There are two schools of thought for a writer working on a story – you either plan – and work out in advance what happens when. Or you don’t. You pants your writing – derived from the phrase ‘flying by the seat of your pants’.
After years of trying to be a don’t care writer, I’ve realised the only way I can ever finish a book is to plan. If I write and see where the characters take me – usually into a deserted parking lot where one of them pulls a gun and tells me to stop bothering them with my adverb-free prose.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for freestyling – especially when you first work on something fresh. In fact, playing things by ear is essential.
My creative process tends towards the same pattern each time I try to work on a new novel. I start off fine, loving everything about what’s clearly the best thing I’ve ever written. And then I run smack into a wall – usually around 15,000 words. The dreaded ‘writers’ block‘. If I climb over, I carry on, only to hit another somewhere between 30 and 35,000 words. It’s only when I’m safely past the 50,000 word mark that I feel sure the story will reach a logical conclusion and stand a chance of making it to a full first draft.
Why do these brick walls appear?
Often, this happens because I’ve taken the current characters as far as I can. Even if I’ve worked out roughly where the narrative should go next, I can’t find a road through. Sometimes, I realise I’ve grown bored with the story or the people telling it. Some might consider 15,000 words a lot to throw away, but I do this often. As a writer, I treat these initial meanderings as a passageway into writing. A chance to get familiar with my characters and their situation and work out who they need around them. Just like when you make a new acquaintance. You don’t know enough about them to determine if you want to spend six months of your life with them, or if they’ll fit with your other friends, or what to buy them on their birthday. Or even if they’re the kind of friend who makes your birthday present list. 15,000 words are usually ample for me to decide.
The same, but better
Even if every single word ends up in the trash, often the people who lived in those words survive. They might say different things or dress better (or worse) or have new homes and jobs and husbands or secret lovers, but when I start again, I understand them enough to clamber over that first brick wall. I’d say it makes me a better writer.
Next time I’ll talk about the second brick wall – because that’s where planning really counts.