Wednesday 22 September 2021

Under the Glass.. how to plan a novel.

I’ve said before how I have an attract/repel relationship to quotes, how enjoyable it can be to find someone you admire saying something you believe in but how easily they can be moulded and bent when not in their original contexts.

This is even more so when quoting a fictional character. I’ve so often heard “To thine own self be true” uttered as real advice, divorced from the fact that the character saying it is a bumbling old busybody full of too much banal and untrue advice. Even more wobbly is to quote a character who is themselves tricky, the following quote is spoken by the unreliable Tristram Shandy by the even more unreliable Laurence Sterne, it’s about writing process.

“Of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best – I'm sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” 

Laurence Sterne The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

I’m deeply doubtful that Laurence Sterne actually wrote like this though I’ve not read enough about his writing process to confirm those doubts. Tristram Shandy may have an unconventional shape but it does have a shape. If Sterne really did just start putting words on a page and trusting the process to supply him with more, then he must have rewrote, perhaps even as he was writing and he must have been able to hold a great many threads in his head. For all its digressions, Tristram Shandy is full of callbacks to former parts, anticipations to the future and a set of running themes, interests and allusions. However, as untrue as I suspect the sentiment to be when applied to Sterne, it may be true to the character of Tristram himself.

There are people who set to work without any planning. Samuel Johnson tended to hand in first drafts of everything - even the original dictionary was in essence a first draft, compiled in the printshop, though he did return to revise it. His essays are definitely first drafts, he reveals in one that he is writing it as the messenger boy is waiting for it, yet those essays are tightly constructed and written. I suppose Johnson had a well of topics in his head that he could dip into when needed. 

Goldsmith seems to have been a worrier of texts, his noted readability may have had something to do with drafting and redrafting, and he is reported talking about how he wandered the fields trying to think of ways to be funny. I’m less sure of Christopher Smart, certainly Jubilate Agno was written with a plan in mind that grew to be less important and relies on its form than anything else (and by the end, was never supposed to be published).

In modern internet-writing-forum speak, someone who doesn’t plan ahead is a ‘pantser’, someone who writes by the seat of their pants. My first novel certainly had an element of this, I had some characters I enjoyed and a general situation but it took a lot of time to find a story and I think the failure of it is that I never fully did. On the other hand, the few projects I had a full and detailed plan for, were never finished. I simply couldn’t be bothered to put on page stories I already knew without the fun and joy of discovery.

My own planning style when it comes to a novel is one that I expect is pretty common. I usually start with an image or two that grab me and suggest a story, the people in these images develop into characters which then suggest the images place in a larger shape. With this general shape in mind, I start writing, at first with only a few concrete stopping places. The analogy that fits best is probably one of walking in a dark wood with a torch. I know the direction to head in and I know the end point and although I may not know the whole journey, the torch illuminates what is immediately ahead of me and allows me to plot a detailed course for the tiny bit in-front of me. Sometimes the torch falters and that can be terrifying, sometimes I just have to push ahead and hope it works out. When I’ve done the journey once, I go back to the beginning and do it again, usually making some different choices of direction, sometimes some huge ones. I simply keep doing this till I can’t see a different way through the wood and then that novel is finished. If I plan too much I’m not interested in the journey, if I write one sentence and trust to the next, I am too frightened to move on. It’s not a glamorous method, certainly not as exciting and free as the one suggested by Tristram but it’s the only way I know how.

Excuse me, I have another wood to get lost in.

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