Friday, 28 August 2009

Inspiration and Craft

It's a subject that catches my attention every so often, mostly about the time I do something horrible to either my fencing or guitar playing techniques, but the relationship between inspiration and the technique of doing things is an intriguing one, so I thought I'd look at it again.

Particularly, I find myself interested by the relationship between the "plan it from the start" and "just get on and write it" approaches to writing. I know some people will prefer one or the other, and they tend to be pretty adamant about it. It's as though they suspect that doing something different will result in things going horribly wrong, either by the end result making no sense, or it looking like it was produced by numbers.

I've tried both, and I think that there's probably a case for picking a method according to the type of piece you're writing. Extensive planning tends to result in tight, efficient pieces that rarely put a foot wrong. A more "write it and see" approach could produce almost anything, but in my case tends to produce things that ramble and wander, but flow a little more.

For all my talk about planning and "just writing" though, neither is the method that I actually use when I'm writing well. That method goes a little more like this:

  1. I start to think about an idea. Maybe I write it down, so I won't forget about it. Possibly I'll do some incredibly detailed planning on paper. Rather more possibly, I'll do some sketchy planning in my head.
  2. I then forget about it. If I've written it down, I forget where I've written it down. Curiously, this is an important part of the process, giving me time to think about it. Or to do some work I'm actually supposed to be doing. One or the other.
  3. After a bit, I get inspired (or so monumentally bored it feels like the same thing). I will then attempt to write the piece/novel.
  4. It will then go wrong. Occasionally, it will only go wrong a little bit, and I can fix it with a few edits, a few jokes, and a lot of encouragement from people who should know better (as happened with one of my favourite short stories, A Madder Scientist). More commonly, it will go horribly wrong, or fall flatter than most of my attempts at baking. (That's a lie, actually. Most of my very occasional attempts at baking do the opposite, rise far too much, and attempt to barricade themselves in the oven.)
  5. Having gone wrong, I will probably engage in a certain amount of Valuable Thinking Time (or sulking, as it's otherwise known). I might end up throwing the whole thing out and keeping nothing but the idea. I might also decide that there are some bits I like, and keep more of it.
  6. It's generally at about this point that I do some proper planning. Sounds insane, doesn't it? The thing is, what do I have at this point? Something that is alive, and vibrant, and also not set in stone. It's easy to change, but it probably also has some good ideas in there. Ideas that I might well not have come up with had I planned things at the start. From here, I can put the thing together in a way that actually works, but hopefully without sacrificing anything important.
  7. Having done that planning, I will attempt to rewrite, edit, and generally shout at the thing until it comes together. I generally know it's working well when bits I've added to fill holes start to take on their own life, do odd things in conjunction with what's already there, and generally behave like they've been there all along.
  8. Hopefully, the resulting chaos produces something I'm happy to have written.
The weird part is that it generally does. The pieces I'm less ecstatic about tend to show up when I either plan too much (which is the more common problem) or too little. This seems to work because it combines a couple of planning stages (and yes, generally thinking about things at the start counts) with enough freedom to let me do all the slightly odd things I do when I'm writing well.

Of course, put like that, it sounds a bit too much like a list of instructions. It isn't. It's simply an attempt to be truthful about what I actually do. I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend this to anyone else. What I do recommend is looking at the way you work, and finding out what you really do when you're working well. More people than you might think do something surprisingly similar to this, building on an initial burst of inspiration with the craft they've learned. Possibly fewer of them sulk quite so much in the middle, but each to their own, I say.


MG Higgins said...

It's so true that we all have our own eccentric way of getting the stuff in our heads down on paper. For me, I have a loose plan--basically a beginning and an ending--and start my first draft from there. It's in my revisions that I do the outlining. It's probably not the most efficient way to work but it does give me a lot of creative freedom.

Crafty Green Poet said...

entertaining post and interesting insight into your creative process.

I like your redefinition of sulking....

Lisa Damian said...

My process is also somewhere in the middle. I never lack for ideas. I try to write most of them down either on my laptop or in any number of various journals I keep around the house. Eventually, when one idea continues to play through my mind and evolve into more of a plot outline, I begin writing down more detailed notes or more of a plan, but nothing too rigid. Then I start writing. As character details and scene ideas develop more fully, I continue to jot down notes throughout the process as I'm also writing the story. I still rely heavily on the rewriting process though and willingly toss things out or change them when the final product needs revision.