Some say you can only write a novel if you have a plot outline, characters, conflict and structure to the phases of your story. Others say that all you need is some characters and you can make the rest up.
And in my current story, I’ve found it to be the latter.
‘But how can you write a novel when you have no idea where it’s going?’ I hear myself cry repeatedly as I barrage my document with yet more barely-coherent story blatherings.I have always had some kind of plan to my novels: I planned NaNoWriMo well in advance, I have my main WIP planned out into four main sections, each of which is then broken into The Hero’s Journey (other plotting devices are available!), and I have spent more time than I can fathom working on character motivations, conflict, drives and fears.
Which is why suddenly writing with no more than some characters and a few nicked ideas from my myths and legends books hit me for six. I am enjoying every minute, as detailed in my last blog post about Writing For Fun, but it was a startling surprise.
So how on earth am I writing anything without something resembling a plan? Firstly, I’m sticking to individual scenes. I sit around, listening to my favourite soundtracks, and let the characters wander aimlessly around my head for a while. Then all of a sudden a scene appears in my head. So I dutifully sit down and type this scene out in all it’s hideously flawed glory. Then mid-way through that scene, another has magically appeared in my head.*
It’s liberating to write without any kind of plan. I know that when I sit down, the story could go anywhere at all. I have ideas scribbled in my ideas book but I never write with that notebook open. It’s there as a goldmine if I’m stuck, and nothing more. The important pieces of information, like who has fallen out with who, etc., are already stuck in my head from when I’ve been writing their scenes. And by the time I’ve finished that particular writing session, I’ve got a whole new range of possibilities compared to the ones I’d been exploring in that writing time.
In many ways it’s like writing as a child again, when you’re determined to be the next JK Rowling and thought that Harry Potter just fell on the page and hey presto! Everyone loves your books, you get paid to write more books, with the added benefit of being a multi-millionaire. And when you’re a kid you don’t even know if what you are writing is utter drivel. You’re proud of it because it’s your drivel and you think it’s the best story ever and anyone who doesn’t love it is clearly wrong and has no taste in literature.
Everything has success criteria these days, and everything can be ‘taught’ – creative writing as much as anything else. There are so many structures that writers can use to plan out their novels that it can almost be assumed as ordinary practice. Getting into the gristly details of character, ensuring that their motivations and drives are foolproof, making sure that your arch-villain has their own perfectly reasoned back-story… The list goes on.
But that list seems to have now become something to do with a story before it even gets written. It’s this kind of over-planning that has choked many a novelist, be it in a rushed preparation for NaNoWriMo or after months of delving into the story’s heart to see what makes it tick. What is wrong with stories being written off the cuff, loosely, without a plan?**
Worst case scenario, you realise you don’t know enough about your story. Then you go and daydream and wander and let your characters run riot inside your brain. They’ll come up with something; they always do. Best case scenario, your characters springboard themselves and drag you along with them wherever they want to go.
And there is so much time to fix glaring plot holes and character failings and inconsistencies, and realising that you didn’t foreshadow that super-important scene or accurately depict someone being clobbered around the head with a wooden sword.
Writing without direction has been fantastically good for my writing over the last few weeks. It’s not necessarily the solution for all writers, but if you’re plunging the fruitless depths of over-planning, step back. Write utter rubbish, write the worst combination of words you have ever put on a page. Because at the end of the day, there is always time to fix it in your second draft.
* I have literally no idea what provokes these ideas and where they come from. The plot bunnies are clearly being kind to me!
** Obviously this is a major problem if you write a page and then realise that’s all you’ve got. A vague idea of your main characters/maybe one significant plot event will likely do.