“When you write, do you spend more time planning out the details of your story or discovering them as you are swept along in the process?” Readers often ask writers this question, and writers, out of curiosity, often ask it of each other. As you can imagine, there are a myriad of answers, for each approach is highly personal, just as an artist painting or a musician composing. We each have our building blocks. Do we fashion a skeleton and then add the muscles and skin, layer upon layer, or does our story enter the world in relatively straightforward fashion, like a fully-formed baby?
There are writers who have to plan out every detail in the brainstorming sessions, so that the process of wrangling words to the map will run smoothly. Others, though, declare such meticulous forethought squelches the creative process; they say their writing depends upon imaginatively “living out” the scenes of their story while the ideas are immediate and “white hot.” As with much in life, personality influences choices in method, and writers should go with what works for them. We are not judged on how we wrote our books, but on the success (or not) of the final product.
I find myself enjoying a measure of both. I cannot begin very well with a blank screen, and the times I struggle the most with my writing are when I’ve drifted away from my story for days or weeks–because my mind is no longer running through story possibilities. I agree with Tad Williams: “writer’s block” largely is your mind working through a difficult story element. I need time to consider the different pathways the story could take and whether the choices fit with my characters and my themes.
My background in drama, particularly the acting theory of Stanislawski, pushes me to immerse myself in a character through study and planning. I need to know my character’s desires in any given scene, what obstacles will arise, and generally how the challenge will affect the flow of the story. Foreshadowing and thematic building also seem to come more easily with a general outline. I also find the planning helps head off “wasted” writing, segments that will be scrapped later as unnecessary or off-target. (Even with a plan, I still had to rewrite one entire chapter in my current novel.)
On the other hand, the creative process of smithing words into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters frequently introduces surprises, often small, sometimes significant. Acting has also taught me about the important connections made during a performance. When you have immersed yourself in the world of your story, when you are intricately involved in the image building, considering how your words might come together in the mind of your readers, something does happen. Even if you have a map, you cannot always (as Tolkien reminds us) forecast where the road will take you!
I love such discoveries; they are rich treasures that help drive me through the solitary drudgery that is part of the writing life. Occasionally one session at the keyboard can throw light on an entire scene or chapter or the novel as a whole. These are the giddy moments of inspiration.
I have also had such joy at 5 am when I woke up realizing my mind had indeed worked out a new intriguing twist in my story. So for me, both methods are needed to bring these year-long projects to a close. It is hard work, requiring much discipline (and I often wish I had more); it is not the glamorous life some people romantically envision, but it often is rewarding, whether we discover our stories in the brainstorming stage or in the very act of putting words on a page. I think solid, consistent writing needs both.