Butcher, Baker, Candlestick-maker

by limebirdster

I stumbled across a talk by Michael Morpurgo a few years ago, I only caught the last five minutes and the questions at the end but the part that I heard was about how he loved coming up with ideas. Creating characters and universes and planning what was going to happen. And that bit’s the fun bit. Then you get to the hard part and have to write it down. It stuck in my head because of how much I agree with him, creating things and imagining things are so much easier than putting words on paper.

Though, of course, many people would disagree. Joshua Wolf Shenk said “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of “Lincoln’s Melancholy” I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”
He just wants to get to the blank page and, as Ernest Hemmingway said, Bleed on it. His theory seems to be that you can’t know where you’re going until you’ve got there.

So that’s kind of the pantsers and the planners, the ones who want to write and the ones who want to think about what they’re writing. And I always thought that those were the two groups. You’re in one or the other, whether that’s a strong affiliation or not, but there isn’t really an alternative camp to be in.

And then I had dinner with a friend of mine a week or so ago who is approaching the deadline of her third book and she said – “I’ve realised that I don’t like writing.” Which seemed like a pretty strange thing to say, but what she loves is finishing, writing The End, and then going back and fixing it all. She likes the editing.

Now as I’ve said I sit firmly in Michael Morpurgo’s camp. Give me a window and I’ll stare out of it all day. I write down an idea, and then I write a basic plot outline, and then I write a detailed plot outline. And then I know that it’s time to start actually writing the story, so I write a chapter summary. During NaNo I’ve been known to write bullet point lists of what my paragraphs should be just to get out of actually writing anything.

Michael Kanin said “I don’t like to write, but I love to have written.” And I, and my friend, would agree with him there. I like the before and she likes the after and we both find the bit between the most difficult.

So which camp are you in? Do you cross the line between two different camps? Is there just one aspect that you don’t like?


12 Comments to “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick-maker”

  1. What an excellent post. I’m not sure we’ve ever looked at this in quite this way before. I think I’m definitely a pantser according to the above description. I don’t know what is going to happen until I write it. The writing is the fun part for me, the editing is the drudge.

  2. I love all parts of the process, from imagining to proofreading. Yes, even catching the errant typo is satisfying to me! I agree that I don’t know what my story is really about, who the characters really are, what themes are really at play, until I have my story written down. What we imagine isn’t always what works, and we sometimes have to mold or change our ideas so we have a readable story. Dreaming about my story is what propels me to write my story. For me, the steps are linked together and one can’t happen without the other.

  3. For the most part, I am a pantser, but sometimes the idea is too static and I can’t get a good handle on it. Then I begin bullet points. Afterwards the story practically writes itself, not always the way I thought it would go.

  4. I’ve become a bit of a hybrid, doing some planning now before diving into a story. Some days, I love everything—writing, editing, revising, planning. And on others, I can’t stand any of them. I do like the finishing part and hope that something will be finished enough to be worthy of publishing before too many years go by!

    • The finishing is very satisfying isn’t it? I’m sure you’ll reach that stage before too long, hopefully you’ll have more of the days that you enjoy everything and less of the others!

  5. Oh my, I think you’ve hit a sore spot in my psyche, especially since I just failed at “winning” NaNoWriMo. I am sooo afraid of writing a bunch of garbage that I’ll never be able to sort through that I write v-e-r-y slowly. I think I’ve just got to keep writing a bunch of scenes, no matter the “order” and work out how they’ll fit together or get deleted somewhere down the road. But it goes so far against my nature that I feel like I’m dying small and large deaths as I plunge ahead.

  6. I love the dreaming part of it, too, Ster. 🙂 But, the finishing bit is what I think is the most important part of the first draft process. It’s one of the best pieces of advice ever passed down to me: Anybody can start a story. It takes a writer to finish one. Even if the ending is crap, at least there’s an ending. From the ending, we can go back and look at the story as a complete whole, tracing the dips and rises and figuring out where it needs to change.

    A friend of mine asked me to look at his son’s story. I said, “Sure. Has he finished it?” “No, he’s still writing it.” I shook my head. “Right now, it’s still just ideas coming together. Get back to me when he finishes it. Then, it’s a story, and then, I’ll look at it.”

    Both pantsers and planners seem to have issues with the finishing line. Some rush to it, and some never get there. The rushers might churn out garbage, but it’s done. The meandering lot has thoughtfulness on their side, but their stories don’t come to fruition. I don’t know which is “better.” Personally, I like taking my time with that first draft, but I’m also consciously pushing toward the ending, when I can start reading over and revising the work as a whole.

    Of course, I’m not a real writer, so maybe everything I say is just blowing smoke.

    Nice post – lots to think about. Thanks! 🙂

    • Of course you’re a real writer Mayumi! If you write then you’re a writer, whether it’s just for yourself or for your 100th book deal!

      I think you’ve hit the point exactly with that piece of advice, starting is always easy but finishing takes a lot of effort!

  7. I love the imagining and the writing, it’s the editing part I find a chore!

  8. I’m reading Nathan Bransford’s book, How to Write a Novel, and he really does a great job tackling this topic. It’s more of a spectrum and he says do what works for you. Sounds so simple, but you have to try pantser, plotter and figure out where you naturally fall. The most important thing is producing word count. If you’re doing that, you’re on the right path.

    • That’s a good point Kourney, just get something on the page somehow! That sounds like an interesting book, I like the idea of it being a spectrum I hadn’t thought of that!

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