Writing is a creative process and with that there is a need to continually develop the process, improve and hone it. Here children’s writer Nigel Quinlan, author of The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox, describes his efforts to fundamentally change his approach to writing:
Inspired by ERMurray’s #1stDraftDiary, I thought I’d write about writing, or an aspect of writing. Being a writer, I will write about an aspect of writing I am actually not terribly proficient at. So I will be writing about my efforts to improve my proficiency, which I’m sure will be both edifying and instructive. To which is the aspect of writing to what I am referring (not grammar, obvs)?
I play lip service to planning because the writers I love most are supreme long-term planners. Peter Straub’s intricate mysteries of hidden histories and haunted psychologies in his Blue Rose Trilogy, or, the great Dorothy Dunnett’s complex web of secrets and strategems woven across the seven novels of her House Of Niccolo series. I worship at their feet. And make things up as I go along.
I take vague images, distinct voices, dramatic episodes independent of any plot, mad ideas I pursue obsessively to surreal places unmoored of logic, and then try to cram them into the same tall tale.
It works brilliantly and is a fantastically enjoyable way of writing… until somewhere between, 10 to 30,000 words when the steam runs out and the complete lack of properly-laid foundations causes the whole confection to collapse under its own weight. Then I have to plan. I jury-rig a mast that’ll capture the hot air I’m trying to puff into a wind strong enough to carry this ship home. It works! We pull into the dock, tie up, and celebrate a voyage safely concluded!
The editor takes a long, sober look, and informs me that I need to turn this ship around, sail it back the way it came, dismantling and reconstructing it as I go. Back and forth I sail, pulling it apart and rebuilding it over and over again, until the mess that was so much fun to throw together finally, tortuously, starts to resemble that noble structure of incident, theme and character that we know as The Novel.
I’ve been revising my next book, The Cloak of Feathers, which had a first draft of nearly 90,000 words. My beloved agent read it, and kindly told me she was sure there was a great story in there trying to get out. I had to cut out ideas, set-pieces and characters by the score, and again, and again until I had something slim and trim and and hopefully sparkling and delightful. That’s gone back to Orion, and while there’ll be more rounds of editing, hopefully all the major revisions are complete.
I have a long list of ideas for books I’d like to write. For each of them I have images, voices, incidents, floating in my head. Oh the fun of sitting down and throwing everything at the page and seeing what emerges!
This summer will be the summer of me learning to PLAN.
No plan survives first contact with your neurons.
Planing is defined in the dictionary as… I dunno, I haven’t a dictionary handy.
Already we’re off to a disastrous start, highlighting my failings as a planner. Had I planned ahead properly then the dictionary would be in reach. I would have overcome my laziness and inertia and fetched a dictionary from a nearby shelf. I would not have forgotten that I am typing this on a computer connected to the internet which has dictionaries in it. I’m a complete mess.
The ultimate aim of this exercise will be to have two proposals to slide onto the desk of my publisher and turn their eyes to pound signs. One will be for a big scary fantasy MG novel, the other will be for a series of MG books utilising ideas I cut from Cloak. Neither of these may be viable or publishable, but I am going to learn how to plan them and present them.
Because I’ve been working intensively on Cloak I decided to go with the scary MG book, working title Lucy Small. The major advantage in choosing this book is that it has already been written. A first draft exists, and a heavily revised redraft of 10,000 words will be the basis for the new version.
No. It’s not a game or a competition. It’s a learning process. If the extant material gives me a leg-up, so much the better. I won’t be writing another word of the new draft until I have the whole thing planned, all the ideas and themes explored and nailed down. Maybe even some research – but a frank discussion of my research deficiencies can wait for some other time.
Lucy Small began as a short story written in my teens, about a girl who wakes up one morning and cannot speak or read or write. She lives in a magical house with her parents, and the Devil is coming to dinner to collect her dad’s soul.
No, you can’t read it, it’s terrible.
While Weatherbox was out in the wild, I worked on turning Lucy Small into a novel. After faffing about down a blind alley in terms of world-building, I sorted myself out and hand-wrote a 70,000-word first draft in a month. I drove ahead, creating characters and settings as I went, listening to voices and letting their characteristic or improvisational reactions to whatever I threw at them determine the direction of the story.
In terms of letting the imagination run riot it reaped tremendous rewards. I have a lot of elements I think will make the book special. But could I not have generated those ideas in a way that allowed me to reject or integrate them without writing the full story then dismantling it? It took four weeks to write, but the achievement was spoiled when I couldn’t even consider the task of reworking it properly. Then Weatherbox gained a publisher. Lucy, with some relief, was set aside.
Time for a new approach.
(c) Nigel Quinlan
Next week catch up on my progress in Part 2!
About Moloney’s Magical Weatherbox
Neil and Lizzie’s Dad is a Weatherman. But not the boring kind that you see on TV. He’s one of the people who make sure that the Seasons change every year.
But this year the Autumn hasn’t arrived. Who is stopping it. Why? And can Neil and Lizzie help their father bring in the Autumn before it’s too late?
This is a rich, magical fantasy adventure from a talented debut author – a story that readers are sure to fall in love with.