‘I do not plan my fiction any more than I normally plan woodland walks; I follow the path that seems most promising at any given point, not some itinerary decided before entry.’
Recently I’ve found myself immersed in discussions about the pros and cons of planning a novel before embarking on the writing of it. These days there are endless numbers of story planning tools, maps, checklists and even software designed to help us plan our stories. Many of these tools are no doubt very useful and I know a few writers who swear by them. People write in different ways, according to their character and preference. Some write haphazardly with no story in mind, then cut and paste, creating links between sections until a story emerges. Some plan everything before sitting down to actually write a story, mapping out chapters and scenes, character traits and biographies. Others plan very little and simply trust the process. There are dangers and rewards in each of these approaches. Too much knowledge of a story can set the boundaries so tightly its natural growth becomes restricted. Too little and the story might never be found.
‘Of course, the writer can impose control; It’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however… that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.’
Moving from being inspired by an idea to actually acting upon it is not always easy but any successful creative entity must be comfortable alternating between these two creative phases: ideation and execution.
After a year of struggling to prioritise my writing over other duties, a couple of months ago I bought a time management book called Making Ideas Happen:Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality. I have to admit that I was not expecting it to make much of a difference to my life and I also felt slightly embarrassed by the idea of time management; as if I had anything to manage, as if I was a CEO or some sort of entrepreneur with a busy meeting schedule. And anyway, my days were already so full I couldn’t see where to squeeze anything else in without letting go of something – paid work, exercise time, family time, or even sleep; all of which I treasure. I was desperately tired and was already pushing myself too hard, ending each day with a feeling of failure because I hadn’t achieved everything I set out to do. Each day I wrote a to-do list and each day it grew longer. Write novel was always somewhere on that list but rarely was it crossed out. Once again my writing had been put on the back burner, becoming an increasingly distant dream, and unless we’re lucky enough to make a good living out of our writing, this scenario is most likely a familiar one for many of us. As Philp Roth said, ‘The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.’
So I bought Scott Belsky’s book and sat down with a cup of tea and a good dose of skepticism. Within minutes I was hooked, despite the fact that for the most part, the world Belsky described did not resemble my own. Nevertheless, the ideas were practical and useful and possible to achieve. According to Belsky ideas only happen with organization and prioritization. In a sense this is pretty much stating the obvious but like most of us, I had never thought of the obvious. Belsky successfully tailored the obvious into practical applications that made it possible to begin making changes. I was already familiar with motivational material – books by other writers that invariably inspired and enthused me temporarily but I had never been able to translate this ‘just do it’ inspiration into just doing it.
In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.