Does anyone really need that much ham?
Some people plan. Some people plan absolutely every single thing they write in meticulous – even tedious – detail. Nothing, not even the smallest scene, is left to chance. This attention to detail means nothing is overlooked, and their story follows a logical pattern and reaches a satisfying conclusion for the reader.
Other people say that they are Pantsers – which means they don’t plan at all, they just show up, start writing, and trust that the story will come together. Writing by the seat of their pants, they say their story is as much of a surprise to them as it is to their readers. They say this method works, and that it makes for an interesting, spontaneous and fluid story.
But you don’t need to pick a side. It is possible to find a middle way, between these two extremes. I use both approaches together, and for me that works. Because I believe the writing process is all about balance and review. I’m always a big fan of the middle way. I steer clear of extremes in all things – don’t know if it’s just my temperament, or because I’m a Libran or what – I just like things balanced and sensible. Maybe it’s a bit like making a sandwich.
So you get out a plate and a knife, maybe a teaspoon, and maybe another, sharper knife for cutting stuff. And you get out your meat, cheese, peanut butter, hummus, your salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, pickles. And very importantly you get out your bread of choice. Or your gluten-free oat or rice or corn crackers. And then you decide you might need some mayo, or some salt, mustard, or some chutney…really with sandwiches, as with stories, the possibilities are endless.
You don’t have to use everything.
So I plan. But only a bit. And I do the Into-The-Unknown-Seat-Of-The-Pants thing. But only up to a point.
The middle way is where most of us are, the best of both worlds and slave to none. I start with my starch of choice – usually oat cakes. Then I add a suggestion of butter (sometimes) or I slather on the hummus or the cheese. Then I look at what I have and ask myself how I feel. What is it I want of this? Let’s pretend I’m going crazy and letting my hair down and having a big hunk of wholemeal grainy bread – and I’ve put on lashings of butter – my favourite food group – and now I’m definitely in the mood for cheese, so I whack on a load of chunky cheesy goodness. Now. Hmm. I look at my array of goodies on the worktop. I’m having cheese (or writing romance), so I can immediately rule out mustard and salt (crime/horror/western-specific elements). But here’s where it gets tricky – do I want to fling on a bunch of salad leaves and squeeze a few wedges of cucumber in, because that will mean I need to top the whole thing off with mayo. But…that chutney looks tempting, and I can almost taste it – my memory furnishes not only the appearance of chutney on the cheese, but also the smell and the taste. My mouth is already watering at the memory of it. Problem is, I know those salad leaves and cucumber will be full of vitamins, and I need to think about that. Or, I could bung a bit of salad on the side and still have my chutney…
And this is what we do as we travel the middle way. We look at what we need for our story – all the elements of style and prose, of structure and the specifics of genre. So after a lot of thought we begin to assemble our structure (bread) and we start to add in our characters, our plot, our twists and turns and our dialogue (filling). Too much impromptu seat-of-the-pants and you can end up with an aimless, waffly first draft and a massive rewrite job on your hands (or a sandwich that falls apart under the weight of all it’s disparate elements leaving you with a soggy mess). Too much planning and meticulous detail can give you flat, lifeless and dull writing which fails to grab the reader (a big stodgy sandwich which is all bread and no fun). So a nice balance is recommended to get passion and life into your writing but not stuff the page out with endless descriptions of what the character had for breakfast – and every other breakfast – unless of course you are writing a bestseller entitled ‘Breakfasts I Have Known’. Let me tell you now, if it’s not about bacon, I’m not reading it. Now I do have a tendency to waffle anyway – so imagine how bad I’d be if I didn’t have some idea where I’m headed. This week I read someone (a great writer whose name I’ve already forgotten – soz, whoever you are) quoted as saying ‘you wouldn’t get into your car and drive without having an idea of where you are going’. Hmm. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t drive… Sometimes I go for a walk and it doesn’t much matter where I go, so long as I go!
I make ‘soft’ notes – general hints of the way I want the story to go, and I remind myself about the important character details to make sure I don’t change Joan to Jane on page 17 or give people the wrong hair colour or marry them off to the wrong partner etc. If I have an idea of the final outcome of the story – I don’t write this down – and I don’t tell anyone. It’s my little secret. And with my iffy memory, there may be a point in the future where I have to write it down, but it’s there in my head when I am writing, as a signpost to aim for.
But the great thing about soft notes is that they are easy to revise. You need to be always ready to re-evaluate your outline or your goals, or even your plot or characters, because the requirements of your story can and probably will change as you write. So try to keep an open mind about your story. If something isn’t working, it’s worth trying a new approach, which can be a bit scary. For myself, I know it is important to give myself the freedom to write within a guiding but flexible framework.
Hmm – I wonder what’s for lunch?