I had lots of ideas – vague, dreamlike ideas that were apt to disintegrate on close inspection. I started writing lots of stories. I finished very few. I began my first novel at 13; but didn’t finish a first draft of it until 15 years later. It was about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. Wow, I wish I hadn’t missed that boat! It was also terrible, but [redacted: grumpy observation on how much that matters].
The trouble was, I had no idea how to plan and structure a novel. I had some vague, naïve idea that complex, thrilling stories just magically happen. They don’t. Not from my pen, anyway.
At the age of 34, with many and various jobs behind me, but little satisfaction, I gave up full time work to write Darklands. I had no agent, no contacts, no safety net. But I also had no dependants or responsibilities. So I just did it.
Whether the book was any good or not, whether it got published or not, these were uncertainties. But whether or not I finished the book was not. I was gambling everything on writing this book, so I was damn well going to finish it.
That meant planning. I was not going to do my old trick of getting three quarters through the story, then running out of steam, and having no way to resolve my loose ends. I was going to plan it thoroughly before I even started.
I like twisty-turny stories. My very favourite thing to happen in a story is when there is some revelation that pulls the rug from under your feet. You never saw it coming, but in retrospect you can clearly see that the clues were all there. You kick yourself and wonder why you couldn’t see it; you admire and envy the author’s sleight-of-hand (Diana Wynne Jones was great at this, a particularly fine example being Howl’s Moving Castle).
That was what I wanted to do with Darklands. And it is an astonishingly difficult thing to do well. When writing a novel you necessarily become so familiar with every aspect of your story that it becomes almost impossible to view it objectively. One of the hardest things in crafting a story is to judge your own level of subtlety in dropping plot hints. To the casual reader, would that clue hidden in chapter 6 seem blindingly obvious? Or is it so subtle and obscure that no one will pick up on it at all?
The thing I’m most pleased and proud of is when readers have told me that they didn‘t see the twists coming, and that they did have that ‘Oh yeah!’ moment when the rug was pulled away and everything fell into place.
I really can’t see how that would happen in any other way than by careful and strategic planning.
I know that many writers advocate the pantsing method. Stephen King for one has made a damned good living from it, and seems to know what he’s doing. But speaking purely for me and my own writing style, I feel like pantsing is the childish, confused approach that doesn’t deliver. I’ve only started to produce good, convincing work since I adopted a rigorous approach to planning.
* I realised early on that I wasn’t quite the temperament for actually having adventures, so I thought I’d make them up instead.
Emma Woodcock is the author of the young adult novel, Darklands, in which Sophie finds herself transported to a mysterious and seemingly idyllic parallel world, where nothing and no one is quite what they seem.
At some point later this year she will be publishing her second novel, Kikimora, concerning a reluctant monster, a lovestruck magician, a kind-hearted Rusalka, and a very wise cat.
Many thanks for Guest Posting, Emma.
Perseverance paid off in the end and ANOTHER vote for planning. 🙂