Friday, March 12, 2010

Flying Lessons

Every writer has a different approach to the development, storylining and research of his or her book. But in the end, it’s all about what works best for you.

As a writer who storylines his books in great detail, I am sometimes criticised by the “flying by the seat of the pants” school, which believes that a detailed storyline puts you in a writing straight-jacket. This school of thought promotes the notion that, with only a vague idea in mind, you should start on page one and let the book take you where it will - a voyage of discovery.

The graduates of that school then spend the next (who knows how many?) months re-writing, remodelling - draft one, draft two, draft three... until they get their initial thoughts into shape.

Fair enough, but it wouldn’t work for me. I hate revision. I get it right first time, or I don’t get it right at all. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have the fun and adventure of flying by the seat of my pants as well.

The only difference is, I do it in my storyline, which usually runs from 18,000 to 20,000 words, and is written during a brain-storming five or six days, when the book is born out of what, to me, is the white heat of creation.

Starting with ideas and characters that I have turned around my head, researched, made notes on, I sit down to write my storyline without any certainty about where it is going. I work fast. I get excited. I am constantly surprised. I move back and forth through the storyline changing things as ideas occur, planting clues in preparation for later revelations.

In the end I have a manageable piece of work which I can manipulate and amend with minimum effort, not a huge, unweildy manuscript. The storyline tells me what research I still need to do, and I go and do it - visiting every location I will write about.

And then I write the book. At which point I can focus on doing my story and my characters absolute justice. The quality of the writing is then paramount - something I never even think about when storylining. But, of course, that doesn’t preclude evolution. Characters take on a life of their own and whisper in my ear as I write, suggesting things which hadn’t occured to me.

My storyline, then, is like a roadmap, which doesn’t inhibit my taking detours on sideroads through uncharted territory, but always providing the reassurance that once I rejoin the main highway I will still be en route to my intended destination.

I write fast. Three thousand words a day. I never have writers’ block (nod to Mr. Corrigan), because I finish on word 3000, even if it is mid-sentence, and always sit down the next day knowing what I will write next. And, of course, since I also know where my journey is taking me, I only have to concern myself with crafting my passage there.

I am sure that my approach to writing was shaped by two different experiences.

I spent eight years working as a journalist, which taught me to write fast, in almost any environment, and to be brutally economical with words.

And I spent fifteen years in television drama which not only taught me the importance of dialogue as a conveyor of story and character, but which shaped my approach to writing novels.  Television divides writing into two separate creative acts: the first is the creation of the plot or storyline, where a writer works on perfecting the shape of the big picture; the second is the writing of the script, where a writer focuses on choosing the correct words, and works on getting the pace and drama of each scene right.  Each makes different demands on a writer and in television writers are often specialists in one field or the other.  I was both a story editor and a scriptwriter and know from that experience how the end product benefits from the time and focus devoted to each process.  

But perhaps the most important thing I learned from television was the need to deliver on time - since an entire cast crew, and production schedule, depended upon it.

I have never missed a deadline in my life, and hope I never will.


Rick Blechta said...

Speaking from the musician's viewpoint, it seems to me that you're like a classical musician. Creating your storyline is analogous to the time spent in the practice room, getting everything in order so that when you step out on stage, the performance can be note perfect, still alive, still expressive, but everything planned and under control.

Seat-of-your-pants writing is more of the jazz experience. You put the horn up to your mouth and start blowing with little idea exactly where you're going. It's exciting, yes, but fraught with danger if your playing takes an outside turn and you can't get back from it. "Well, that was an interesting approach to 'Girl from Ipanema'!"

How many times have I heard something like that?

Hmmm...time for a rethink. Better think about going back to my classical past.

Thanks for the insight, Peter.

peter_may said...

Good analogy, Rick. I guess I fall into the former category as a musician, too.


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