Writing: The Planning Stage
Serendipity plays a large part in finding inspiration
I’m thinking of starting another book, and to do so I’m going through the hunter/gatherer process that always occurs at this stage. It’s complicated and works differently every time, but part of it involves churning through the work of many writers and thinking about the way they approach stories.
For decades writers were held back by film lecturers like Robert McKee selling them courses on the ‘writer’s journey’, Joseph Campbell and three-act structures. Campbell’s watchwords were ‘Follow your bliss’, ie. let your enthusiasms guide you.
I studied the course but never truly believed in it, although it made some good points. McKee’s approach has largely been shot down and left in the dust by new writers who are now free to work in new streaming formats, and not before time. Writing can be reduced to a certain kind of formula but is rarely inspired.
Sarah Phelps, who has written over 100 episodes of ‘Eastenders’, is also responsible for some terrific TV adaptations of novels. Here she is on the subject;
‘Someone said to me, ‘What’s the inciting incident? I was like, ‘Don’t ever say that to me again.’ I talk to people who are doing writing courses and they talk like that and I just think, ‘This is horrible.’ The story tells you what the structure is. (If you think) in terms of a five-act structure for an hour’s worth of script I think, ‘But that only gives you ten minutes per act.’
It’s an impossible way to work and it gets work as others add their input, something that rarely happens with a novel. Sarah had to deal with a BBC executive who thought that her adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ should be shot like ‘Big Brother’. I’ve had executives who thought that Bryant & May should be cast with Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie ‘to capitalise on their fame as a double act’. You can see why they’d think that but the idea is, again, horrible.
When looking for a successful adaptation of a nigh-impossible-to-adapt book, I rewatched ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, scripted from Susannah Clarke’s doorstop by Peter Harness. In paring back the story, the central conflicting relationship between the magicians incorporates all the wonderment of the book’s set pieces. I especially like the way in which the impatient Duke of Wellington treats Strange like a military asset to be exploited or abandoned.
One of the problems I have with Bryant & May is that the baroque atmosphere of the novels must necessarily extend to the plot itself, whereas my ultimate fantasy is to construct a murder mystery so organic that no explanation at all is needed at the end. That’s why I’ve separately written ‘Hot Water’, which has a moment of revelation at the end so natural and obvious in hindsight that it transcends explanation. It will, of course, garner little attention when published unless some bright spark picks up the TV rights.
Serendipity plays a large part in finding inspiration for another book. Here it’s a good idea to skim the classics, manga comics, Victorian recipe books, anything that will refresh the brain. My friend Porl is currently reading ‘The Pierrots of the Yorkshire Coast’. My friend Deborah is reading ‘By Bus to Malta’. I’ve been leafing through ‘Too Naked For The Nazis’ and ‘The First Night of Twelfth Night’ – non-fiction is often your best bet here.
Writers are either mapmakers or gardeners. We either create complex grids for plots or throw our seeds out anywhere and harvest whatever comes up. I’m the latter. Both have disadvantages; mapmakers get trapped by their own adherence to structure, while gardeners can come over as messy and disorganised.
But for now it’s all planning without actually planning. Absorbing books, talking to old friends, going on walks to unfamiliar places, refreshing the brain. It’s as crucial a part of the writing process as the writing itself.
If there’s any subject matter you feel that Bryant & May haven’t yet covered, something you’d like to see explored, just let me know.