Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Don't Plan Too Much

The desire to be a writer is a strange one. On the one hand you want to write, and you want to write well, to tell stories and entertain others with your yarns. On the other, you're terrified of creating a load of rubbish and discovering that the thing you love doing is just not something you're good at. And, if you're not careful, those little nagging voices of doubt can stop you pushing yourself to finish what you start, or make you try far too hard in your desperation to get it right. And sometimes trying too hard is just as bad as not trying enough.

I have recently started up (or should I say, picked up where I left off) an old first draft I had given up for dead. Anyone who has tried writing a novel or something that may turn out to be a novel or short story, will know that if you leave that first draft unfinished for too long it starts to rot and putrify, until you end up picking it up by the fingertips and thinking "how long has that been in there?!". Yes, my draft was dead and wasting away. And the worst thing? I was the one that killed it. By planning too much.

Initially I had a vague sense of what happened in my story, mainly built around one point. So I began writing, hoping that divine providence or some other sign would appear along the way to point me in the right direction. Essentially I was hoping the damned thing would write itself, with a magical GPS keeping me largely on track. Five hundred words in, there was no sign. A thousand words in nothing. Five thousand words... nope, not a dicky bird. And then, around the fifteen thousand word mark I realised I was lost. Looking back didn't help as the road seemed alright up to where I was. But the road ahead was gone and my characters were looking at me and saying "what now?" So I set out with my notebook and a pen and planned what was going to happen. I planned for pages and pages, working out where my characters had come from and where they were going, what they wanted and what they didn't want and what was going to happen to them. Reams and reams were written, until I had it all worked out. And you know what I did with all those ideas and plans? Absolutely nothing.

I had killed my story. Why write it when I had already written it? I had effectively scared myself off and so left that draft lingering in my hard drive, with it wondering why it had been abandoned so suddenly. Then I started this blog and in the process opened up that file again and read something that was actually (in my opinion anyway) not too bad, with characters that clearly knew what they were doing. But the notes in that book? Rubbish and far too complicated. It is now all lined out and replaced with three or four main points, which cover half a page. And that's it. No deep discussions about motivations or where it's all going. Just a few points, including my current ideas for the ending but with nothing set in stone. And I am now over seventeen thousand words in and still going strong. I'm writing for pure pleasure and without too much attention being paid to where it's all going to go. I'm sure my characters will work that out even if I don't along the way. And this time I'm going to trust them to lead me where they will.

So for any other would be writers out there, don't plan too much. Maybe it will work for you but more likely it will make you feel trapped and limited in your writing. And after all "creative writing" is meant to be creative, not by numbers or rules you've set for yourself in a book. Let the words carry you and just give yourself some markers along the way rather than road signs. And if all else fails, let your characters take over for a while - they might surprise you.

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