Planning or Not Planning

So much has been said and written about this topic, that it is almost fruitless to comment. All you need do is Google the topic and you will find countless analyses of the benefits of plotting or “going by the seats of your pants” (Colloquial: pantsering).
But beware, the writer's subjective preference will reveal itself, if you do this. James Patterson, for example, is on the side of plotting as a first step. He creates detailed outlines of his narrative before starting to write the novel.

What Genre is It?

The genre chosen by the author to write in, will determine to a great extent which approach s/he chooses. Fantasy writers and detective story writers will likely employ plotting as the favoured approach. However, not always. Kate Atkinson writes detective stories, but she is also a wizard with character. She seems to bridge the gap between the two categories, so it’s not clear how she starts out.

Australian Women "Pantsers"

Australian Kate Grenville and many other writers, especially female writers, prefer writing in segments (scenes? chapters?) based on vivid characterisation and "zingy" writing, as she calls it. An example of this style of writing is in Tirra Lirra By The River by Jessica Anderson (1916-2010). See my post on this blog at: I, too,  belong to the non-planners—to those who like to explore character rather than plot—in the initial phase
It is almost, but not quite, a distinction between "female" versus "male" authorial approaches. This is not as sexist as it sounds, if taken in the Jungian sense of "eros" versus "ego", and "anima" versus "animus". That is, we are all made up of dual personas, and we'd be advised to take into account both of these aspects when creating stories.

Dionysus Versus Apollo

apollodionysusdualityvIf you get caught up totally in the "Dionysiac” lust and chaos of pantsering, you might get stuck, and fail to finish or to reach potential. You then must appeal to the "Apollonian" side, relating to "the rational, ordered, and self-disciplined aspects of human nature". However, too much planning may stunt your style, especially if you are a creative and imaginative type. See Wikipedia on this dichotomy of "the struggle between cold Apollonian categorization and Dionysiac lust and chaos".  

One Foot in Both Camps

It is best, if at all possible, to remain with one foot in both camps, like partners in a successful "marriage of equality”, in order to produce a brilliant work of art. That is, start off with one approach, but pay homage to the other at some stage. For myself, I like to start off as a “pantser”, at least for the first draft, or perhaps up until halfway or three-quarters of the way into the novel. At some stage, I must take an opposite tack, and do what the planners do: Consider where I am going, draw a timeline and ask questions about structure, narrative arc and beginning and end goals. I may even ask some of these questions early on, without, however, following a strict plan.

Passion and Conflict: a metaphor for writing

How to Write a Novel

After gaining a Teaching Certificate in 1965,  I embarked on a journey from Australia to England, passing along the Suez Canal shortly before its forced closure by Egypt. My eventual goal was France, following in the footsteps of my older brother, William.  I'd saved up my return fare for a berth on the P&O liner S.S. Oriana, a sparkling white vessel known as "the Queen of the Sea". It was waiting for me to board it at Circular Quay in Sydney on the evening of 31st December, 1965. Along with three other teaching friends, I'd be arriving in Southampton on 24th January, 1966. This marked the beginning of my obsession with writing as I began to document, in a travel journal, my experiences during four years abroad. What I was to discover was that voyaging overseas was a great metaphor for the creative writing life. There were pitfalls for the traveller, like the dangerous rocks, winds and sirens that threatened Odysseus during his earlier travels; as well as great joys, during and at the end of the journey. Much would be experienced and learnt that no one could have taught me. It's the same with writing. You might have to experience its joys and downfalls before you figure out properly how to do it yourself. This applies particularly to writing a longer work, such as a novel or a modern memoir. Having been taught  by several successful novelists for my postgraduate diploma and Master degree, and having read many "how to" books, I have come to realise certain things. Mainly, that finding a pathway towards publication is a minefield, and takes a great deal of perseverance and a good dose of luck on the part of a beginning author. And that even published writers may not be the most qualified persons to give advice about the craft of novel writing. Like the advice of one well-known author who told me to just "get it down" in segments, and then arrange cards in order to find a plotline and a story. This approach—called by some "pantsering"—may help; it did not help me. One thing that this excellent writer forgot to mention was that he had had mentors—editors and others—to assist in the structuring of a final work when he was writing during earlier decades. Even Ernest Hemingway, who seems to have been "a natural", had women and other writers, fawning over him, only too happy to assist him, if not with craft ideas, at least with confidence boosting and secretarial work.

