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Don’t start too soon

For the last year I have been lucky enough to have a fellowship post at Aberystwyth University sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund.  This involved me sitting in a pleasant office on campus one day a week so that students (and staff) could come and consult me about writing issues. These ranged from queries from undergraduates about punctuation (whatever do they teach in schools these days?) to major structural issues in PhD theses. The idea is that novelists are ideally qualified to help students write both better English and better essays, and thus hopefully get more out of their courses – and better marks.

So from one hour to the next I found myself grappling with subjects such as Mary Shelley’s concept of sexuality in Frankenstein, the specific chromosome present in albino Palomino stallions, the psychological behaviour of dog owners when visiting vets, military law in Afghanistan, the music of an obscure Polish filmmaker or a report comparing the marketing techniques of Toyota and Ford.

But whatever the subject, the problems were normally pretty similar. Voice, grammar and choice of vocabulary were relatively easy to deal with, but the real reason those hoped for grades weren’t being achieved was lack of planning and structure.

Rattled by deadlines, students generally started writing too soon, before they had completed their research, mustered their thoughts or decided on the argument they wanted to make. So either they would get poor marks, or they would get stuck half way through the essay and come to me for help.

It is much the same with writing novels, scripts or even short stories. It is so easy nowadays to switch on the PC and launch straight into Chapter One. ‘I can always change it later’ is the mantra. Yes, of course you can tweak and edit, cut and paste. The good old days of Tipp-Ex and retyping are long gone.

But what it’s not so easy to do is change the theme, the voice, the plot progression, the character motivation or the story structure. Life becomes so much easier (and stories more readable and saleable) if those elements are sorted out first. It’s when those go wrong, (as they so often do,) that you find yourself, like Nick Clegg, with a half written novel in your bottom drawer.

So my advice to students and creative writers is much the same. Don’t start too soon. Mull, research, make endless notes, and mull again, until the moment comes when the story (or essay) is there, complete in your mind (or your notes), and all you have to do is write it down.

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12 thoughts on “Don’t start too soon

  1. Must admit I’m the complete opposite – I don’t like having a plot or a structure, and find that I lose interest in the story if I know where it’s going. I usually set myself mental deadlines, and then just sit down and begin writing. When I get stuck, I walk away and do something else until it flows again. I work best when I have less time, not more time. And the more I think about the story/book, the more likely I am to get blocked. I guess we writers all just have very different ways of working!

    • Yes, everyone is different. And of course it depends a lot on what type of novel you are writing. If is has an intricate plot then it’s easier to know what’s going to happen so you can make it logical and appropriate for the motivations of the characters (and vice versa). I hate having to go back to change things to suit later developments so for me it’s easier to plan!! (Doesn’t always work out though!)

  2. Deborah Klee on said:

    Do you plan everything or allow change as a result of the creative process of writing. I have two plausible ends but in keeping the reader guessing I am not entirely sure myself which end I will use. Is this a recipe for disaster?

    • I like to know where I am headed so I can prepare the ground, lay clues etc., and make it all seem plausible and satisfyingly ‘real’. But that’s not to say you can’t have an alternative equally plausible potential ending lurking in the background. It’s nice to keep the reader guessing, and it’s good to ‘give them what they want, but not how they expect it’, but my advice would be for you to know which way you are ultimately going to jump – probably leads to less rewriting and more clarity.

  3. Sound advice, as always! It seems to be commonsense, but a lot of people just can’t be bothered to take the necessary time and trouble.

    • Yes, planning and mulling does take time, and time is in short suply these days! Some people are good at doing it in their heads, some are better with notes. But it is worth it. It’s such a shame when stories flag or fail to end well.

  4. Good advice, Helen. I’m not a meticulous planner but I am definitely a muller – now there’s a word – or perhaps not! I like to think it all through in my head, dream it, come up with the first few words or sentences of a scene before I set them down in black and white. On occasions when I haven’t done this, I find that the “fixing it later” business can be condemning yourself to wrestling with a Rubik cube, or a fiendish Sudoku. Writing should flow, in thought as well as execution and you can arrive at structure organically. It’s like building a house, dig your foundations and build your framework and the rest will follow naturally.

  5. Cathy on said:

    I am learning this through bitter experience! Some people do seem to find an idea or a few scenes enough to weave a novel around and immediately put fingers to keyboard on a first draft. Whenever I try with just those basics, I come unstuck at a point which leads me to think the whole thing is bad – this has horrible psychological consequences for my writing routine! Not to mention wasting a lot of time. The ‘fast’ writer can perhaps afford this, but a slower writer (like me) really can’t. Thanks for a useful post.

  6. I totally agree… structure is vital. With non-fiction it’s fairly straighforward but with fiction it’s so easy to fall in love with your idea and just want to get cracking… then you make a good start but then fall foul of one of the main novelists’ downfalls… the curse of the saggy middle (and I’m talking about the book rather than the figure). – planning ahead and thinking of how you’re going to keep the reader’s attention after your cracking start will save huge amounts of wasted time and feeling bewildered about ‘why the book isn’t working anymore’.

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