In this business we’re all a little odd, some more so than others, and we each have our own peculiar way of doing things, don’t we? A little bit of lunacy is a prerequisite, I think, to even consider embarking on a project as daunting and all-consuming as a novel.
There is a great deal of chatter out there in the ether about this plotting vs pantsing business, and on which side we happen to fall.
For some, a book’s plot is hatched whole in a revelatory flash – driving, or on the toilet, perhaps – and they have only to pull over safely, or make a mad dash with pants around ankles for a notepad, or a computer, or lipstick on a wall to capture it. And they’re off – the thing unfolds largely as they’ve mapped it. For others, it might be a character or two who pop into their minds, say hello, have a little chat (the line between writer and schizo is nebulous), and they seem like interesting folks, worth getting to know, so the conversation is continued on paper, or onscreen, to see where it leads. Both approaches have yielded astonishing works – the trick is to figure out, before you write half-a-draft and are forced to start over, which works the best for you. Perhaps, like me, you’re a little bit of both?
One of my favorite authors, David Mitchell, whose books are unlike any others, even amongst themselves, talks about the role structure plays in his creative process in The Paris Review’s, The Art of Fiction no 204. I first discovered this article when I was having a crisis with the structure of my own manuscript. An idea had come to me, after already writing (pantsing) more than a hundred pages and finding myself at an impasse, an idea that was thematically perfect, that would resolve all those niggling doubts about what I had written and where I was going, but… and it was a BIG but… there was a catch: this idea was incompatible with how I had begun. In order to make the book what it should and could be, I’d have to start over. What’s worse, the structure I was envisioning was unlike any I had seen before, so I had nowhere to turn, no trusted book I could open for reference to re-assure myself I could pull it off. It was unsettling and intimidating, to say the least. I waffled for a month, hashing out the new structure to see how it might evolve, when I stumbled onto that article from David Mitchell. It was like he was speaking to me directly. I knew then, if I was going to do this thing, I had to do it right. I had to write the best book I possibly could, a unique book, my book, and never have a doubt that I’d left a stone un-turned, or an avenue unexplored in the process.
“Get the structure wrong and you blow up shortly after takeoff. Get it right and you save yourself an aborted manuscript and months and months of wasted writing. Make your structure original and you may end up with a novel that looks unlike any other.” – David Mitchell
It turns out, for me at least, David Mitchell was right. That structure, the bones of my book, set me free. In order to pants it, I had to plot it. I firmly believe in keeping the structure malleable, letting the characters take the story where they will, but without a lighthouse cutting through the fog I’d ended up on the rocks, and my ship had sunk, and all the characters with it. I still have a long way to go to finish this thing, but at least I’m still afloat. All crew accounted for.
I hope, if you’re stuck and struggling with how to proceed, or you’re having a tough time getting started, this will inspire something in you, help you see your way through the fog.
I’d love to hear how others’ processes have evolved. What works for you?