in it. Russel saved the day, as his Friday report of the launch more than covered the fact that, frankly, to work with me is often to work on your own. My brain has other things to do, like catch dinosaurs, and build rocket ships.

I’m thinking of this because a friend recently asked me for a few bits of writing advice. And as I tried to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about, I realised I'm the last person to ask.

I’m currently at work on the second draft of my second book. Now the first, as I’ve said before, was sorta written by accident. I had a vague idea, one that would be told in first person by a bartender and really didn’t have the legs to go past the first plot twist, and I sat down to write a short story. And I wrote. And I wrote. And sometime later, climbing out of the cave and wiping the hair and cobwebs from my eyes, I had a 75,000 word short story.

And boy was it a mess.

I showed it to a few people, who’s opinions I have come to trust. And they said, “Boy, this is a mess.” But I’d done it, and I was proud of it so I worked on. I drafted and hacked and sliced. I took in advice and criticism. I started to feel like I knew what the book was going to be. I made the mistake of having a plan. Then somewhere between the first and second draft, I realised that the central character had nothing to do with the story, and that the most interesting guy was someone else in the bar that night. So the first person narrative got a brain transplant. Then somewhere between drafts two and three, I realised that all the stuff that I really wanted to write, the stuff I was finding interesting, was happening ‘off screen’ to other people, so I abandoned the main plot for a different one. And then a few other characters turned up somewhere along the way, and a few other vanished, and hey presto I had a book that seemed to move at a decent speed, be about things that interested me, and have characters I wanted to return to.

So to write a book i had to firstly accidentally write a different book, with different characters and a different plot.

Starting the second (or should that be third?) book, I decided I needed a plan. I would learn from the process of the first one. First and foremost, i would actually intend to write a book. That one small step seemed to make so many things make more sense. I decided I needed to know where the story was going, and who was in it. But then, well…..nothing ever goes to plan. The first draft was difficult for those around me. Endless questions, agonising, and general attempts at making myself out to be the last of the great moody artists. And then, in a fraction of the time if the first one, a first draft was born.

Super Agent read it, gave me plenty of notes and ideas to work with, and I set about the second draft. And, having all the experiences of the first book, and a pretty concise first draft of the second, I thought the process would involve less dramatic changes this time round. But I’m knee deep into it, and characters keep telling me I’ve got them wrong, and other motivations keep cropping up that change the meaning of scenes, and some of my favourite bits of writing have already bitten the dust.

Thing is, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. I’m so used to flying by the seat of my pants that I’ve learned to trust it. I think my instincts are better than my plans, and by feelings are better than my ambitions. Watching me write is like watching me cook; there’s a lot of chopping and mess, there’s very little in the way of recipe, and there’s a lot of strange smells. But some of what comes out is tasty. I’m not sure I have it in me to go the more controlled route; I wouldn’t know what to do with a flowchart or a recipe.

How about you, are you a planner or a chancer?

BONUS COMPETITION!!! just for a bit of fun. First person to identify where the title of today's blog comes from will get a mix cd. It'll be made by be, so don't get too excited.


Steve Weddle said...

Hey, will there be any Paul Westerberg on the CD? I like him.

And yeah. Surest way to fall down the hole is to plan to do something else.

I find it better to "lightly plan" what's going to happen. An outline in the sense of just the edges of the thing. Where to start and start. Where one thing starts and the other begins. Then get to work.

Or, as the mighty Styx might say: Nothing ever goes as planned
It's a hell of a notion
Even pharaohs turn to sand
Like a drop in the ocean

Nothing like an ABAB rhyme scheme and 80s guitars.

Dana King said...

I'm a planner. John McFetridge indirectly talked me into trying the current WIP as a chancer, and halfway through I realized I had a mess the dog wouldn't lap up. I salvaged the parts I liked and did an outline. My outlines are pretty flexible, but I still need them to have confidence I'm not writing myself into a mineshaft.

I have no idea where the title came from, which should not be surprising. I'm way old.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'm a chancer but sometimes the perfect ending raises its head and I am forced to take notice and find my way there. I almost hate it when this happens because I like being surprised when I sit down.

Scott D. Parker said...

Novel #1 was planned scene by scene. Good thing, too, as it allowed me to finish it. I still allowed my characters to speak and a few things changed but not much. Best thing about this approach was I had not White Screen Syndrome. When I sat down to write, I picked up the notecard and charged ahead.

For Novel #2, I got fancy. I planned not a whit. That's why Novel #2 is unfinished. I've written nearly 100K words doing two different drafts but could not figure out what to do.

For the just-completed short story, I did the light outline bit. I knew how it started and pretty much how it ended. I let my main character, Calvin Carter, fill in the rest.

If I had to choose a method, I'd probably go light touch in the future. I LOVE the notecard-as-scene method. I color code them and manipulate accordingly. As I complete my second novel this year, I'll let you know the method.

Scott D. Parker said...

Ironic timing: found this today via SF Signal: http://magicdistrict.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/story-mapping-how-i-do-it/

Dana King said...

I use the colored note card thing for organizing scenes and find it works great for a multi-POV story where there's a concern of leaving a thread alone for too long. Very easy to spot when there are twenty other cards between two blues.

Mike Dennis said...

Chancer. That's why I'm living in Las Vegas, the land of chances.

Besides, planning gives me a headache.

Jay Stringer said...

dammit Weddle, ANOTHER mix cd??!!