I have recently been researching diagrams to represent the Narrative Arc.  I had completed a personal memoir, River Girl, based partly on childhood memories, that was complex in structure. How was I to analyse and to improve, if necessary, on this work in terms of its overall structure?  I had never mapped out plots and story lines beforehand, preferring to focus on creating believable characters and "zingy" writing in the first instance. It seemed to me, in fact, that some genres e.g. detective stories and thrillers, were better suited to pre-planning methods, while other narratives depended on the writer "getting it down" first, and worrying about structural issues later on. I saw myself as belonging to the latter category, rather than to the former. However, I also saw that at some stage in the writing process, any writer will need to consider the overall structure of a longer work. This might take place towards the end, or in the middle, rather than at the beginning of the task of writing a novel. So it became more and more important for me, as I came to the end of writing my works, to consider what makes a successful narrative in terms of overall structure. This led me to try to identify the elements and functions of the narrative arc.

Definitions of Narrative Personas

  1. According to Ernest Hemingway, the writer's job is "to sit in front of the page and bleed". But  it's not the person in flesh-and-blood who is there in the page, but a persona called the narrator, who steps in for him or her. I'm the one who signs the book for you when it's published.
  2. The narrator lives on the page, within and between the words, the images, and the dialogue, and directs the characters, as if they were marionnettes, performing at the end of strings. Although they may share lots of qualities, the narrator is not exactly the writer, even in a memoir. This fact, once the writer acknowledges it, may result in a sense of freedom, benefiting the writing as a result.
  3. The Character: A main character is called the protagonist. The character's job is to enthrall the reader and s/he is always integral to the plot.  Dialogue spoken by a character will advance the plot and, at its best, utilise or suggest a certain voice that is basic to the meaning and rationale of the text.

     The Writer is not the Narrator and the Narrator is not the Writer

Cargoes by John Mansfield

I woke up the other morning with an old verse I'd learnt at school — not sure which year, but it was at least half a century ago — playing in my head like on a tape recorder. And the rhythm was still there! I'm sure some of my readers will have also known this poem from school days: "Cargoes" by John Masefield? Even the foreign words were still intact and popping up out of the subconscious like bubbles from a geyser. It took me some days before I got around to Googling the poem and finding oral renditions of it on YouTube. I think what I liked about the poem (and still do) was the exotic-sounding words, not to mention the rhythm of the seas, and the sense of the wind in the sails. It lifted me out of the dreary classroom and into exotic faraway places . The contrast of the last stanza, with the two preceding ones, always enchanted me in class. That's when the rhythm changes to mimic the type of sturdy, industrial-age "coaster" vessel and its more prosaic cargo. I read somewhere that the cargo items in Stanza 2 were taken directly from the Bible.

Italy: Fast Cars

Driving on the autostrada is a relief after Rome. Watch on the right, my partner says repeatedly, having been traumatised when the mirror on our rented manual Fiat Punta was flattened against a truck in Rome’s crowded streets. I'm the driver, having learnt to conduire à la droite in France, as a student there. Mark will prepare lots of fresh dishes, based on heavenly tomatoes, plucked straight from the fields. When we get to the outskirts of Siena, we ask for directions to our destination.

Tonni: an Etruscan Village

A rusty sign on a hedge, after winding roads and an unsealed gravelly stretch, marks the hamlet. First settled during the Etruscan era. Dogs, cats, a few children and a smiling woman with false teeth greet us. Several small cars are parked on the narrow gravel street, mediaeval buildings, the lot set in field and forest—oak, laurel, elms, conifers, and the ever-present cypress pines.