By Robin Richards, Mar 15 2016 02:03PM
I went to one of those inspirational speaker events last year. Okay I’ll admit it, I have a bit of a weakness for that sort of thing – all that positivity buzzing around the room, the leaping up, high-fiving your neighbour and shouting out, ‘You can do it!’
This particular inspirational patter merchant told us, ‘Don’t sit on the fence!’ I think at the time he was trying to get the audience to subscribe to his ludicrously overpriced training programme, the implication being if you didn’t jump in with both feet (and your credit card of course) you were indecisive and somewhat lacking in the positivity department. ‘Don’t sit on the fence,’ he said, ‘if you do you’ll get splinters in your bum!’
I’ve been thinking about his comments recently especially with regard to planning and writing my next crime novel – working title: Nasty, Brutal and Short. Writers tend to fall into two camps, two opposing poles, when it comes to planning and writing fiction; there are the planners and then there are the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers. Some writers, the planners, will plot and plan their novels meticulously. They will dust off their copies of Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Bob McKee’s Story and offer up a silent prayer of thanks to the late Syd Field and the Three-Act Structure, and they set about it. There will be plans, plot points, inciting incidents, character profiles, flow charts and a host of other displacement activities we all engage in when we really should be getting down to doing some writing.
And then there are the seat-of-your-pants writers for whom planning and plotting is anathema. They jump straight in, start writing and trust to the flow from their wellspring of inherent creativity to see them through from ‘Once upon a time …’ to ‘… and they all lived happily ever after.’ They are from the school which advocates jumping off the cliff and growing your wings on the way down.
Somewhere along the line each writer has to address the question of just where they are on this planning - creativity continuum. For me, being the cautious type and having spent more years than was probably good for me teaching psychology, and more recently, creative writing to students, I tend to err towards being a planner. After all the best textbooks on creative writing recommend planning and after years in education tutors always tell you, ‘plan your essays, plan your projects, make sure you have a beginning, a middle and an end; tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em that you’ve told ’em.’ Of course when you are a student you take no notice of this, you bury your head in the sand, ignore the looming deadline and when you can’t ignore it any longer you dash your essay off in a mad panic the night before it’s due in, usually just after you’ve come home from the pub, and hope for the best. One of my colleagues cut it so fine once that he was racing down the corridor, dissertation in hand, with mere seconds to go and all of his classmates cheering him on.
Planning your novel provides a sense of security and who, after all, embarks on such a journey without a map? I’ve never been a fan of ‘free writing’ and whenever I sit down at the laptop I like to have a basic outline of where I am going at the very least, yet there is something very attractive about the seat-of-your-pants approach. It sounds much freer, more creative, more artistic, more bohemian, more writerly even, than the boring planners. Not for them is the anal retentive life of the meticulous plotter, this is the approach of the free spirit and for them anything is possible.
So the planning was done, the character profiles sketched out, the graphs drawn and all the plot points mapped out – all I had to do was the writing. I made a start on the first draft and it was … well it was a bit like wading through treacle. It wasn’t going bad, but neither was it going particularly well. The words were not so much flowing as dribbling onto the page. I came to one of those neat little plot twists I’d planned and it turned out to be not so much a reversal, more of a three-point-turn with ‘L’ plates on the front and rear.
I hit ‘delete’ threw my plot outline across the room and started again, this time with no clear idea of where the story was going to go but go it did. The words somehow came, they started to string themselves together, became sentences, then paragraphs and after a couple of hours of this, a chapter. It was less stilted, had more flow and it read quite well. Okay it wasn’t Henry James but it was quite readable.
By all means be a planner or be a seat-of-your-pants writer, it probably has more to do with temperament than writing style. It’s good to know how you function best but in writing, as in all areas of life, polarised thinking is seldom the most helpful. If you’re a planner be prepared to hang loose occasionally and go with the flow, and if you are a seat-of-your-pants writer there will come the time when a little bit of forethought and a few judicious notes will help move the narrative forward. Extreme views may be beloved of the media, they make for great headlines, but in reality it’s the grey area between the two opposing poles which is the most productive.
And the inspirational speaker? Sorry mate, you got it wrong, sometimes there is a very good argument for sitting on the fence and as for the risk of splinters in the bum, well I think I might just invest in a pair of Kevlar lined underpants.