Saturday, August 20, 2005

What the hell? An actual post about writing?

Mes Amis

I bow down in awe to the discipline of John Rickards, I really do. I mean, crikey, that’s a hell of a lot of plotting to do. And it’s got me thinking…

How do you go about this plotting lark? You see, time was, back in the day, I plotted all my short stories. Really, I had big maps of scenes with doodles and scribbles and notes. I had big sheets of paper covered with different shapes of boxes to represent different styles scenes so I could balance it. The day I stopped doing that was the day I started making money with a few of them and more importantly it was the day I started to finish more stories.

I admire the effort Rickards puts into his plotting. It amazes me that he can plan in such great detail. The thing for me with writing is that I feel strangled by a plan. It becomes like an albatross around my neck*. I mean, I know I have a beginning and an end. I always know where I’ll be on the last page and I always know where I want to start. Those two things become embedded deep in my mind. I find them difficult to change. And what is odd is that sometimes the ending has nothing to do with the plot. Take the example of my recent AHMM story, Coughing John, where I started writing it with two scenes in my head. One was of our hero lifting the cover of a corpse and seeing an old man whose face he knew. The other, the final scene, was of our Hero walking into his place, heading for the drinks cabinet but being waylaid by his lover. I knew the final image I wanted to end with was the pair of them entwined on the sofa, our hero lost in himself, the girlfriend unable to properly reach him.

What happened in between was something else entirely and, as it unfolded it surprised me to discover the journey. And yet it worked. I moved from A to B to C and finally to D. And then I had to make sure it made sense. I think I have to be surprised by a story, to realise that these two scenes I know I want to connect may be connected in ways other than I expected. I want to be shocked and thrilled as I write down a scene. I cannot know in advance what will happen. At least, I cannot know in great detail. I know where I want to connect to, and I have a vague idea of how I might get there, but sometimes someone on the page'll do or say something unexpected. And then sometimes they'll do nothing and I'll have to shoehorn in something I know will change when it comes to the task of redrafting this baby.

Which means, sometimes, I write some shite. I mean pure, undiluted shite that even Jeffrey Archer would scoff at. But what it also means is that sometimes I tell the story I want to tell and then I can go back to the start and tell it right. I kinda like this. It means I can do things like retrospective research, making sure I find a way to logically connect event a to events b, c and d. It means I can focus what I need to know.

Not that there’s a right way or wrong way of doing it. Rickards’ way is admirable for the kind of dedication and mindset it must take. I couldn’t work that way, though. I have a fear of plans, or rather, I have a fear of detailed plans. For this novel, *the one that will sell* (always said optimistically) – since we agreed that I need to keep the damn plot moving forward - I wrote a three page outline of the main action. I wrote in key sequences that had to occur. I wrote in logic that had to keep the plot moving forward. And still, as I’m writing this draft, I’m finding myself surprised. The plan is now covered in pencil notes of, “No, actually, this is how it happened…” and, “Well this can’t happen now…”.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between a short story and a novel. Maybe I’m just being naive thinking I can apply the same techniques to both genres. That is, after all, why I decided to do at least an outline for this one. And while I’ve covered it in notes, I am sticking to the throughline, I guess.

Maybe another way to look at it is to see my first draft *as* an outline. After all it gets changed so much after its done that it really is only serving as a blueprint to hang the real story on. Its all about getting the story out in the open, away from my brain cells and into a physical form in which it can be scrutinised deeply and finally mutilated into something other people may find (hopefully) pleasing and entertaining in some sense.

I don’t claim to know any answers, here or even to think there are any. I just find it a strange thing how different people work towards the same ends. After all, Rickards has his detailed and intricate battle plan, MacBride has his mind maps, Banks probably has notes written in blood**… And I have a bunch of ideas thrown onto the page in the hope one or two of them might stick.

But what do I know, eh?***

Anyway, mes amis,

Au Revoir


*Hey, check out the literary reference studying English in my first two years at uni wasn’t a waste, after all!

**Which is definitely not his own

***Not much at this hour of the morning.


Jennifer Jordan said...

Rickards is an anal retentive freak, MacBride is disciplined and one should never make assumptions about Banks.

Do what works for you, oh Bearded Babe, and don't worry about anyone else.

Russel said...

I'm realising, after lots of discussions with my dissertation supervisor that I just don't have a disciplined mind. As he pointed out, I tend to throw in a lot of ideas and see what sticks. Its the same with the novels/shorts as with philosophy; I throw in everything I can and then see what's worth sticking with. Mind you, I also never read instruction manuals, even when I'm stuck with something and rarely use recipes when I'm cooking (well, I'll read one through and then half-remember it, making things up as I go along). I reckon I have an incredibly scruffy kind of mind. I love just diving into some problem and solving it by experimentation.

Anyway, I still admire anal retentive and disciplined people. And, Ray, well whatever method he uses it works damn well.

I just find it really interesting how people's minds work so differently, especially because I am notorious for having such an odd way of doing everything.

But I shall continue to do what works best, what seems to get results. Besides, doing something that size as a plan, I'd accidentally set fire to it or something and then I'd be screwed...

John R. said...

Actually, this is the first time I've done all that. For the past three books, all I've had is about a page and a half of scribbled ideas and points (which can be quite vague - "Al investigates" was one memorable one which summarised about 1/4 of the last book) which I then pay very little attention to and just plough on through the book, and I've done no planning at all on the limited number of shorts I've done. This is a special occasion.

Really, whatever works. Except for the blood thing. That's just messy. And hard to get out of the carpet when you spill it.

If you have a carpet, of course. I've heard that Ray is kept locked in a basement with a bare concrete floor with a single drain in it, and nothing but naked pictures of Ruth Rendell, and raw meat and live animals dropped through a grate in the ceiling by The Natural Brunette to keep him going.

Stuart MacBride said...

As long as it works – don’t knock it.

Gabriele C. said...

I wrote a bit about my planning process on my blog, and there will be more tomorrow. :)

It's interesting to see how many different approaches to the problem there are.

Ray said...

LIARS! Apart from the basement thing. That's true. Nabokov wrote at a lectern in his socks. Johnny Thunders was half-alive when he wrote "Chinese Rocks"... and other Cave lyrics.