Everyone has a Plan until they’re Punched in the Face

December 26th, 2013

The quote is from Mike Tyson, I believe, and somewhat appropriate, as I want to talk a little bit about planning.  I’m traditionally quite a careful planner, but over time I’ve developed a more organic approach.  I think it’s important not to get too bound up in the planning, but to get a feel for what the texture of the writing might be, how the characters might talk, think and behave, which naturally then affects the development of the plot.  When I wrote the First Law I had many long-matured ideas, and just sat down to experiment with the first few chapters more as individual scenes than with much thought for the greater whole.  Once I’d got six or seven chapters together though I pretty quickly saw the need for a more detailed plan, and spewed out all kinds of flow-charts, diagrams on squared paper, and elaborate hand-written notes.

With some of my later books I got into planning on computer, on the very sensible grounds that I can type far faster than I can write longhand, and that any chunks of dialogue that might suddenly come to me while planning (and they quite often do) can be got down faster and more easily pasted into a document.  But I’ve actually gone back to pad and fountain pen lately.  There’s just something about the act of writing longhand with a good pen on good paper that gets the mind working in a slightly different way to the computer.

These days I have a reasonably well refined process: I split a book into parts, have some idea what the basic events and settings will be in those parts and what our end-point might be, but I don’t plan each one in detail (breaking down the content of each chapter, that is) until I’ve finished a draft of the part before.  When I come to write that detailed plan for a part, the experience of writing the earlier parts of the book, the direction the characters and their relationships are taking, naturally informs where I go next.  Plot and character develop and intertwine, flex and shift within the broader framework.  Some characters work well and demand more presence, some atrophy away entirely.  Sometimes the framework itself has to shift a little.  In an ideal world there’s a natural flow to this process which means that new ideas for later appear as you’re writing and are effortlessly incorporated.  But sometimes you get to that planning stage, especially for a last part, and think – hmmm, this doesn’t quite work.  I’ll have some ideas in place.  Some plot lines properly tied off.  Perhaps some twists long anticipated.  Some scenes I might already have pictured in some detail and barely even need to plan they’re so concrete in my mind.  Other things are hazier, and require a bit of thought, perhaps a bit of re-imagining, before they’ll slot into place.  Sometimes the re-imagining of an ending gives you an insight into how whole plots and characters could be made more effective.  Sometimes a character and their place in the story emerges fully formed, sometimes it’s not until you finish that you really see what a character needs to be, and then it’s a question of going back through and bringing them more into the shape you now need.

Case in point, I’m nearing the end of my first draft of Half the World, the second book of my forthcoming YA(ish) trilogy.  I’ve drafted the third part of four and I’m revising it and at the same time putting together the detailed plan for the last part.  There are two Point of View characters, the relationship between them central to the book.  The final scenes for one of them I’d had in mind for some time, but for the other there was something of a blank.  In thinking about this, I realised that I didn’t know what to do with this second character because they didn’t really have a story, while the first character very definitely did.  I mean, stuff happens to that second character, and they do stuff, important stuff, but there’s not necessarily a meaningful progression from A to B.  And without a story there can’t really be a payoff.  This led me to the realisation that this character was fundamentally quite weak – the lack of an arc meant a lack of personality and purpose because there was no plot line for their personality to drive.  They were somewhat bland as a point of view because there isn’t necessarily an angle relevant to their central thread to be taken on the events that happen to them.  They were reactive, they were an observer.  They were clear glass, a window on the story for the reader but providing no filter of their own.  This will not do.  It’s a wasted opportunity.

Having identified this as a problem, and feeling that I needed a solution more fundamental than simply finding the right scene, or the right twist, or the right ending, I let it sit.  I’ve become quite a believer in not attacking problems of this kind directly, but just steeping myself in the book and the characters as much as I can, writing a lot of handwritten notes about nothing in particular, and giving the subconscious some time to stew.  Christmas evening, of all times, an idea came to me, which in a way was not particularly earth shaking, really just to pull out part of the resolution of the first character and give it to the second instead.  Suddenly, though, like dominoes falling, it sent off a ripple of other ideas.  If this was their resolution, they needed to have some different facets to their personality.  If this was their progression, they needed to start in a slightly different place, go through a certain process of change to get there.  If this was their end, a little codicil to their end suddenly appeared that played back into the broader themes of the book.  Suddenly they had an arc, a reason to be a certain way, and so I knew the way they needed to be.  Suddenly they became a far more concrete and complex character, I saw opportunities in their relationship with the other point of view, with other characters, I saw different emphases, new importance in their past.

