A lot of writerly talk circulates round whether you're a planner or a pantser, or some combination of the two. I've explored the idea that planning needn't be the business of drawing up a map and intinerary which you will then follow: maybe it's more a voyage into the unknown, to a place which by definition you can't have a map for, for which you need other kinds of preparation. And I've thought about what I call "retrospective planning": using what are usually discussed as pre-first-draft tools later, to sort out that first or tenth draft after you've written it. But I'm beginning to think that which you are isn't necessarily a fixed thing. I think it's partly to do with where you are in your development.
I do think it's useful to separate out the two things that are happening when we settle down to the business of putting one word in front of the other. Writing is both
- a means of expressing the ideas and imaginings that we already have, so that others can apprehend them: wrapping bandages round the Invisible Man so others can see him, or applying clay to an armature.
- a process for imagining, for thinking out ideas, in the first place: creating the shape in space, in the way that you can make a sculpture purely from plaster-of-paris bandages, or a standalone lump of clay.
But recently I've had several students who've said, of their first, much-worked and much-loved book, that they now need to move on. The thing was, they sat down to write a book or a memoir, and discovered the skeleton simply by writing the flesh. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Invisible Man who's been created by this means is very oddly shaped, can't walk, and only balances on his side. The central skeleton, the driving story-idea, simply doesn't have the possibility of holding up a satisfying novel.
It would be easy to blame yourself: why didn't you plan the skeleton first? Then you'd be sure it worked before committing yourself to the actual prose? So frustrating - such a waste of time! But I've also watched newish writers get completely paralysed when they have planned the skeleton, then find characters don't act convincingly, voices aren't consistent and the point-of-view needs to be all over the place to tell the story. They may have built what seems to be a very stable, well-proportioned armature, but the clay refuses to stick to it. The word-by-word stuff has its own logic and demands, and the damn book refuses to get written - or at least to get written well.
I think most people new to writing haven't yet developed that sense of the whole body which would help them to simultaneously build a good skeleton and clothe it in the right, beautiful flesh. It's like expecting yourself to create a fine, upstanding Visible Grown-up Woman, by taking plaster bandages to the Invisible Baby Boy: you're both discovering the shape and trying to build it. There will come a time when you realise that all the patching and adding and carving away you could possible do will never create something that looks good. Which is only to say:
- Wonky ducks are wonky ducks for a reason: they're an essential part of the process of learning to carve good ducks.
- you can't cut short that learning of your craft, that apprenticeship; there's no short cut, but you may be able to find a fast track to cover the same ground, with a writing course or some other form of structured, focused feedback.
- you will learn more between first starting to think about your first book, and consigning the twentieth draft five years later to the bin, than you probably ever will again from a single project. The decision about binning it is really about whether it has any more to teach you.
- a process - a particular mix of planning and pantsing - that used not to be right for you might now be exactly right. In other words, don't assume that you'll live and die as a planner, or a pantser, but keep an open mind about what to try with each new project, and learn from the trying.
- take a leaf from the visual artists' book, and don't rely on the big canvas (the book) as the only way you learn, but practise the separate gestures and marks, the elements you'll need, on their own. The great painters' notebooks are full of pages of feet, leaps, bark-textures, trees, scraps of perspective, structures of views, and often skeletons, dissected stomachs, horses in the knacker's yard, as their eyes-hand-mind learn how the bones live inside the flesh...
- when a writer you admire says they never plan - or never worry about the prose - that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't. They probably do it so instinctively that they don't have to think about it, but every decision is formed by that instinct nonetheless. Also, maybe they don't do one or other now, but that doesn't mean they didn't - or shouldn't have - during their apprenticeship
Either way, please don't blame yourself when you put that first book in the bin. If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly because experience comes from doing things that kind of badly: committedly, thoughtfully, learning a lot, not necessarily succeeding so much.
The thing is, just as it takes experience to read a film or play script and "see" the film or play it could be, it takes experience to plan a novel and "see" the flesh that isn't there yet, and to write some prose and "see" the skeleton of the whole when you're only halfway up the first ankle.* When you look back at that book in the bin and then start a new project with your new, hard-won understanding of structure - or flesh - you're beginning to learn how the bones are revealed by what the flesh is doing, and how the visible body moves because of what the bones are doing. That's feedback-loop-learning and now, when you start to think about bones, you'll sense the flesh that might be on them, a little more. And when you imagine flesh, you'll sense the bones.
* Which is also why it's important, even when you can see these things, to be very, very careful about who gets to see your work-in-progress: they can only respond to what's on the page, not what's in your mind's eye. Especially if they're someone with potential power over it. Finish the book before you submit it, in other words...