Planning Your Writing, or Not

Do you plan your writing, or enjoy the surprise?

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Do you know what you’re going to write before you’ve written it? I don’t. I can’t plan anything. Well, I can, but I can guarantee that what ends up on the page won’t resemble it. I’ve just finished collaborating on a writing project, Letters, with Matt Chamberlain, and throughout the process my inability to give him clues as to the next piece gave us terrible trouble. He’d send me a poem and say, “What will your next story be about?” And I’d panic and reply, “Oh, a touching tearful farewell scene between a mother and child at a railway station,” thinking that sounds nice, and doable. And then when it showed up on his desk it would be a cutting political satire about zombies set on a spacecraft in 6000BC, or something (I made that up—please don’t buy the book then contact me to complain about the lack of zombies). Poor Matt. At least it’s over now.

Writers seem to fall into two camps on this—the meticulous planners, and the grab-a-quill-and-hope-for-the-best types. If I try to plan before I write I find the writing process itself bores me, and, as we all know, if it’s boring to the writer it’ll be hellishly boring to the reader. I can’t follow recipes either; you never get the same dinner twice in my house. If I know what’s coming, where’s the thrill? I create to escape from the inside of my head, not get wedged deeper within it.

My husband is a playwright. He spends a year thinking about his forthcoming production, then writes it in a weekend, while actually, literally, looking the other way. His creative style isn’t dissimilar to automatic writing, although rather than trusting spirit guides, he trusts his year-long thought process. He doesn’t want to know what his hand is going to produce; he trusts his sub-conscious to deliver something sizzling to the page, and blow me if it doesn’t, every time. He’s at the extreme end of the planning spectrum, I suspect, even though the planning happens almost without his knowledge. I admire this technique hugely, but find I cannot emulate it.

For me, writing is thinking. I don’t know what I think about anything until I write it down. I write reviews of plays and poetry events quite often nowadays—I work cheap—and often, immediately after the performance is over, when Mr Todd asks if I enjoyed it, I’ll say, “Yeah, I suppose, it was okay,” then panic over how the hell I’ll get 1,000 words out of that level of enthusiasm. But put a pen in my hand and I find I know what I thought, made all manner of connections, and actually have quite a strong opinion about this bit or that. It might be that my brain knows I’m no good at talking, so there’s no point coming up with anything clever if I’m faced with a human rather than a notepad. It saves its insights for a more auspicious hour.

Same with emotions. I’m astonishingly inarticulate, emotionally. I don’t know how people seem to know instinctively how they feel about stuff. I only know I’m getting a feeling, and often not even that. Even when it’s a strong one, churning my guts, caused by an obviously traumatic event. That’s why I write in my diary every day, or I wouldn’t know how I feel about anything. My pen is my psyche’s crutch.

When I write novels or short stories, half the joy is seeing the characters inhabit their own lives and make their own decisions. Suddenly they start saying things that surprise you, like children when they’re off the nipple and onto forming their own personalities. Suddenly you are God, an initial spark of benevolent energy that gives creations the free will to misbehave and despise you. Who wouldn’t want that?

Both planning and refusing to plan have their own particular devotees. Try whichever feels instinctively right for you. If you can’t plan your work before it’s written, do go through afterwards and make sure it’s consistent and truthful, in the detail as well as in the emotion. Having surprised and delighted yourself with your first draft, take time to view your story with a newly analytical eye, and ensure it takes your characters to the places they deserve.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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