Planning your writing: is it a necessary evil; essential for success; a vital part of the writing process; a killer of creativity – or all (or none) of these?
Journeys vary. We may set off with a firm destination and a route in mind. We may wander and see where the fancy takes us. Or we may know where we want to end up but have no fixed plan for how to get there. And each of these works as a metaphor for someone‘s writing process – what works for yours?
It seems to me that it’s like following threads. Strands of yarn, all different colours, lengths and thicknesses. Like Theseus in the labyrinth, I follow a strand, running it through my fingers to see where it leads. Sometimes it leads to a tangle, a ball of other threads, or a dead end. Sometimes I choose a different thread, or sit down to unpick the knots in the one in my hand. Sometimes I knit a length of yarn into a square and tuck it into my pocket for later, and sometimes I knit strands together and see the beginnings of a blanket growing. And there’s the occasional mass unravelling.
Sometimes it all seems like an almighty mess, but it’s a necessary part of not just the writing process but the planning process as well. I can’t separate planning from writing; they seem to happen alongside one another: follow a thread towards what I think may be the ultimate destination (always accepting that I may not be going where I think I’m heading), write that thread down (or knit it up), get distracted or excited by another bright strand, and follow that to see where it leads – only to discover that it’s connected to the original one in a way I hadn’t imagined at the beginning. It’s the same with research and idea-gathering: I find a spaghetti-plate of strings to follow and make sense of. Eventually I may be able to braid them together into something coherent, but for most of the process it pays to get comfortable with uncertain wanderings.
There’s a lot of faffing to be done before you can actually write, isn’t there? Or is it just me?
A lovely friend of mine recently referred to this inability to just sit down and write as “circling the chair”. How long do you have to circle the chair before you actually manage to sit in it and put pen to paper?
There’s a way round it, and it’s to do your chair-circling away from the chair.
Bear with me.
You know what you want to write. (I mean the basics: a blog post, a short story. You needn’t be any more specific than that.) Hold the thought in your mind as you go about your business. Write down anything, however mundane it seems, that comes into your mind about it as you load the dishwasher, change a nappy, write a business strategy – whatever you’re spending your time on each day. That way, when you do have your Chair Time, you don’t need to circle because you’ve got a small stack of random thoughts to work with. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re rubbish, or you don’t know where they’re going. Even if you just spend a few minutes typing them out, at least you’ll have started writing. And, like rolling downhill, once you’ve started it’s easier to keep going!
He said, “I’ve never written anything just for fun.”
I wish I could show you the look of absolute incredulity on his face as he said it. I’m sure it was identical to my own expression at the time. You see, he was responding to my remark that my writing group “gets me writing things I wouldn’t normally, just for fun.”
I could see it in his eyes. Did Not Compute. Whereas I couldn’t process the idea of writing not being fun.
He has a message to deliver to the world, and his writing life is geared towards developing the right voice to broadcast his message. I am the kid playing in the corner with coloured pens and strings of words while the grown-ups do the Important Stuff.
Good for him. And good for me too. Both approaches are equally valid. We all have our own ways of being and our own ways of writing – not to mention our own reasons for doing it in the first place. There’s no one Right Way. Your way, his way, my way: they’re all right. And one day, for a time, I might adopt his way, or he might try mine, or we might both discover yours. If it works, do it. If it doesn’t, try something new.
I have to end with one of my favourite quotes. I’m not sure I fully understand it (I am, after all, a child at heart), but I love the playful use of words, and it seems appropriate to so many things. It’s from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
“For some of us it is performance, for others patronage. They are two sides of the same coin, or, let us say, being as there are so many of us, the same side of two coins.”
I understand why people advocate writing every day. It’s all about keeping the momentum and building a habit.
If you work on something regularly it stays in your head. Ideas come when you’re in the shower, and when you sit down to work on it again you can plunge straight in; you don’t have to spend half of your previous writing time trying to get back into it or working out where on earth it was going.
As I’ve written elsewhere today, habits stop you having to think. Training your brain to switch to autopilot – it’s 7am; I write at 7am – means you’re more likely to just sit down and begin. And it might just free up a few neurons to come up with creative ideas – even when you’re not in the shower.
I’ve written over 3,000 words today. Mostly just notes, and thoughts to follow up, but still – 3,000 words. Does it matter?
If I’d only written 100 words, would I be feeling as positive as I do now? Well, yes. The point is to make progress.
Over the last few days (weeks, really) I’ve been making progress, but mostly in my head. Thinking things through, working things out. It didn’t feel like progress at the time, but now that the words are spilling out of me, I can see that I needed that time of seeming inaction, of stuckness. Like unpicking a tight knot: there’s a period of time where you pick and pick and nothing seems to give, until eventually you feel that slight loosening that gives you hope.
If I’d written 100 words today, it would still feel like progress. Because now I have a glimmer of an idea of where I’m going.