I’ve never had so many things fall into place in one moment.  Sublime, it was.  Maybe this is what clever people feel like the whole time.  If so, I’m jealous.  Anyway, the bottom line when it comes to my conception of planning is that, for me, you have to have a plan, some kind of end point in mind in order to set off, but you need to have the confidence to allow some flexibility in the destination, enough fluidity in your process to accommodate new ideas as they appear.  A plan that’s too brittle or stiff to accommodate a good inspirational punch in the face is no use at all…

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on December 26th, 2013.

15 comments so far

  • Robin says:

    Great view into your process. That Tyson quote is one of my favorites. Also reminds me of another: Plans are worthless, planning is indispensable. Or thereabouts. I forget who said that one.

  • Gruud says:

    This sir, is why I come here. And it’s worth a reread too.

  • Dave says:

    I still cannot wrap my mind around the concept of you, Joe Abercrombie, writing a Young Adult novel. I can’t wait to see just what that looks like! Regardless, I’m on board for whatever you create when you put pen to paper (or fingers to keys as the case may be). Now get back to work!

  • Zafri Mollon says:

    Love these posts looking at the creative process. Thanks!

  • Joe, I returned to my high school ten years after graduation and got roped into speaking to a senior class. My old teacher wanted me to tell them the importance of planning. I told them a plan was good–but more important, write it in pencil. If they go through college and they’re the same person at 22 that they were at 18, they’ve wasted four years.

    Also, Neal Stephenson has taken to writing his massive novels with fountain pen, due to the effect on his thoughts and his writing: “I started that with the Baroque Cycle. Cryptonomicon was the last thing I wrote with a word processor. What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it. Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.” http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Interview/Neal-Stephenson-Anathem/ba-p/678

  • Xan Perilan says:

    Does that mean you´ll be splitting the book in two?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Splitting the book in two? No. It’s a trilogy. Half a King, finished. Half the World, three quarters drafted. Half a War, pending.

  • Chris says:

    Always great to read these types of articles from you Joe.

    An unfair question, especially since Half a King is not yet completed, but I’ll ask regardless: Which of the two books are you more happy and satisfied with so far?

  • Xan Perilan says:

    Thank…whoever…I thought it was deja vu all over again…

  • Hero says:

    This is fantastic. I’ll have to share it with the writers group I run at the library.

  • Deb E says:

    A blissful sigh of relief and acceptance.
    I, too, am a firm believer in the shape of thoughts that come from the tip of my pen vs. those typed directly to the screen.
    And I also love flicking between planning and “actualy writing” time. It can be tricky to accept planning time, when you’re not actively adding to your wordcount, but it is so important to making those words actually, well, “count”.
    There is a reason you top my “favourite authors” list. Not only do you pen such intriguing tales with such vivid characters, but you share such down-to-earth insights… uh, in a totally grimdark way, of course.

  • AntMac says:

    It must be the Xmassy hangover, cause NO WAY am I the smartest one of your followers, you guys all must be slow for reasons of crapulent discord, but it occurs to me that,

    There are Manuscripts?. Written with fountain pens on real paper?.

    This are valuable things, I think???, objects of desire, yesss, my Precious?.

    Thanks for this post Mr A, we love it when you share this sort of thing with us.

  • Jordan says:

    Love these types of posts, Joe. Thanks!

  • Deb E says:

    OMG, AntMac… can you imagine how willing Joe would NOT be to have the world see those hand-written notes and first drafts?? I certainly can. I doubt they will be made available in the forseeable future!

    That being said, I bet the first drafts for these later books are pretty darn close to awesome. The great thing about this post is that it suggests that it does, in fact, get easier with practice…

  • Albert says:

    Joe, just wondering what is the difference (for you) between an standard Abercrombie novel vs a YA one like your new trilogy. Did you “cap” yourself?

    Would be interesting to read your views on above comparison.

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