‘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.’
Flannery O’Connor spoke of writing ‘as an act of discovery’ and for me that is certainly the case. I have never used any planning tools, not because I am averse to them but because as yet I have felt no need of them before or during the writing process. Instinctively I shy away from planning and even from talking unnecessarily about my work-in-progress, because I have found that planning and talking are easy substitutes for doing. For me the joy of writing lies in the uncertainty about what is ahead, not the comforting knowledge that all is mapped out for me. I would prefer the occasional signpost and an inner compass to a detailed map and schedule because it seems to me that creativity itself demands that we embrace uncertainty.
Writing is an act of faith. Not in God but in the creative process. This is where the magic lies. A story will come and we must allow it, nurture it, sometimes even push it, but never dictate to it. I don’t plan before I write, instead I start with an image that haunts me and a theme or two, then see what emerges. When I wrote Gathering Storm I had an image in my head of a small child abandoned on the Stuart Highway. It became the central point in the story which grew around it, a hidden memory which needed to be unmasked. When I began the writing of Flight I had a title and I knew that the story would somehow revolve around the double meaning inherent in the word flight; one of running away from something, the other of ascension. Aside from this, the only clue I had was an image of a young woman who had locked herself in her bedroom, an attic in a terrace house in inner city Sydney.
Perhaps if I had planned more I would not have needed to cut so much early material from my second novel, Flight, words that were written simply to help me find the story. But then if I had planned more, I would not have had so many surprises or experiences the excitement of new discoveries. I might have missed many of the clues, the magical synchronicities, the sudden links and new themes that stepped forward to be included. If I had planned carefully, few of these things would have found their way into my novel. I would not have been able to embrace change in the way that I believe is necessary for the creative process to flow at its best. For the same reason, I don’t edit as I write. A scene emerges and I wonder why it is there only to discover later that I am referring back to it and it is forming its own thread, enriching and deepening the story. Turning points, climaxes, catalysts. . . are all useful technical devices that I consider when teaching, analyzing and editing stories but not when writing them.
‘I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.’
George R.R. Martin
What astonishes me about Martin’s distinction between a gardener and an architect is that he places himself firmly in the gardener camp and yet his extraordinary fantasy series, Game of Thrones has an incredibly complex plot with many subplots woven through it and a multitude of characters. Why is it then that when we plant our story seeds, they grow into such beautiful and complex shapes? Perhaps it is because within each seed of a story lies an already existing potential, just as within each tiny acorn lies the blueprint of a giant oak. No doubt there are many drafts during which Martin tightens his story lines, and perhaps like many of us, he pauses occasionally mid-story and regroups, asking questions of his plot and his characters and creating further signposts to guide him on his way. Perhaps stories inhabit the vast realms of our collective unconscious and it is our imaginations that must take the necessary journeys, in order to discover them. In Writing as a Sacred Path, Jill Jepson describes it as ‘a realm of myth, memory, imagery, trope, and dream’. Perhaps it is here that we ‘find’ our story. Then it is up to each of us to seek the balance we need, between storytelling and plotting.
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