Why aren’t you writing?

In the spirit of drawing together different aspects of my life, the title of this post was inspired by a well-known characterization of a (bad) approach to information systems design – “Why isn’t somebody coding?” I’m going to argue that the advice given to writers to write every day is similarly misconceived. More practically, I want to offer some thoughts on the problem of getting a novel written.

In my last post I wrote about re-writing, or improving a design, be it a database or a screenplay – or a novel. Re-working and improving is almost always easier than the initial job of covering the blank page. Since February, I’ve been enrolled in an introductory novel-writing class, a class full of people struggling to get that first novel drafted. But show them a few thousand words of someone else’s work and they can almost always get to work improving it. Productively. At any time of day and without a drink or a preliminary yoga session. I’ve never heard of editors’ block.

The challenge is getting that first draft done. Once you’ve done it you can re-work it, get feedback from others, send it to an editor, send it to a publisher… And you’ll be over a huge psychological barrier, especially if it’s your first book. I speak from experience.

Now that I have a little bit of cred – a prize and a publishing contract – I want to share the single most important thing I know about getting a first draft written: WRITE A PLAN. (And creating that plan will require effort. And time – probably more time than drafting the novel. Yep.)
OK, some people (claim to) write without a plan. And they may (implicitly or explicitly) recommend that course to others. (Three caveats: it’s sexier to say you write without a plan; some people who say they don’t have plans just don’t have written plans; and you may want to confirm that the expert’s ‘let it flow’ technique is actually working for them.)

Best-selling author Tess Gerristen, speaking in Melbourne a little while ago, said she just goes where her characters take her (on the same panel Lynda La Plante swore by having a plan). Ms Gerristen, if you’re reading this, read no further. Likewise if you work that way, and it’s working for you, get back to writing. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But if you’re struggling, if you’re re-writing that first chapter over and over, if you don’t think you’ll have it finished in the next year, if you sit down and the words don’t come, AND you don’t have a written, chapter by chapter plan, it’s time to try making a plan. And try it before you mess around with “unblocking” and creativity techniques.

My partner (erotic fiction writer Simone Sinna) and I never start a novel until we have a chapter-by-chapter outline. My outline for The Candle’s thirty-one chapters was 1500 words. (The outline for our joint project – Walk to the Stars, nineteen chapters, is 5000 words.)
Fifty words per chapter for The Candle was not much, but it told me essentially what happened in each chapter. I also had character profiles and a timeline. I had a STORY. And I talked that story through, discussed it with “Simone”, with friends and with a member of my writers’ group, until it was clear in my head. I was comfortable with the logic, the character arcs, the turning points. I knew what the dramatic questions were and how they would be resolved. And in thinking and talking it through, I had a lot of ideas for fleshing it out, most of which were not on paper.

It took me four and a half months – elapsed – to finalise that 1500-word outline for The Candle. There was a lot of thinking involved. And gaps while ideas germinated. But I didn’t have to think about language, style, dialogue – just the story. And I didn’t have to write much at all.
Because I DID want to think about style, and write (!) I wrote a short story, Savoir Faire, using the characters. With a story and style settled and some encouraging feedback (Highly Commended in the Stringybark Short-Story award and published in the collection The Road Home), I was ready to write.

And it was so (relatively) easy, because I knew where I was going. It took me seventeen days to write the draft, most of it on three intense weekends. (And I worked and studied and had a life too). You can write fast when you know where you’re going. I changed chapter breaks, I changed the ending, but I got it done. And it was a creative process. A fifty or two hundred and fifty word outline is not restrictive at all. The result was a first draft. Hemingway famously said that the first draft of anything is shit, but this one was the basis of a publishable novel. Indeed my publisher (Text) was happy enough with the synopsis (easy to write when you’ve drafted the whole book) and the first chapters, after a couple of weeks of my reworking, to give me a contract.

On the other hand…
Several of my fellow students write faster – way faster – than I do. And, dare I say, better. Give them something to write about, and they cover a page in short order. And that’s the issue, I think. Having something to write about. In class, the teacher is giving you that. In real life, when you want your work to have cohesion, that’s what the outline gives you.

So, The Candle took 130 days planning, 17 days writing the first draft, with maybe 18 months elapsed of re-writing and editing to come as I work on other projects. Not quite the proportions you were expecting? Similar relativities for The Rosie Project. Four years planning (see previous post), nineteen days writing the first draft, thirty days re-writing to get to the manuscript that won the Premier’s award, a few months with my editor at Text as we head for publication in March 2013. Partner Simone Sinna drafted Exclusive, her latest novel (Siren Bookstrand), in three weeks.

So why don’t people do outlines, or not do them seriously? It may be because they discount the importance of story. My screenwriting studies, if anything, over-emphasised story and structure at the expense of learning to write good scenes. But perhaps this was wise. Most students could write – and fix – scenes. The big picture, structure, was the challenge. Or maybe there’s a (to my mind snobbish) view that story is unimportant, that the reader will keep turning the page just to enjoy the beauty of the prose. Sure, but why not fit it into a story? Especially if you’d like the rude public to read it.

Maybe planning is too hard. In programming, we grew out of WISC – Why Isn’t Somebody Coding? – decades ago, and learned the importance of planning. Almost all designers think and plan, typically top down, before they build. But the oft-given advice to writers to write every day at the same time etc etc may pull us away from planning. I don’t write every day. I don’t write MOST days. But the days that I do write, I write with purpose and energy, because I know where I’m going. I’ve done the planning and that’s writing work too.

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