Planning Permission

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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.

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I sat down and started planning: timelines, post it notes.

 

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.

 

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Perhaps there’s something to this planning lark after all.

 

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

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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

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It’s Not What You Know: Aristotle and the Authority of Experience

Writing Advice

Write what you know? “Bollocks”, as Aristotle would have said.

I view ‘advice for writers’ articles with suspicion. Strange opening for what looks like yet another example of the form, I know, but bear with me. I’ve read many that contain good tips and sage wisdom. I’ve adopted strategies other writers have used and found them effective. Still, whenever I see click-bait headlines like ‘10 Tips for Aspiring Novelists’ or ‘17 Mistakes You Are Making With Your Novel / Short Story / Poem / Play / Screenplay / Haiku’ (I might write this one day, 17 Mistakes You Are Making With Your Haiku’ – one per syllable and present it as a mega-haiku) I feel a great disturbance in the Force. Why? Because of the assumptions contained in them and because of the damage they can do.

These articles start from two simple premises:

  1. There is a right way of writing and a wrong way.
  1. Because I, the article writer, have published X amount of books, Y amount of articles and Z amount of blog posts, I know which is which.

 

Both are wrong, and embody what Aristotle would call a ‘false start’, being, as he was, a big fan of athletics.

There isn’t a right way or a wrong way of writing. There are ways that have met with success and ways that haven’t. Some writers plan every scene, making charts of weather, hours of darkness and light, what was in the news and who was on the 6 Music playlist on the days in question. Others begin with a sentence, a mood, or a voice and follow it for 80’000 words. Some writers set out to deal with an issue, a theme, to explore an argument or an assumption. Others want to tell a story and allow any themes to arise naturally. All are valid. Try them. See what works. But the following argument is what Aristotle would call bogus, being, as he was, a fan of the Bill and Ted movies:

JK Rowling planned her whole series in advance.

She has been almost insultingly successful.

Therefore, in order to be successful, I must do what she did.

Hemingway said about getting started: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ He didn’t cover his office with sticky paper yet he was quite successful too.

Secondly, as Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’ Good advice is helpful, maybe it nudges you in a better direction, maybe it lets you see a problem from another angle. Great. Bad advice however can be destructive. It doesn’t just nudge you, it can push you off the road like an elderly driver. At times it can stop you in your tracks like an elderly driver. Occasionally it can metaphorically kill you like a metaphorical elderly driver.

I studied creative writing at the University of Glasgow. It was a great course with fantastic teachers, wonderful writers and I’d do it all again in a second but boy did it stop me from writing for years. The problem, I now realise, is that I had so many competing pieces of advice, so many contradictory opinions bothering me like Hitchcockian birds that I couldn’t work out what to do or where to go. There is a well-established backlash against creative writing courses, and writers like Hanif Kureishi have famously spoken out against them (not very controversially to be honest, his point boiled down to ‘we can’t teach talent, only technique’ which is fair enough. Learning how to hold a brush and reading about the theory of the golden ratio won’t turn me into Leonardo da Vinci and cutting off my ear won’t make me Van Gogh).

I don’t really agree with the backlash. The courses are good and writers get a lot out of them. Whether they are value for money is a question about tuition fees and the nature of education, a separate issue. Whether you become a successful writer after graduation is down to talent and luck, neither of which is guaranteed with your degree certificate. In the main, they provide a safe, supportive environment in which to learn and to make mistakes, exactly the same as art school and football academies. However they are not like law degrees or medical degrees. To be a doctor you have to learn anatomy, biochemistry, surgical procedure. To be a lawyer you need to learn precedent, legal codes and how to write offensively expensive letters. There are rules. Memorise them. Follow them. If you deviate, people die. If you internalise everything you’re taught, one day you too can be screwed by Jeremy Hunt.

Not so with writing, though you wouldn’t know it if you Google for writing tips: Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adjectives. Don’t use present tense. Don’t use the second person. Don’t use too many auxiliary verbs. Don’t use anything other than ‘said’ (and specifically never, ever use ‘ejaculate’ in reference to speech, I mean, come on, JK). Don’t use passive verbs. Don’t use distancing tenses. If a gun is introduced, it must be fired. Never use your story to get revenge. Write what you know.

Look again at your favourite writers. They break all of these ‘rules’. David Mitchell does (he has twice written about a writer getting revenge on an unkind reviewer). So does Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings is a triumph of voice and when people speak they use adverbs, adjectives, second person, present tenses, the lot). They’re both quite successful as well.

But the worst of them all, the most insidious piece of advice is ‘Write What You Know.’

