Over the past few weeks I’ve been arguing that the debate over “planning” versus “free-form” is a mirage. The real answer is “a mix of both”.
These days the joy of “discovery writing” has to be tempered with hard reality. The bar has been lifted. Books have to be structured to sell – and that doesn’t happen, for the novice or even early- career writer, by free-form improvisation.
So there you are, idea in your head, and blank screen or paper in front of you. What now? A lot of the how-to books recommend spreadsheets or a card index system. Some software does the same thing – Scrivener, for instance.
It’s whatever works best for you. But what I can say is that whichever one you use will frame your work.
The framework is the limiting factor. Our minds soar. We imagine ideas – imagine the perfection of a character in a story, of a feature or blog post, or an argument. Then we have to write it down. And it loses the moment.
Planning helps get around that – sometimes. But if you write notes on index cards – as I was taught, way back when – the result is something that often reads like a succession of index cards. Personally I think they’re a bad way to structure an academic argument because they don’t lend themselves to a linear thread; it is too easy to splurge tangents on cards. And that doesn’t sort into the linearity which, by nature, constitutes good writing.
It’s better for novelists; cards – or a spreadsheet, or Scrivener’s features – become a handy reference, especially for characters. Can’t remember your protagonist’s shirt colour? No problem – it’ll be on your database.
And yet, it seems to me, characters defined via lists must also be framed by them. Whereas life is the other way around. As Hemingway put it, writers have to create real people.
I think the answer is a blend of reference cards – or a spreadsheet, or Scrivener’s note-taking structure – and that free-form creativity. The process is iterative. Work up the character via the notes – but then let them flow.
If necessary, revise the story – or the notes – to suit, keeping the character consistent.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Next time: applying this technique to story structures, more humour posts, more geekery – and, well, you’ll see.