Writing Post: Research and Plot

Before I begin: I have a degree in Creative Writing. This isn’t so much to wave around a piece of paper which is effectively useless and which has left a £17k debt hanging over my head like a very expensive sword of Damocles, because I don’t want to pretend to anyone that I did anything other than drink, lie, and occasionally lie while drinking at university – all the noble pursuits of an educated young woman who has hauled herself to a former Polytechnic to study something meaningless to make up for the fact that she’s too bad at maths and too lazy to do anything worthwhile. No, it’s more to make it quite clear that even slumping through seminars, lectures, and endless workshops will not necessarily prepare one for having the faintest clue how to go about writing, and if anything to labour the point that there are fewer hard and fast rules than you’d expect.

The other point I want to bang on about to the point of irritation is that no one needs to listen to me; is “Delilah Des Anges” a household name? No. Is this because of the cronyism and neoptism and celebrity-worship culture in the publishing industry? No, though I’m told these are rife. Is it because my work is uncategorisably complex and arty? Probably not. It’s almost certainly more likely because I’m a self-published writer who still isn’t exactly at the top of her game yet.

With all those provisos aside, I wanted to ramble aimlessly (do I ever do anything else?) about methods of writing, because I’m always interested in the approach other people take.

This grew out of a conversation recently, when I lamented the realisation that I probably only have one full book in me a year, and wondered what the heck I was doing with the rest of the year (for reference, most of the writing itself takes place in one month, so that leaves 11 months unaccounted for); “Recovering?” suggested sycophantic boyfriend.

“But whyyyyyy?” whinged I. “It’s not like I do anything else.”

That of course turns out not to be the case. Stories do not fart forth fully-formed in a novel-length puff of flatulence from the writerly rear end, they have to be nurtured into being with – to stick to the supremely ill-advised guff analogy – the appropriate diet and digestive system. Diet and digestion vary from person to person and research and reverie vary from writer to writer, often with the same room-clearing end result (“I’ve written a poem about my feelings about my father, and I thought you might – guys?”).

Most of this advice can be directed squarely at the preening, arrogant little know-it-all I was when I was 19 or so and determined that I was a genius. I was apt not to listen a great deal to advice then, and I’m not overwhelmingly more likely to pay attention now, but maybe when I’m thirty-nine I’ll have assimilated a little more humility and motivation.

Research

This isn’t tireless poring over ancient dusty tomes in some wood-panelled libraries. The internet is also right there, and it is full of people who are willing to answer your questions or point you in the direction of people who can. Having conversations with people in the pub counts as research, if they’re the right conversations. People will tell you all kinds of things if your explanation is “I’m writing a book and I don’t want to screw it up.” Some really helpful information has come from near-total strangers being willing to share painful details of their personal lives to make sure that something I write represents that experience more accurately.

And yes, Delilah, you have to do the research first otherwise the plot will come apart. Currently, fairly important details of plot are being rewritten and redirected because I managed to pull my finger out sufficiently to find out which substances were legal during a particular time period. Almost anything can trip you up, whether you’re writing real-world fiction or fantasy (if you have ever sat next to a former pony-club member while watching some fantastical epic and heard them muttering angrily about what horses will and will not do, you’ll know there are pitfalls aplenty even when your protagonist has two heads). Research before you start writing saves the number of messy, butcher-like rewrites and edits later on.

Research will also help to flesh out characters, character dynamics, and the feel of the area in which you’re writing.

Plotting

I used not to do this before I started; indeed The Other Daughter was typical of my previous approach of meandering through a few thousand words of indiscriminate groping about for a sense of place and a plot to crib, and unfortunately that approach shows, and requires editing and rewrites later as new directions later in the plot lead to backmatter becoming unworkable.

For more recent writing longer than short fiction I’ve found it’s invaluable to work out at the very least what major events are going to occur in the course of the story,  and to whom. Then when. After that the motivations and effects should – given fleshed-out characters and a functioning world – take care of themselves. For heavily multi-threaded stories diagrams, spreadsheets, and all sorts of terribly impressive-looking rubbish has to be called into play, but even for single-threaded stories it’s important to keep track of what’s happening outside the field of the narrator’s vision because it may impact on them later.

As with research, the more you plot up front the easier the writing is and hopefully the less editing you’ll have to do afterwards. My entire approach is geared toward allowing the writing to happen as easily as possible (which means I can get the 2,000-8,000 words a day written for an extended period of time) and to cut down the amount of editing and rewrites necessary to tell a coherent story because I hate editing.

Plotting, and drawing out a day-by-day guide of what needs to be written and roughly how long it should be ensures that the actual business of writing is as stress-free as possible, which is good because I have all the self-discipline of a fox in a henhouse and will do almost anything to get out of writing (including starting a blog entry about writing).

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