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  • Writer's pictureWendy Turbin

To be or not to be ... a planner

Author Wendy Turbin plans her next novel
Skeleton hunting on Clacton Pier

That is the question that crops up time and again on festival panels, interviews and author q&a’s. Do you suffer the slings and arrows of pantsterdom, or take up arms and plan a neat campaign?

Val McDermid apparently used to plan them all, but now she doesn’t have to. She can just wing it and let her characters tell the story. She’s super-smart. Yay, go, Val!

I’m not that clever. I don’t get the choice. Planning Sleeping Dogs would have been lovely, but I just can’t do it. If I write a plan, I can’t write the novel – I seize up, confined within the boundaries of the tram lines I’ve created. Not a hope of breaking free, even though I know deviation is to be encouraged. (Though not hesitation or repetition, for fellow fans of Just a Minute).

So, I had to write the whole of Sleeping Dogs, then reverse engineer the thing, taking it apart and rebuilding, until it behaved like a novel instead of an unruly mess.

Imagine, if you will, that plot is the skeleton that underpins the narrative – yes, I know I’ve used the skeleton imagery before, but am I supposed to use teddy bears? It’s a crime blog.

Actually, a teddy bear could work. The plot would be the skin, a sort of exoskeleton I guess – with a pile of stuffing on the side in different shapes that you’d have to ram inside – no, enough of the embowelling!

Darn, Google says that’s one of those crazy words that mean the same, like flammable/inflammable. Who knew? A new word discovery. Happy day.

But I digress. Back to the skeleton.

Skeleton reads a large book
Building a plot from the bones up

I had a character or two facing a problem and a vague idea of what might happen at the end. Just a few bones, but more were scattered in a valley full of clouds. Like Sir Terry Pratchett’s analogy there was a tree or two sticking up above the mist that I could aim for. Manuscript Mountain shimmered in the distance. but I had no idea of what I’d find on the journey. More bones, I hoped.

I walked towards that end point and cast about along the way. Naturally, I fell down a lot, and grazed my knees and even broke a limb or two., It was cold and damp in that mist and there were monsters – am I making this sound fun, yet?

Well, actually it is – because every time I sat down to write the next bit the unexpected happened, and that’s what I love. I’m doing it at the moment with the next book in the series and I sort of know what its about and where it ends – but all subject to change without notice. It’s a kaleidoscope effect. But, because I’m easily distracted by the patterns, it’s a long and rambling process.

When I have a draft, then I have a pile of bones. Only I’ve got three jaws, 87 ribs and only one kneecap. Oh, joy.

At that point, I write a chapter plan of what I’ve got and cut the bits that go nowhere or don’t fit. This reveals some gaps, which I fill with new writing.

Then, I think about the structure. I mean, all I’ve basically got is a heap of bones, and putting the jawbone next to the coccyx is going to give someone a backache.

So, I rewrite the whole thing. Twice, three times. Letting other people read bits and say what works and what needs fixing and stealing all their best ideas. Then I think about pace and tension and try to make that happen.

Then I do another draft.

You’re right – this is not the fun bit, but the skeleton is built and fleshed out in the major areas and a layer of skin applied. It’s kind of getting there.

Then I put it away for a while – however long I’ve got and concentrate on something else.

Then eventually I think, okay let’s see if it breathes.

Then I write and rewrite, until one day it screams and runs away to try its luck in the big, wide world.

Then I sleep.

A lot.

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