Thursday, 12 May 2011

To plot or not to plot

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker)

Further to my last blog about the enormous advantages of being on board a cruise ship in terms of time to write, no phone ringing, no shopping to do, lack of distractions, etc, etc, I suppose I should also have added the one obvious disadvantage. Unless you pay the quite high charges for Internet access over the satellite link, you don’t get that reassuring – or irritating, depending on your point of view – ping that tells you an email has arrived, or be able to leap onto the Internet to check some obscure fact which is essential to the passage you’re writing.

The other, perhaps unforeseen, consequence of being on board a ship is the way that one day slides almost imperceptibly into the next, and the complete lack of any external indications to tell you what day of the week it is. There are no Saturdays or Sundays at sea: each day on board is just like any other. The shops and restaurants and bars and services are always open. Losing track of time is all too easy, your horizon being limited to the name of the next port and what you plan on doing when the ship gets there.

On the other hand, maybe that’s almost definition of a good holiday?

Now back to work:

A short while ago, Matt Lynn explained the way he writes a book. Briefly, he produces a highly detailed synopsis running to tens of thousands of words which encapsulates the entire plot of the novel and all the twists and turns along the way, even bits of dialogue.

I have to confess that I envy him that discipline. The one thing I dislike more than anything else about writing is producing a synopsis, though of course I have to construct them on a very regular basis. But given the choice between writing a 10,000 word synopsis or a 100,000 word novel, I’d take the novel every time, and this reflects the way I approach every book.

I always know where it's going to start, and I have a good idea about how it’s going to finish, but the bit in the middle is usually pretty much of a mystery to me until I actually get into it. When I do get embroiled in the novel, I often find that the characters start doing things which I hadn't really anticipated, and then the plot starts running off in unexpected directions.

There's an old description of novelists which seems quite appropriate: they're either tree writers or wood writers. A tree writer perceives the novel like a tree, oddly enough, and is able to stand back from it and look all the way up from the beginning, at the very base of the trunk, right the way to the topmost branch, the end of the book, and see all the branches and foliage in between. A wood writer, and this is me to a tee, knows that he's going to walk into a wood at one end, and walk out of it at the other, but has not the slightest idea what will happen inside the wood itself.

So is one method of writing better than the other? No, of course not. They’re just different, and how any novelist approaches a particular book is entirely personal, and will be the method that suits him or her best.

But having said all that, as the next deadline looms and I'm sitting staring blankly at the equally blank screen of the laptop in front of me, wondering just what the hell the hero or villain is going to do next, I have to concede that working from a detailed synopsis does have a certain irresistible attraction.


  1. I guess that makes me a combination of forest writer and lumber jack...

  2. I just returned from a cruise in which I had planned to write. I must confess I wrote very little, but I had a lot of fun instead!

    I now outline very loosely and I seldom follow it!

  3. I like your description of a 'Wood writer'. It fits me like a glove. I'm currently battling with a proverbial forest as I attempt to get into my manuscript which I have promised myself will be finished by the time my next novel, THE BOY FROM BERLIN is published in December. But I am happy in the knowledge that my readers won't have a clue about 'what happens next' because as I'm writing, I haven't either.