Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reconnecting with the Work

I haved tried to do something a little different over the last few months and set off into a new novel without much of the usual planning and pre-work.

The initial sprint lasted a little over three chapters. Then I sort of tanked. I had sketched a basic plot, and tried to get further into the story, but the pace was woeful. There was just something wrong - I could sense an unease with the work that was stopping me. Finally, after a couple of frustrating weeks, I decided to stop and really listen to that little warning voice and try to understand what was going on.

After a bit of belly-gazing, I realised that I had missed a crucial element of my own process. Since then I have gone back to the drawing board and pretty much returned to the same sort of approach I have used in the past.

Not that there was anything wrong with the writing itself on a craft level - it was surprisingly good considering the sprint - just that it was underpinned with an unease that I had perhaps failed to nail the essential essence of the thing and that I had not woven in enough complexity.

It looks like I really need to 'front end load' the story and characters before I can move through the story. I need to understand what is going on inside each of the characters at an emotional level. I need to do enough plotwork to have an instinctive sense for what is moving in the background of the story, for what threads are weaving in through the main action. I also need to have a fundamental confidence in the core concept - particularly if it is science fiction (which this one is). I love the 'wow' concepts, but there is enough engineer in me to need the things that surround that to be entirely credible.

Now I am a happy camper. I am back writing again and moving forward at my typical pace. I would have to say the off-the-cuff novel with little pre-work was probably an experimental failure for me, although it was a lot of fun at the beginning!

How about you? Can you set off happily into unknown territory?


Chris L said...

Hi Chris,

Sounds like the old plotter v pantser issue. I can usually pack a concept and a few characters in a backpack and happily traipse off into the unknown. It's quicker than working out all the details (at first, until you have to go back and rewrite the first half).

Writing excites me - plotting bores me, and can eventually turn me off an idea before I've given it a chance to live.

MataPam said...

"Sprint" I like that term. I always start off with a sprint. I can't start off with the plot. Oh, mentally I generally have a decent grasp of the story problem and how they're going to solve it. But if i write that down, outline how it's going to happen--it never happens.

After the sprint, some organization is definitely called for. Especially if it's become clear that the basic idea hasn't got the legs for a novel. A lot of my sprint involves world building details that just don't matter over the time span of a short story. They slow the pace and change the focus of the story. Sarah and Amanda have beat me up enough over that, that I think I'm starting to get it.

For novel length works, most of that sprint will stay, but it may get split off and stuck somewhere else, the start of the story may shift for a better hook and so forth.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I can see you now, trekking off into the wilderness, with those characters struggling to get out of the backpack:)

I think you're right. Pansters are happy to develop the plot while they are writing - which usually means a lot of re-writing. Not that I don't do a lot of drafts.

The thing that I enjoy is the feeling of immersion in the work. It looks like I can't get that unless I spend a lot of time trying to connect with it first.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. It sounds like I have pretty much done what you usually do:) I have done the sprint, then found I had to stop to really think about the larger story. Except in this case I always knew it was going to be a novel, which allowed me to start with a certain sort of pacing and balance.

Very strange thing this writing business. It never ceases to amaze me - the different approaches people have.

Anonymous said...

In 09 I joined NaNo halfway through, based on a dream I had on the 12th of November. I finished the book in two weeks, and have recently (after about a year of editing, pausing, and editing again) become happy with it - but I still feel a bit twitchy about it. All I had at the beginning was a list of twenty action scenes loosely hooked together, and to this day I'm not sure if the thing works. It's in a different genre to my norm, too.

This year I've swung hard in the opposite direction, taking two months to research and plan a novel that I just started yesterday (I plan to write it slowly as well, and even - for the first time - let myself indulge the luxury of editing to some extent as I go along). It will be very interesting to see if my slow-cooked novel does better than my fit-of-passion one. I feel certain that it will.

Louise Curtis

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Louise. It sounds like you have been going through some of the same spectrum of feelings with your work. After the initial sprint through four chapters, I felt a real unease about what I was doing. If you are anything at all like me you will find putting the time into the story before you start will really pay off.

I've realised now that I really don't have a choice. I'm not sure if I could finish this new novel without going back to the drawing board.

Good luck with the new novel! What genres are the NaNo & latest novels?

Kate Paulk said...

Um. I've yet to find known territory: it's kind of like that box everyone keeps saying I should think outside of. Haven't found the bloody thing yet.

I guess that makes me the ultimate in pantsers.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Hey, come on! Think outside the pentagon!

Anonymous said...

The NaNo was scifi, and the new novel is steampunk (which I really couldn't write without studying a bit of history). I usually write medievalish fantasy, so neither novel is all that far off the beaten track, but it feels far to me.

I also took the opportunity to detail the entire plot to several beta listeners, who then told me which bits really didn't work. . . and now I don't have to find out AFTER having written those scenes.

Louise Curtis

Kate Paulk said...


That's not difficult. They won't let me *inside* the pentagon!