To Plan or To Make It Up As You Go, That Is The Question

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Recently I was approaching a chapter that I knew would involve one of my main characters, Joseph, sitting down for a session with a counsellor. To prepare I wrote out a conversation (no prose, just dialogue) in expectation of using it as the basis for the chapter. This would be the chapter that revealed Joseph’s back story, not a crucial component of the plot but important in helping the audience understand why he reacts to certain plot points the way he does.

I wanted him to have a secret, one that nobody else knew in the little town where he was living, one that had crept into his being in a sneaky way. As the conversation between him and the counsellor progressed, his secret would start to emerge. About ten years earlier, when he was in his mid-twenties, he had agreed to be an unofficial sperm donor for two close friends, a married couple who were struggling with infertility. The result was two children. The couple he agreed to help didn’t want anyone to know the children didn’t biologically belong to the supposed father, so Joseph was sworn to secrecy and the birth certificates listed the woman’s husband as the father.

Eventually the situation became difficult as Joseph struggled with the consequences: he had two children he was unable to acknowledge. The married couple moved interstate in an attempt to fully break the bond and devastated, Joseph moved back to his home town to try to forget.

It’s a pretty heart-wrenching back story and would probably make not a bad set of circumstances for an entirely different novel but I realised as I attempted to convert the conversation into prose that it was far too intricate and it was getting in the way of the main story I was trying to tell. So I decided to scrap the secret children background and start again.

This time, instead of doing any planning, I just sat down and started writing the prose with no idea of where the story was heading. As the counsellor probed his choice of career (a police officer), Joseph began telling a story about when he was a teenager. His uncle had been the small town police chief and Joseph had done work experience at the station under his uncle’s guidance. When a local man had committed suicide by drowning himself in a lake, the dive team in the city had advised they would be unable to assist with the retrieval of the body for two days. So Joseph and his uncle had hired a row boat meant for the tourists, headed out to the middle of the lake and taken turns diving down to the body to remove rocks from the pockets of the heavy woollen overcoat, and then the overcoat itself, to allow the body to float to the surface. Then he and his uncle had dragged the body aboard and returned to shore.

It’s a much smaller back story, in which Joseph isn’t the focal point, but readers would be able to understand how such a poignant moment in a young man’s formative years would stay with him for a long time and seep through into many other aspects of his life. And it doesn’t hijack the main story I am trying to tell. In fact, there’s a nice symmetry with the issues of life and death I am exploring in relation to another of the main characters.

When I wrote my debut novel, Enemies Closer, I did an awful lot of research about the FBI, the CIA, the US military, the uses of lasers, China, Heckler & Koch (the real-life gun manufacturer I co-opted to be the workplace of one of my main characters) and a variety of other things to infuse my story with believability. It was that kind of story. I can’t claim to have gotten everything right. In fact, I know I made a bunch of mistakes such as having two main characters graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York (the gateway training facility for commissioned officers in the US Army) only to have them inexplicably become Marines. Of course, as I realised later, anyone looking to become a commissioned officer in the US Marine Corps would have been educated at the United States Naval Academy in Anapolis, Maryland. So a portion of the as-yet-unpublished sequel, The Cassandra Syndrome, tells the story of how the two main characters graduated from West Point only to end up being commissioned as Marines (not as difficult as it sounds considering the character the sequel is named after manages to piss off just about every senior military officer she meets).

When I started writing Trine, and when I subsequently started writing Black Spot, both unpublished as yet, I decided I wanted a pure writing experience. I didn’t want to spend half my time researching tiny details so I deliberately made the main characters young, isolated and lacking in education or any interest in being a specialist in anything (meaning, of course, that I didn’t need to have any specialist knowledge).

The results, I think, speak for themselves. The first result (in the case of Black Spot) was a book completed in less than six months, certainly the shortest period of time in which I have written an entire novel. The second result (in the case of Trine) is an as-yet-incomplete book but some of the best novel writing I have ever produced (my opinion only as I have yet to show it to anyone else).

It is now definitely my preferred approach to writing but it also limits the kinds of things I can write about, given that I am not a specialist in anything myself. For now, that’s okay. And maybe at some point in the future, I’ll return to a story that requires a large amount of detailed research. But at present I’m enjoying that pure writing experience and just making it up as I go. It makes sense; after all, first and foremost, I’m a writer.

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