I talk to people, when they check out their books. Part of it is Customer Service, that good old “engage with the patrons” philosophy that makes their trip to the library more than just one more chore on the list. But a lot of it is human interaction that I need, and the genuine desire to share my pleasure and excitement about some of the books I see crossing the desk every day.
Right now, of course, there’s a lot of people checking out the various books from “A song of Fire and Ice”, more commonly known as “Game of Thrones“. If someone is picking up the first, I warn them they’re in for a long haul, and that they shouldn’t get too attached to any of the characters. If they’re picking up something later in the series, like book five or six, we exchange some words about the long wait for the next book, and the chances that the tv series will outpace the novels.
Something I say a lot, when talking about GoT, is that I hope George R.R. Martin has a big plan on his wall. I want it to start with the history he hints at – the Targaryan conquest of the Seven Kingdoms by dragon, all the way through the death of the Mad King and Robert’s seizing of the Iron Throne to a decent conclusion. (Don’t worry if this is all meaningless gibberish to you, I have a point coming up…)
The point is the plan, the shape of the whole story. The books are wonderfully compelling, and Westeros is a great place to visit from the safety of your couch or your favourite reading nook, but I really, really want to know that George has an end in mind, that he’s not just moving his pieces round a Risk board and wondering who’s going to come out on top.
For years, I’ve been what’s known in the trade as a “pantser”. I wrote by the seat of my pants, starting with a vague premise, or some lines of dialogue and simply following the trail, only able to see a little way ahead as I wrote. It was fun, and sometimes the result was particularly good. Even as recently as “Love in a Time of Zombies”, a chance line in the early pages turned into a crucial plot point at the climax of the play, something a review called a “classic example of Chekhov’s Gun“.
But the satisfaction of pantsing has been tempered by the number of projects that stalled because I didn’t know where to go next. They reached a quiet point, where the characters stop and turn to you and say “Yeah? What now?” Raymond Chandler once said that when things got boring in his books, he would have a guy walk through the door with a gun. It’s nice philosophy, very much in the Panster tradition, but when they were filming “The Big Sleep”, the director suddenly realised he didn’t know who had killed one of the characters, the Chauffeur. Chandler was called and quizzed, but admitted he had no idea either. It just wasn’t that important to the plot he was building. Pantsing can leave plot holes.
So my last two plays and the two e-books that came before them have been planned. I’ve written a short precis, which expanded into a pitch document, which became an outline, which got broken into scenes on a huge sheet of paper on the wall. Now, instead of aiming for word count targets, I’m writing a scene a day, knocking off sections of the project and knowing exactly how many I have to go before the end. I haven’t noticed any dip in creativity, but there has been a drop in the number of abandoned drafts.
This last week, staying out in Osoyoos with my parents on their third trip to Canada, I discussed a new play with Mrs Dim. From no real idea, to a neat concept in the course of ten minutes by the pool. When August begins, I’ll start my new planning document, and what is only a sentence now will begin to grow.
So what’s YOUR preferred method? Is planning the writing putting a straightjacket on the creative muscles, or is pantsing an amateur mistake?