Bollocks, as Aristotle would have said.

Write what you know. Because Tolkein was a wizard, Thomas Harris was a cannibal and Shakespeare exited pursued by bear.

Write what you know because the only real literature is realism, the only authority is experience and empathy is patronising.

Bollocks, says Aristotle. A load of.

Literature is empathy. Writing a novel is the ultimate act of empathy. You take on the voice, the mannerisms, the opinions of a character or a number of characters in order to tell their story. Dostoevsky didn’t steal from Alyona Ivanovna after murdering her, he imagined what it would be like. Ian Fleming didn’t have sex with all those women. He imagined what it would be like. Presumably often and at great length. HG Wells didn’t travel in time, to the moon or to the Island of Dr Moreau.

The entire canon of world literature is treated like the exception that proves the rule. Dickens, Kundera, Murasaki Shikibu and the recently lost, much lamented Umberto Eco all did it the wrong way. They imagined people and worlds and stories about which they had no personal experience, about which nobody had any personal experience. Yet still there’s the advice; write what you know.

So why then all the fuss about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series? If you don’t know, it’s a six book series that details, in the kind of minute detail Joyce would have appreciated, Knausgaard’s own life. A publishing sensation in his native Norway and in translation, what’s so special about someone writing their own life, writing openly about their family and friends and intimate thoughts and washing up? If all we do is write what we know, a Norwegian man writing what he knows should be unremarkable. Yet it is remarkable precisely because we tend not to write what we know. We write what we imagine, spice it with our own experience and back it up with research.

My new novel is called The Waves Burn Bright. It deals with a survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster and the PTSD that destroys his family. Half of the novel is told from his perspective. The other half is narrated by his daughter. I could write this book because I did extensive research and because I took empathic leaps to try and understand what it would feel like to think you’re going to die, to have PTSD, to suffer from survivor’s guilt, to be an alcoholic, to commit adultery, to become a geologist, to live in New Zealand and Hawaii, to be a woman, to be gay. Write what you know? Experience isn’t the only source of authority. Research, talking, listening, empathy, imagination. A writer’s tools. Don’t just write what you know. Find out what you don’t know. Mix the two.

Why, Aristotle would ask, the big fuss?

Because I’ve seen what bad advice can do to a writer. I struggled to get back to work after studying at Glasgow but eventually I worked out which advice was useful, which I could ignore and which I could actively fight against (during my time in Glasgow, someone (not a member of the university or another student I hasten to add) told me that I wasn’t writing proper Scottish literature because I wasn’t writing about working-class men from the Central Belt. That person can, as Aristotle would say, Γαμήσου). Long before then, however, I was a member of the University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society. As with all groups of this kind we wrote, critiqued each other’s work and then got drunk. We were all undergraduates, young, horny and oh so damn serious about literature. We stayed up late drinking wine and discussing Keats. We wrote ‘responses’ to Beckett and ‘homages’ to Kerouac. We really deserved a good slap. One writer, however, didn’t. He wrote fun short stories of an Ian Fleming meets Tom Sharpe variety: heroes with guns, cartoon bad guys, slapstick and Tarantino-esque levels of blood. They were over-the-top and unrealistic and every week we told him that. ‘You’re talented,’ we’d say, ‘you should write realism, you should write proper literature. You should write what you know.’ We really deserved a good slap. As our lack of enthusiasm for what he was doing became apparent, so his enthusiasm waned. He kept coming to meetings, but didn’t hand in work as often. Eventually he stopped handing in at all. As far as I know he stopped writing. We remained good friends for years afterwards but eventually lost touch. I’ve never been able to shake the fear that our ‘advice’ derailed him. I wish, instead of saying what we did, we’d said something like, ‘It’s not very believable. Why not do some research into firearms and explosives. Look at anatomy books and trauma studies. Skulls don’t make a pop noise when you shoot them. But what noise do they make?’

Don’t write what you know, but make sure you know what you write.

Write what you want. Write how you want. Write where you want, why you want, when you want, who you want. It’ll either work or it won’t. There’s no right way. There’s Tolstoy’s way and Woolf’s way and Voltaire’s way and Oe’s way and they’re all different and they’re all right.

And don’t take advice from anyone just because they say it with authority, least of all me. Aristotle would say the same.

 

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 third novel, The Waves Burn Bright is out on Freight Books May 19th 2016. First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now. Iain will be touring the UK in May to promote his new book. To book him for an event please contact him via Twitter. More at www.iainmaloney.wordpress.com and @iainmaloney