Monday, 22 February 2010

I have a cunning plan!

Today I am going to sit down and do something I have never previously attempted as a writer of fiction: I'm going to try to plan a book, plot-by-plot, chapter-by-chapter.

In my experience, writers tend to divide into planners, who know exactly what is going to happen on every page of their new book before they have written the first line, and wingers (so-called because they wing it), who proceed with nothing more to guide them than the faith that a good idea will come along whenever they need it.

James Patterson is a classic planner, partly, perhaps, because he is often working with a collaborator so there has to be an agreed basis for they will do. Andrew Gross, a former Patterson co-writer who is now a best-selling author in his own right, once told me how it worked. Patterson would have an idea for a new franchise character he wanted to develop, and a specific story idea that would be the basis of that character's new book. He and Andy then fleshed out the idea and then Andy went away and created an 80-chapter outline, which he'd send to Patterson. The latter would then go over the outline, paying particular attention to the first and last five chapters: the key to success, in his opinon. Having arrived at an agreed outline, Andy then fleshed it out and sent his manuscript to Patterson, who then edited and reworked it, again concentrating on the beginning and end. Result? An author who, according to the New York Times (and they should know) sells more books than Dan Brown, Stephen King and John Grisham ... COMBINED.

I have never worked the Patterson way (hmmm .. perhaps there's a lesson there). Instead, I've started from a couple of ideas, on which I've then done a ton of research; a vague sense of where I want to get to; and a couple of big visual images in my head of effects I want to create. The Accident Man, for example, arose out of a single image: a man, in the Alma Tunnel, waiting for Pincess Diana's limousine, about to make it crash ... and he's the hero.

That was all I had. Everything else - including the character of Samuel Carver - simply emerged as I went along. And it's been the same ever since. I write in the constant fear that at some point the ideas and images will simply dry up ... And I remember something Wilbur Smith once told me, which was that he stops work every day in the middle of a paragraph. The only thing he knows for sure when he starts again the next morning is how he'll finish that paragraph. The rest is pure chance, aided by decades of technique. And with 120 million-plus sales, Wilbur hasn't done too badly, either.

The joy of working like that is the excitement that comes when a character or a storyline spontaneously takes on a life of its own. That's happened to me many, many times. I've just finished the fourth Carver book, which will be out in August. In it there's a character who was originally created as a walk-on for a single scene. But she kept popping back into the story. She never quite turned into a major star, as it were, but she's definitely up for Best Supporting Actress. I just discovered that I liked her, enjoyed writing her and found that she could play a really useful role in Carver's life ... but no, not in his bed! In other books, entire sequences, forty or fifty pages long have essentially written themselves as I set up the context for action and then just let it rip.

The more Carver books I write, the more confident I become with that literary hire-wire act. But now I'm trying something different. Purely for my own satisfaction, I'm doing a standalone book, of a rather different type, told in the first person. All of a sudden, I have new problems to consider. I can't cut away to a different location and a new set of characters whenever I want to move the story on or give the reader some new information about the forces arrayed against my protagonist. And since the hero this time is a regular guy with no military training or access to weapons, I can't just have him get out the ol' Heckler & Koch MP5 or Sig Sauer P226 beloved by Sam Carver and start blowing bad guys away.

Since the story involves the unravelling of a mystery that goes back more than 30 years, with events of which my guy was completely unaware, this has made my life very tricky. So my mind has been turning to James Patterson. As anyone who reads his Cross novels will know, he is very adept at mixing first and third-person narrative: a traditional no-no which he pulls off by the simple expedient of not making any big deal out of it at all. But you have to get the balance between narrative styles just right, and the rhythm with which you switch from one POV to another spot-on.

And the only way to do that, I'm rapidly discovering, is to plan, plan and plan again. So today, this very afternoon, that's what I'm going to do. I'm getting big pad, lots of pencils, a hefty eraser ... and I'm going to get this book structured, in advance, and the hell with spontinaeity!


  1. Interesting. One thing I learned from ghost-writing a few books was the importance of planning. I used to wing it, making stuff up as I wnt along. Now I do a lot of meticulous planning, mapping out every chapter in precise detail. And I'm sure my work is far better as a result, mainly because I chuck a lot of stuff out at the planning stage.

  2. I winged it with my first 2 books, just havin' fun! I recently acquired an agent (seemed necessary now authorship becoming serious). My agent asked me to send him a 10 page synopsis of my third book. So DEAD END is planned. Remains to be seen if I can keep to the plan.... For CUT SHORT and ROAD CLOSED I just wrote...