The following article has been written by prize-winning short story writer Adam Marek. Here’s a bit more about him:
Adam Marek was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. His story collection, Instruction manual for swallowing, was published by Comma Press in 2007 and was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize.
There’s a guy at work with a mug that says ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. I’m trying to wean myself off coffee-cup life-management, but I like that one. I think it’s particularly pertinent to fiction writing.
Success vs failure
A few years ago I wrote 70k words of a novel I was making up as I went along, before realising that the plot was full of holes and wasn’t really leading anywhere. I got out enormous sheets of paper and brainstormed ideas for how the story could end in a way that would make sense of everything I’d written already. There were lots of scenes I was proud of, so I tried to find a story that bent around them, to allow me to keep them, but it was impossible.
I’d seen my wife, Naomi, go through exactly the same experience with a painting she was working on. It was of her sister painting her toenails. The skin tones and the floral detail in the kimono she was wearing were awesome. But after Naomi had been working on it for a few months, she began to struggle. She kept repainting the arm and the leg and just couldn’t get them looking right.
She eventually realised that she hadn’t done her measurements accurately at the beginning. The leg was too short. Painted in proportion, the foot would appear off the edge of the canvas. The only way to save the painting was to start from scratch, but Naomi knew she’d never get her sister’s face and the kimono that good again.
The painting was never completed, even though potentially it was the greatest thing she’d ever done. Naomi wished she’d spent more time up front on composition and measurements, but she had been eager to begin work on the detail right away, as I had been with the novel.
So I scrapped that novel and started a new one, which I’ve just completed. It’s been an educational experience for me. It went something like this:
Four weeks plotting.
Eight months writing.
The outcome: a weak middle, thin characters.
Four weeks plotting.
Fourteen months writing.
The outcome: unbelievable character motivations, and way too long.
Six months plotting.
Four months writing.
The story finally works.
I believe that planning should take more time than the creating itself – I should have realised it sooner – the same principle has always applied to my day-job as a copywriter.
Clarity vs frustration
Every copywriter and designer knows when they begin a piece of creative work that its success will be totally dependent on the client’s brief. Working from a strong brief means all creative effort is directed towards a focused end goal – these jobs are always pleasurable to work on, and they meet their objectives. Working from a weak brief involves lots of mind-changing, back-tracking and frustration – they are painful to work on, and the end results are usually disappointing and take three times longer than scheduled.
Plotting is like writing a brief for yourself. If you create the story in outline format, when you’re ready to write the prose, it flows out because you know where you’re going. You don’t have to worry about the plot, so you can concentrate on telling the story in a clear and powerful way.
But I know there are times when you absolutely have to immerse yourself in the story’s details to stimulate your creativity.
Analogue vs digital
Writing prose is an analogue process – you can only move in one direction – down the page. But plotting is a digital process – you need to be able to quickly jump forwards and backwards along your story’s timeline if events are to have believable causes and roll out in a pleasing way for your reader.
I find sometimes that an idea will refuse to be worked on in digital mode. It demands to be written in analogue mode, so I do. But I don’t think about these improvised pages as the actual book. They are just sketches, another way to generate plot ideas, and they almost never end up in the final story.
Only when you know the whole story should you write the actual prose. With the novel I’ve just completed, the first two drafts were about discovering the story (even though I didn’t know it at the time).
I think that great writing can come out of improvisation, but great storytelling rarely does.
More about Adam:
You can find him at www.adammarek.co.uk.
His stories have also appeared in Prospect magazine and in many anthologies including When it changed and The new uncanny from Comma Press and the British Council’s New Writing 15. He has twice been a Bridport Prizewinner. He has recently contributed a chapter to Short Circuit: A guide to the art of the short story from Salt Publishing.
