Something that comes up in most conversations I have about writing is the vexed issue of planning. It’s something I’d ask when I was starting out, something I’d discuss with peers over many glasses; now I get asked by writers I’m editing and by audience members at events. It comes up so often that I was moved to put fingertip to keyboard and write this essay.
Should I plan? And if so, how much?
Yes, I plan. It would be madness not to, but it’s taken me a long time to realise that, many years of madness and a huge number of wasted words, wrong turns and empty hours staring at a mocking cursor.
When I was starting out I was caught in the romantic tractor beam of the Beat Generation. The ghosts of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs wafted over my desk and drifted through my imagination like pot smoke. The Beats were inseparable from the idea of flowing creativity, of turning on the tap and simply collecting the outpouring: Kerouac’s mythical benzedrine-crazed production of On The Road, battering it out on a single roll of paper in a single sitting. Ginsberg and LSD and those long, lolloping lines that unfold like the breath of the universe being exhaled. Burroughs and his cut-up technique, seemingly the very opposite of planning, taking a Stanley knife through the very notion of organisation. Planning, sitting down with a notebook and saying ‘I’m going to create and it’s going to look like this’ was directly contradictory to that jazz spirit of improvisation and connecting with something purer and deeper. You don’t open the doors of perception with a blueprint and a protractor. I was an artist, god dammit, and artists, they… well… they art.
Exactly. They what? The Kerouac thing is a myth. He planned, he thought, he rewrote and edited. To quote from an article on NPR:
‘Kerouac’s brother-in-law and executor, John Sampas, says the three week story is a kind of self-created myth. “Three weeks” is what Kerouac answered when talk-show host Steve Allen asked how long it took to write On the Road. “And so this gave the impression that Jack just spontaneously wrote this book in three weeks,” Sampas says. “I think what Jack should’ve said was, “I typed it up in three weeks.”’
But I bought into the myth and thought, ‘that’s for me!’ What I refused to admit to myself then was that this adolescent romantic bullshit was masking the real reason for not planning: I was terrified. I wanted to be a writer, I had a burning urge to write but I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Sitting down and planning a poem or a story exposed that, opened me up to the reality that I had no stories, no characters, no voices, just a blank sheet of paper and dreams of Paris and New York and cafes and smoky clubs and my name on spines. I wrote enough to convince myself and others that I was writing. Poems, some of them good, some of them I’m still proud of, got published in respectable places, but there was nothing substantial, nothing to hint at a direction. And the more I smoked and drank and read Eliot and Hughes and Keats and Snyder, the more I could convince myself that I was a poet, a writer, an artist.
I had talent. I believe talent is innate, you can’t teach it. But talent is over-rated. Talent by itself is pointless. You don’t need to teach babies to piss and shit – that stuff will come out of them regardless. But they need to be toilet trained or we end up covered in it.
First poem published when I was 11 or 12. Regularly being published as an undergraduate. A self-published chapbook of poetry (thankfully disappeared from the world, that stuff is embarrassing). A Masters in Creative Writing when I was 24. First book published when I was 34, more than 20 years since I started writing, 10 years since graduating from Glasgow with a finished novel and a pocket full of publishers’ phone numbers. Why the gap? What took so long? What the hell was I doing?
A number of things, but a huge one was this issue of planning. I still thought that by acting like a writer and by sitting down and just typing a book would inevitably come.
I wrote a novel called Sometimes Sleep. The kindest thing anyone said about it was, ‘I guess you needed to get that out of your system.’ I wrote a novel called Dog Mountain that got shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize but was told, ‘It shows promise but it’s all over the place. It’s a mess.’ It was. It still is. It’s in a file on this computer and every so often I take it out and shake my head. There’s some good stuff in there. Some really good stuff that one day I may salvage. But it isn’t a novel, it’s a patchwork of ideas, stream of consciousness, adolescent whining and just… shit.
Then I started on First Time Solo. It was an idea I’d had since I was a teenager but hadn’t known how to approach or been mature enough to deal with the psychological implications of the story. But in about 2011 or 2012, with Dog Mountain getting more knock backs than teenage Iain ever did in the Mudd Club in Aberdeen (and that was a lot of knock backs), I got to work.
You can probably see where this is going. But no, it’s so much worse. Of course I didn’t plan. But rather than simply start at page one and type until page whatever, I thought I’d be clever. I started with the second last chapter. Then the third last. Then the one before that. And so on. I jumped back and forth as ideas came to me. I was constantly seeking and fixing continuity errors. I was changing names and locations and motivations halfway through scenes. One minute my main character was a whiney little boy, the next he was the moral centre of the universe with wisdom Confucius would be envious of. I got to about 80’000 words and pronounced the novel done. I sat back, like God looking over creation, and saw that it was not good. I called up a metaphorical flood and laid waste to the world (well, I put it in a folder. I still have that draft, I don’t literally throw these things away. I just reread the original opening paragraph and part of me is still nostalgic for that free-form writing I was still trying to do then. I quote Eliot twice before the end of the first paragraph. What a dick.). I started again with a different concept. 120’000 words later I had a longer mess. That joined its predecessor in the folder (also still there. I have an idea for a sequel I’ll write one day and there are ideas in there worth saving). 200’000 words and nothing to show for it and still Dog Mountain was taking its kickings stoically. Around the same time my friend Hamish MacDonald was putting out his DIY Book podcast and I decided to put some of his advice into practice. So I sat down and I started planning. Step by step. Timelines, post it notes, Jack is here from this date to this date and he develops in these ways. Thus armed, I started again. It wasn’t easier. I still made mistakes. I still suffered long, dark periods where I was worthless and everything I wrote was worthless, but at least I knew where I was supposed to be going. I was still lost in the woods but now I was on a path rather than tramping through the brush and trees.
