I can think of no other creative endeavour where newcomers would be told to just start and see what happens. Want to learn how to build furniture – grab some wood, nails, glue and screws and see what happens! Want to start painting, grab some paint and canvas and have a go. Don’t worry if what you create something awful, you can always take it apart and remake it better.
Yet, a lot of aspiring writers are advised to just start writing and see where it takes you. I get that there’s a lot of value in just letting the words flow and listen to your characters. But.
A plan can be your friend
I started out writing by simply having an idea and then writing it through until it was finished. Then in 2011 I went on a course with Arvon that gave the basics of outlining and designing a plot. And it was a revelation – my books suddenly became a decent length, up from 50 to 60,000 words to a more respectable 90,000 plus. My writing improved, both in my opinion and in a commercial sense too – I got published.
You know what you like even if you don’t know why
If you write, you almost certainly read. Sometimes you’ll get a book that just works, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason why. Occasionally a book comes along that breaks a lot of the creative writing course rules yet still sells well and is read by millions. Unless you’re naturally gifted, unless you know why something works, it’s unlikely you’ll write a book like that. In music there are some musicians who don’t read music and study theory, yet manage to play sublimely. On the other hand there are many more who work within the theory to create beautiful music.
So what are the rules?
Well, there are many books that explain the rules of a good story. They are all at differing levels of formality and detail. I’ve read quite a few and distilled it down to this.
The opening 25% (or less) should cover who the hero or heroine is, what they want, why they can’t get it and most crucially, the reader should care about it. In my preferred genre, crime, this is usually quite simple. The protagonist is the detective, he wants to catch the killer, so you need a body or at least a crime. Usually the killer doesn’t want to be caught so there’s your tension right there. And most detective novels have something else going on – a marriage breakdown or threat to the family of the detective or some last chance in his career. Something that should make the reader care about more than catching the killer.
Once all this is established, you need a series of escalating disasters – wrong suspects, more bodies, problems with evidence, etc. all leading up to a big finish.
The final 10% or so should start with an event that makes you think the killer will never be caught or the detective will be in peril. Until the writer pulls a rabbit out of the hat and it’s all fine. Ideally this rabbit/hat combo should be something that was mentioned earlier on but it’s importance only becomes clear at the end.
This is gives rise to every writer’s fear – a saggy middle. And no, I don’t mean the inevitable consequence of long hours at the keyboard and poor diet. I’ve just outlined the first 25% and last 10% of a book, which leaves the middle 60%. Without proper pacing – making sure the peril increases steadily – this can become saggy.
It’s not just crime
This basic outline works for any genre. Romance? First 25% to outline who the heroine is and her potential new man and why they can’t be together. Things get better and worse (mostly worse but we like a roller-coaster ride) for 60% of the book and then, just when they can never be together, something happens and it all ends happily ever after!
It’s a matter of scale
I was chatting with a very good author friend of mine who writes completely without planning. When I was talking to her, it occurred to me that she made it up for the whole thing, whereas I doing my making-things-up in 2,000 word chunks. I have a scene description – who’s in it and what changes for them. Then I have to make all the creative decisions. And my plans are not set in stone either. I’ve recently been doing a final edit before submission and just decided to swap two scenes over and completely rewrite a third one. If you read interviews with authors about how they work you’ll find there’s a whole range of approaches, from people writing detailed treatments through scene breakdowns to broad outlines and finally to people who just write.
To sum up
Don’t be afraid that a plan with stifle your creativity – for me its a different way to be creative. I can work out the bones of a story, see where things are leading, before I’ve committed tens of thousands of words to the page. It’s a much easier place to correct mistakes. And I find it just as satisfying to be creative in working out a plan as I do in writing a novel.
Also, I’m not trying to say that everyone should plan – far from it. I’m more saying that I’ve tried free-style writing and I’ve tried planning, and for me, planning gives me better books. What do you think? Are you a planner or not? Have you ever tried planning?