Thanks Adam – you make a really good point here. Anything that is worth spending loads of your time on is worth spending lots of time planning to give yourself the best chance of coming out with what you actually intended rather than what you happened to create along the way. Having said that, there are times when not planning actually gives you a fantastic challenge and the potential to prove how good your instincts are, which can give you a lot of confidence. For example, I tend to see using recipes while cooking as a sign of weakness (strange I know) but have managed to massively impress myself with the things that I can create by guesswork and trusting in my own abilities. Naturally there hav been some disasters but then at least I’ve become less afraid of the taste of failure….but needless to say I don’t take so many risks if I’m cooking ten quid’s worth of steak!!
I agree with Gina – it is a cocktail of both detailed planning and spontaneous creativity that is essential to the process of writing a novel.
For me there are two creative highs of writing a novel. First comes the original idea which has to be thought of, dreamt upon, expanded and nailed down in some detail. Secondly, alchemy – the excitement, the challenge and the knowing that I’m gonna descend the depths over and over in my attempt to turn that written plan into a page turning novel.
The planning maybe a necessary discipline but the act of writing is an unknown beast of willed inspiration that can all but evaporate during these sunny July days.
I have spent the last 6 months planning my new novel and boy, have I had it with planning. I will give myself a break over the summer, let things simmer in my mind before beginning the process of writing the book in September – when the fun, despair, hard work and creativity really begins.
Good planning is essential to everything, especially big projects. In my opinion without planning and research you end up making the wrong thing. Before you start you need to know your market and clarify your strategy to avoid costly mistakes.
However, planning provides diminishing returns on your effort, eventually it is better to get started. You won’t know exactly what to think about and never think in as much detail as when your actually doing it. As soon as things start getting confusing or you’re wondering what to plan next I think it is time to start making. This leads to the next question “What is the best way to manage and build your project or book effectively?”. Perhaps a topic for an upcoming article?
I really have to force myself sometimes to sit down and carefully plan things as I can get pretty impatient and want to just jump straight into starting stuff! When I write, if I’m not careful I end up writing all parts of the piece at once (jumping around and not having a clear focus). I think I need to accept that as more of a brainstorming session and like Adam suggests, accept that most of what I write in that spontaneous phase, won’t end up in the finished piece.
My strategy is to think while doing other things and always have little scraps of paper available. It’s quite funny actually… writing my novel I had a ton of old paperwork from my degree that it wasn’t necessary to file.
I file, religiously. You never know when you might need it. At the end of every academic year, I tidy my desk… it’s like being a geologist, going through layers of the rock of “Leila’s Life”. So, I had all this paper. I decided to tear it up and throw it away, but again, life and chores, job-seeking and visiting… cooking etc… all got in the way.
Then I decided to follow my dream of writing on CN, using all my screenwriting training I, literally got the entire plot out in seven days. But how’s this for the eerie justice of destiny…. I overran seven days on handing in my atrocious failure of a screenplay. Perfect symmetry, n’est-ce-pas? And because I failed then, I knew I had to succeed here, because I was learning from the lesson of my failure.
So… I had all these bits of paper lying around in my room, and a plot in my head, as well as an electronic writer’s notebook previous to this. Suddenly, every day I was having beautiful, relevant, literary thoughts. And all these scraps of paper had one of these thoughts on it. At the end of each day, I log the thoughts into my notebook document and tear up the paper… although I may save a few for posterity now I think of it… If it is meant to me, or in the case of stuck writers, this is a strategy that could help. Just have a pad of post-its in every room of the house.
Leila – I now have a vision of you living in a house with everything covered in post-it notes!
I like your comparison of tidying your desk to being a geologist…maybe that will make that particular chore feel more exciting in the future if I think of it that way.
By the way, on the subject of post-it notes, I found this a little while ago: http://boingboing.net/2010/06/10/stop-motion-super-ma.html
It’s perhaps something you could do with your post-its when you have finished with them!
Lol! That’s great, I’ve always loved stop-motion Anna, from “Pingu” to “The Corpse Bride.” Love it, once did my own stuff on my phone in Blu-Tack which was… experimental! I have a lot of stuff on the side of my wardrobe because I can’t get Blu-Tack on the wallpaper.
I’ve only got one pad of post-its! What, you make it sound like a sin, lol. :D xx