Discovering the story

So this writing thing is a pretty steep learning curve. I used to think that I planned my stories out in great detail before writing them, because an early experiment in just letting things unfold naturally led to me having to abandon a large chunk of my novel. I decided then that I needed to sort out plot before writing anything in future, so that when it came to the actual writing, I could just concentrate on character and description and dialogue without worrying about where things were headed…

And to be fair, I think that I partially achieved my goal. But the thing is that as you actually write out your carefully planned plot, things start to change. You realise that character has an impact on plot, because your hero suddenly refuses to do something that you had planned for her. And you also realise that perhaps you didn’t think the plot through as carefully as you might have, because you were anxious to get going with the writing, and here you are with a gaping big plot hole. And then, worst of all, you suddenly get a new idea, see something that just makes so much sense, that feels so right and lifts your story up a whole level.

What’s so awful about that, you ask? Because it messes up your carefully planned outline, makes you rewrite before you’ve even finished the first draft, throws out your fantasy about writing being an orderly and planned process of thinking things up and then writing them down in an efficient fashion.

I suppose it must be possible to spend so much time planning, and to do so in sufficient detail, that you do see everything before writing a word, and so all of your planning is the process of discovering the story, at the stage when changes are simple and easy to make. But it’s more likely that for most people, there must remain some element of discovery during the actual writing process, and so where you end up on the planning/discovery continuum probably depends on your patience for rewrites. M Night Shyamalan reportedly did not discover the key to his script for The Sixth Sense - the main character himself being a ghost - until the fifth draft. If you can’t handle doing a rewrite for the nth time, you’ll put more effort into the planning stage next time.

And of course with experience the writer becomes, like a chess grandmaster, able to spot problems and dead ends and to unconsciously close them off before they even arise, whether at the planning or the writing stage. It’s the old thing about writing being a journey. When you start out on a journey you take wrong turnings, you fall down a lot, but all those mistakes teach you to spot the right turning, avoid the pitfalls, and so your progress becomes much faster. This is why most first novels are never published. To think of them as a waste of time and effort, however, is a mistake. The failed first novel paved the way for the second and third and all the rest, in fact was the training ground, the boot camp, that made the writer. And it’s never about just one book, just as the journey is never completed at the first mile marker. To be a writer you have to be able to use your talent to tell many different stories. You are not your work, even though it’s sometimes hard to see that when all you’ve written is the work in progress of your first novel. If it works, fantastic. If it has too many flaws to overcome, leave it, move on to the next story. If the story is compelling enough you can return to it in time and re-tell it with the benefit of your new skills and experience. But you’ll probably find a hundred new stories that you’re itching to tell, and that’s what being a writer is: having more ideas than you’ll ever have the time to tell.