Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Painting The Factory Floor

People are always asking me, 'Do you know what's going to happen before you begin to write or do you make it up as you go along?' When I say that I know the story, they always look surprised. 'What, the whole thing?' they ask. 'Even the ending.'

'Especially the ending,' I tell them.

'But doesn't that take all the fun out of it?'

Actually, it doesn't. Quite the reverse. In my opinion devising a plot and writing the narrative at the same time is like cycling down the road carrying a parcel. You're bound to fall off at some point and you'll probably hurt yourself in the process.

I must admit, I didn't always think like this. When I was at school my stories used to end something like this: 'And then I heard a voice saying, "Wake up, Brian! Wake up!" I opened my eyes and saw my mother standing over me and I realised that it had all been a dream.' This was the only way I could resolve the impossible plot-situations in which my characters invariably ended up as a consequence of me not planning the story out in advance.

Even when I became a professional writer, I still initially preferred making it up as I went along. I was too impatient to think the whole thing through before starting. I'd write down the ten or so key points on the back of an envelope and wing it from there. The trouble with this approach is that it inevitably involves a huge amount of re-writing. Because you allow the story take you wherever it wants to go, you create situations that conflict with something you've already written. You end up having to shoe-horn episodes into an earlier point in the narrative.

Since, in the early days of my writing career, my novels did not make enough money to pay the bills, I once got a job with a firm of industrial decorators. I was given the task of painting a factory floor. The thick rubberised paint was difficult to apply and the floor space was vast. So it took all afternoon. When I finished and looked up, I found, to my dismay, that I was stuck in a corner with an enormous expanse of newly painted floor between me and the exit. Clearly, unless I wanted to stand there for the next eight hours while the paint dried, I was going to have to walk back across that floor, painting out my footsteps as I went.

After the factory floor fiasco, it occurred to me that there was a lesson there for my writing. I decided to approach my next novel in a different way. I would let the story unfold in my mind all the way to the end before starting on the first draft. That way, instead of devising and writing at the same time, I would be able to concentrate on writing it as well as I could.

It worked. In fact, my next novel was so much better than its predecessors that I never went back to the old method. And, that's the way I still work now. I let the story develop completely in my imagination before beginning to write. Isn't that frustrating, people sometimes ask? Not really. In fact, the challenge of holding the plot of a whole novel in your mind over a sustained period is immensely stimulating.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. The story does still change in the writing. Often very significantly. But it's the detail that changes, not the structure. Doing it this way takes the fear factor out of writing. You know where you're going and you know how to get there. After that, it's just a matter of relaxing and enjoying the journey.

1 comment:

Cher said...

Good for people to know.