Monday, July 13, 2009

Plan to not fail

By David Heinzmann

Every once in a while I think of a tidbit about David Mamet I once read. On the wall next to his writing desk he had tacked a card that read something like: To fail to plan is to plan to fail.

Some writers need to plan more than others, perhaps, but everybody needs a layer or two of discipline. Often when we talk about this we mean either carving out the same writing time and a word count every day, or addressing the question of outlining or not.

For a handful of reasons (but mostly because of two shorties under the age of 5) I struggle with carving out the regular writing time. And I can’t say that the outlines I’ve made have been worth all the time I put into them, though I’d surely have been worse off without them.

Lately, when I've thought of the Mamet maxim, I’ve also been thinking about the first kind of planning I learned as a writer. When I was in college I had a wonderful creative writing teacher named A.E. Claeyssens who taught a novel writing class. We all had a novel we were planning to write, but first Claey had us spend most of the semester writing what he called preliminaries, volumes of character profiles, pages and pages of their external and internal lives, biographical details we’d never put on the page in the novel, but the stuff that makes you understand who they are so that the actions and thoughts that do make it onto the page ring true. Exploring characters before you write is one way to tell as story, but some writers feel they need to discover their characters as they go. When they’re in the zone and become lost in the story, the characters reveal themselves, etc.

I got a lot of out preliminaries, but somewhere along the way I stopped doing them, partly because in the years since college I’ve learned to write with a gun to my head—on deadline, nearly every day.

By necessity, I do a good bit of my fiction writing on the L-train ride to and from work. It’s not the best method, mainly because it comes in half-hour chunks. But I take my time alone where I can get it.

I write in a notebook atop a leather brief case sitting on my lap. The eventual typing up of my chicken scratch becomes an act of revision, with most of those revelatory writing moments coming in the late-night transcription sessions at the keyboard. I actually find the process to be fairly productive, if not ideal.

Lately, as I’ve been rewriting the ending for the novel I’m trying to finish, I’ve felt particularly unplanned and at least frustrated, if not failing. When my agent read the manuscript a few months ago, he said the ending felt a little easy. So I pulled back from the big moment of revelation in the book, and started going sideways a bit. I wrote several new scenes with my man Flood continuing to stumble in the dark.

But I was having trouble finding the final confrontation that will get me back to the end. Trying to major surgery on the plot, I suddenly had no real plan.

This is what brings me to the lessons of Mamet and Claeyssens. Without thinking about it the other day, I started retroactively writing out preliminaries on the train. I’m once again finding my way through with the preliminaries.

Looking forward, I’m pretty sure I’m going to need preliminaries for the next book, too. I have a premise and protagonist, a couple of scenes, but the big picture remains a fog. I’m going to need serious plan.

19 comments:

David Ellis said...

Thanks for the insight, David. I've never done preliminaries to the extent that you have. But it does help to explore the character a bit before even beginning the novel itself. Like you, I used to do more of that, but children and another job and all that good stuff have forced me into small pockets of time. Nice to see I am not alone. And look forward to reading your book and whatever ending ends up working for you!

KPenn said...

Great stuff here, David. I'm not a creative writer, so the whole concept of preliminaries is new to me. It does make good sense, though. I always welcome the (what seems random) recall of good tools once learned (and oft forgotten) to help me out when I'm "stuck." And I imagine your prof would surely appreciate the nod you've extended him.

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