Sunday, 2 August 2015

Losing The Plot

As you know, I don't often write 'Teaching' posts or 'How To' posts as they are not something that sits easily with me. Yes, although theoretically I am more than qualified, both literally with bits of certificate, and figuratively through experience of being an author and English teacher to teach creative writing, I always such posts difficult to write - and maybe that is because I often find them difficult to read. I don't like being told how to do something; I never have - especially when it comes to expressing my own creativity.

But today, I'm not teaching you about plotting, I'm  sharing with you my experiences of it - and you're entirely free to think it over, and especially free to argue; although do it softly because I'm nice ;)

Over the years I have read literally hundreds of posts, articles, interview responses on the internet, and heard full heated debates on panels, and argued endlessly with students about the concept of planning and plotting versus pantsing (or in my students' case, the notion of divine intervention.)

So here's my standpoint and it's not straight forward. Personally, I believe good storytelling needs structure; good art needs composition - but paradoxically, great literature needs spontaneity, rule-breaking and an organic energy, just as art.

A portrait by Picasso is 'great'. A portrait by Winterhalter is 'good' - and good is... well, it's good. It means it is accomplished and technical and accessible. It is a pleasure to live with, it enriches, it entertains, it allows a fantasy to be realised and a romance of both place and idea to be woven in the viewer's mind - it is satisfying and consumable. And for me as a reader these are the primary functions of a book series regardless of genre nuances.
And it is because of this that when it comes to series, I believe planning is essential. 

I didn't start off with this standpoint. I hated the idea of planning and I was veiled in a romantic notion of creative genius, you know the kind where you sit in a Parisian garret, living of gruel and cheap red wine wringing out your soul onto the page  - but then I finished my first book and realised I wanted to write more.

When I started my first series, 'The Knight Trilogy' with the book 'The Forest of Adventures' I did not plan - not for it to even be a series; I was a creative believer. I believed I was writing something beautiful and true - and I really did, but now when I look back at that first book, it's a beautiful and true mess; yes it reads like a wild-flower meadow, and there is soul and gorgeousness in it, and there is a definite authenticity of voice that is my younger-self, which some might argue is exactly the kind of book they like to read. However, as the writer needing to write two more volumes that followed it, I didn't half leave me a lot of work to craft out a series from it.

I had slapped things in the first volume on the mere indulgence of my characters, or the way I was moved in a single moment - and as a result, I found that to sustain their worlds and relationships authentically, I had to plan the rest of their time with me; it was either that or we were all going to end up losing the plot, quite literally. I would have had characters becoming increasingly erratic in their behaviours to one another and crazy unbelievable events would have to happen to bring them all back together. I was fortunate that with it being a contemporary Arthurian series, there is a strong sense of magic-realism in the series so it was more forgiving than it might have been, but there were regrets; small things which a reader would probably never pick up on. Certain representations of character or actions that I wish they had not done - but I guess in that way, it reflects real life.

Now, I am half way through Book Three of 'The Meadowsweet Chronicles' a book of modern witchcraft, ancient English Folklore and The American Gothic. It's planned to be a seven book series. It started out with that structure in mind. And although book one was written with basic section by section planning as the worlds and characters revealed themselves to me, I am currently sat with a folder by my side, which contains the detailed outlines, chapter by chapter of the next four books. I had intended on planning them all out - but I can't quite let go of the ideas of my characters having their own input and voice. I know that despite the detailed planning, there will be changes - because that's allowed. By the time I reach book five, I am sure that most of that plan will be defunct, but it will mean that I can write on in confidence because everything else is secure and structured. Who knows, book seven might end up being freestyle, because by that point - I can.

The thing is, some people get their knickers in a twist when it comes to the notion of planning because they think that once a plan has been written, then it has to be stuck too, which is quite frankly, absurd. In reality, does a plan ever really go .... well, to plan?

Planning (and planning in detail) allows you to go off piste in confidence because you know, with certainty that you're going to get to the bottom of that mountain in one piece. Planning is thinking. Thinking is GOOD.

So what's your thoughts? Are you a planner or a pantser?

BTW - if you fancy reading my beautiful flower meadow of a book, 'The Forest of Adventures' you can download a free copy using the coupon code in the side bar. I hope you enjoy.


  1. Great thoughtful post. I used to try and write with no planning and it was a meandering mess for me too. Then I forced myself to plot/outline. Much better, less wasted time. But I do agree that some serendipity makes good sense. So now even though I write a 3-page synopsis before tackling the chapters, I allow for slight changes and surprises.

    1. With you Catherine. I love the idea of that whole stream of consciousness soul speak, and there is a place for it, but I console myself that that's what I'm doing when I'm planning. I think people think that somehow planning is the antithesis of creativity, but I don't think it has to be like that.