I finished. I wrote on my Facebook page Novel done! and got drunk. Dog Mountain had been shortlisted. Adrian Searle from Freight saw my post and wrote underneath, ‘Send it to me’. Five days later he told me he wanted to publish it.
So Yay Planning! I’d learnt my lesson.
Had I fuck.
Exhausted after all this I started writing a horror story about a minister who finds a wooden idol in a peat bog and this sparks a witch hunt in a Scottish village. I sat down and started typing like the previous 280’000 words had never happened. I was so happy to be doing something other than World War Two and editing and rewriting and rewriting that the story flowed out of me, genre tropes, bad puns and Hammer Horror dialogue and all. It got to about 30’000 words and ran out of steam. I had no intention of doing anything with it, it was what Virginia Woolf called ‘a writer’s holiday’, a distraction while I wondered what my next serious book should be. But I sent it to my friend Simon Sylvester who said ‘This is great, now stop pissing around and do it properly.’ Suitable castigated I sat down with my post it notes and spider diagrams and produced Silma Hill, novel number two.
Maybe there was something to this planning lark after all. For The Waves Burn Bright I fully embraced the concept and writing that novel – from a practical point of view – was a dream (emotionally it was terrible but that’s because of the story not how I went about writing it). I never got lost. I never spent even a second staring at a page wondering what to write. Each morning I sat down at my desk knowing exactly what I was supposed to be doing and then did it.
I firmly believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block, just lack of planning. If you are sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper or a computer screen wondering what to write, then there’s little point being there. You aren’t ready to sit down yet. Planning can take place anywhere. I recently moved to a house with a garden. It takes about four hours to cut the grass (not because it’s particularly big but because I’m stunningly inept and have to go over the same patch multiple times. My father-in-law is much quicker) and as I’m unwinding bamboo roots from the rotors and wincing as another stone flies into my shins I’m planning my next book, questions, scenes, conversations playing out to the whine of a two-stroke engine. I have stacks of notebooks with ideas, memos, sentences, diagrams. I’ve been planning this essay for most of the week and I only sat down at my desk this morning because I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.
Details. I don’t plan sentence to sentence how the novel will develop but I have notes like, ‘In this chapter he has to find out X, she has to go to Y and the reader has to learn Z about A’.
Specific example: The last scene I finished (about 1000 words, the end of part one setting up dramatic opening to part two, 36000 words into the novel), I wrote earlier in my notebook: ‘Tomo is late and Fumio is sent to find him. He’s at the temple sitting with a little campfire on the cliff. He tells his brother about the dreams (and why father is interested in dreams) and asks him to look after Mai if anything happens to him. Fumio agrees and is spooked but doesn’t really understand.’ When I started writing I knew what I was doing and where I was going. A couple of hours later the scene was drafted. I then went out to cut the grass while thinking ‘How do they react?’, ‘What are the press going to say about Tomo?’ ‘What about Takeda?’ I know that in about 5000-10000 words my main character needs to confront his father about something big, so the reader needs to be ready to receive the news with him, all the other characters (there are about 7 sub-plots, it’s really complicated) need to be in their places so when the confrontation kicks off and the novel moves into act 3 and charges for the end, everyone’s ready. There are problems, there are difficulties, there are options and alternatives, but there are no blocks. It’s a road, but a long and winding one.
I know I said in a different article that these ‘advice to writers’ articles are a waste of time because there is no single correct way of writing, and I still stand by that. I’m not trying to be prescriptive here, just sharing my own experiences in a way that I’d have found helpful in the past. If I could go back in time I’d go and see my younger self and, once I’d given him a lecture about how talking to women isn’t nearly as scary as he thinks as long as you do it with honesty and respect (and not while they’re wearing headphones – what is it with these idiots?) and how he probably shouldn’t spend the last of his student loan on another night out, I’d take him by the shoulders, shake him vigorously and say, ‘Planning doesn’t kill creativity, it channels it. Making decisions about your writing doesn’t limit options, it opens doors. You are not a Blairite: having choice is not in-and-of-itself a good thing. This stubbornness is paralysing you. You’re going to waste a decade that could otherwise be hugely productive because you believe a story Kerouac spun to make himself look cooler.’
You’d never set out on a long journey without having some idea of the destination and at least a vague inkling about how to get there. So far there isn’t a Google Maps for novel writing and Word isn’t fitted with some kind of narrative Sat-Nav, there’s just you and your imagination carving your own route from A to B. That is creativity, pure and deep. Should you plan? I’d say yes, but as I’ve said before, it’s your writing, do what you like: I’m not your mother.
About the author of this post
Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and now lives in Japan. He is the author of three novels and has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and the Dundee International Book Prize. His first collection of haiku, Fractures, will be out in the autumn on Tapsalteerie. www.iainmaloney.wordpress.com @iainmaloney