Sunday, February 10, 2013

To Plot or Abandon.

Creative Writing: Learning from the Masters (Part Two)

If you missed my last post, I have been reading an ibook called Creative Writing: Learning from the Masters. The masters are John Irving, Carol Joyce Oates,  Ernest J Gaines, Amy Tan, Norman Mailer and Carol Shields.

Plotting a novel.

There are supposedly two types of writers: those who write an outline of the novel before they start writing it, and those who just start writing and see where the story takes them. John Irving is an extreme example of the first. He spends months writing a detailed plan of a novel so when he finally gets around to writing it he can concentrate on the words and language and not have to worry about what happens next.

What really intrigued me about Irving is that he writes these outlines backwards. He starts with the final line of the book and then works out how the story got to that final line. This immediately had me rushing to my bookshelves and retrieving The World According to Garp to read its final line: But in the World According to Garp, we are all terminal cases. The numerous meanings of terminal cases kind of sums up the book.

Carol Shields prefers to just start writing and see where the story goes. I could not write this way. I abandoned (45,000 words in) the only novel I started writing with no clear idea how it would end because I had no idea where it was going (it was about the end of the world too). Shields did admit that she usually had an idea of how the story would end.  

I have to know how my story will end before writing it. I usually start with a situation that is, or is about to become, full of uncertainty and then send the characters in search of certainty. I like Irving’s idea of writing a very detailed plan so I then can concentrate on the words. I might try that with the next manuscript I start.

So which are you, a planner or someone who is prone to abandon stories that are going nowhere?


Helen V. said...

I usually start from a particular image, scene or even a character (they usually arrive fully fleshed out for some reason). This is the trigger and as I mull it over the beginning and the end - and maybe, but not always, three or four key incidents - become clear and usually the other main characters start to form. I often have no idea how the beginning connects to the end but once I start writing the connections appear.

It's rare that I don't finish a story. Whether they all work is another question. There are some that are completed but that I've never been satisfied with no matter how often I have tried to rewrite them. I haven't had that experience with a novel though, so far at least.

Beach Bum said...

So which are you, a planner or someone who is prone to abandon stories that are going nowhere?

I have so many stories stuck in limbo on my computer I have this Twilight Zone-like fantasy of the character in them coming after me in an effort to free themselves from purgatory.

Graham Clements said...

LOL Beach Bum. If my characters burst out of their various limbos, they actually would probably be pretty happy to get out of the world I had left them in.

Graham Clements said...

Helen, the way you think about your stories before hand sounds a bit like me. Once I have a beginning, I usually wont start writing until I have an end. I also usually think up a few key scenes on my way to figuring out the ending. I write plot point outlines, broken down into chapters, which get more detailed as my writing closes in on that chapter.

graywave said...

As it happens I'm in the middle of starting a new novel right now. Mostly I'm thinking about themes. I hate novels that say nothing. IMHO, even an adventure story should have a point apart from simple entertainment.
However, the theme has to have a good story to carry it, the right characters with the right challenges and the right personalities. The I need a setting and plausible situations. And I need a voice.
This stuff thrashes about in my head for weeks sometimes. I write pages and pages about it, trying out different scenarios and ideas, sometimes drawing mind maps, sometimes doing character descriptions.
Eventually it clicks into place - usually I know when this has happened because I write the first few paragraphs of the opening chapter and it feels right.
After that, I work on the plot. I already know key events and the desired end-point by then, so it's just a matter of getting about 20 or 30 scenes/chapters lined up in a row so I've got a roadmap to carry me through the hard parts. I might also work on some more detailed character backgrounds and motivations because I find they help too.
Then I start. And, it always turns out, take unexpected turns and I re-plot maybe half a dozen times before I get to the end.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Great post Graham.

My first novel had a very rough plot, but the next five I had no idea where it was going. It was very exciting. I think if you develop interesting characters and are true to them, then you have to let them dictate the story. Depends on genre of course.
The sixth novel I roughly plotted, then as I began writing, through most of it out the window.
The seventh was a crazy trip.
You gotta do what you gotta do.


Graham Clements said...

Two very different approaches from Anthony and Graham Storrs (greywave). They have both produced very goods books. Anthony taking the Carol Shields approach and Graham very close to the John Irving approach. The more I think about Irving's approach, the more I like it giving him the ability to concentrate on the words and language, and not what happens next, when he finally gets around to writing it.