To Plan, Or Not To Plan

Do I plan before I write?   Generally not, at least not when writing my first draft of prose pieces.

A lot of what I’ve written has had its beginnings in the exercises, ‘homework’ pieces, and monthly workshops of the Whitehaven Writers, so to show you what I mean I’ll try to demonstrate how my debut novel The Great Gifts came into being.

The Great Gifts grew out of a task we were given to choose an unusual verb and use it as a title for something.  What appeared was a first version of something called The Turning – of which the group said, ‘That’s not a story, that’s a synopsis. We like the sound of it, so go and write the novel.’

As I worked it grew of itself, and apart from knowing it would take Bru to his Great Test, I’d very little idea of what would happen on the way. So I followed where it led me, and eventually there I was with a ‘complete’ novel, and after some months of niggling at it, I sent it out to agents, who had no interest in it at all!

I then sent it to The Writers’ Workshop, and my editor Geraldine Harris, (Author of ‘Seven Citadels’) was wonderfully encouraging and tough with me, and pointed out its many faults and failings.

I did some planning as I tried to put in what was lacking, take out what didn’t work, and change the tone of it.  But despite that, quite a lot wasn’t planned, and one or two chapters grew in excitingly unexpected directions. It’s a much better book now, but not because I didn’t plan it to start with, more because I was writing a book for myself, and needed to change it’s ‘feel’ to make it right for others.

The world, or at least the central town of Draakoa, Torfun a Draake, came from a task in which we had to describe a place with a river running through it; and I’d no idea what might happen there, certainly not that Bru and Poeli might do anything more than make a quick visit to it – a curious town on an insignificant parallel world.

To sum up, I have a tendency to follow the example of J.R.R.Tolkien, and wait until I discover what really happened, and so far this hasn’t led me far astray.  I think it’s not the initial planning which is important, (I can only speak for myself, all our minds work differently) but the re-reading of the first draft – aloud – and then the reframing, deepening and strengthening which must be done after that.

And thanks to Geraldine I can do that now.  Real courage is needed, to take a favourite passage or chapter which is spoiling the story or the book and throw it out. But it’s a great feeling when you’ve done it, and you can see the improvement.  (Put it in a file of unused ideas – it may be waiting for a different book!)

Planning poetry is another matter entirely – I’ll tackle that another time.


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