Storytelling on the Bus: Planning

So you’ve got an idea for a short story. You’ve pre-planned. You’ve researched extensively (?). Surely the next step is to start writing the thing, no?

You are significantly more likely to abandon your piece if you try to convert what are reasonably dry notes into a juicy narrative – sometimes that gap is just too big to bridge. I try to overcome this by free writing planning. I find this quite a liberating experience; I am writing without rules, without grammar, without the hassle of having to structure or pace or preen. If a lightning piece of dialogue comes into my head, down it goes on the page. If I want to write a detailed description of a nineteenth century blackhouse, I can. This is brainstorming – letting my writer’s mind take me where it wants to go. Consequently, there are some real gems formed in this process. Below is my free planning for Meeting Margery Mercer:

 

Meeting Margery Mercer

Here is an example of stream-of-consciousness writing. I am telling the story as I would to someone sitting next to me on the bus. Planning in this way takes the trepidation out of starting to write in earnest – the story has already been written once. Although the first opportunity to form a narrative curve, I find planning more useful if I stick to a few simple rules.

 

  1. Limit your time writing. This isn’t the time to focus on grammar, syntax etc. This is where your narrative arc is honed. Does the story work? Could I tell it to a friend on the X95 from Edinburgh to Galashiels? If not, it probably is too dense to work as a short story.
  2. Organise your work into paragraphs. Although seemingly contrary to free writing, this proves useful if I want to move paragraphs around or play with plot later on. It also makes the plan easier to work from when writing your first draft.
  3. Bear in mind that this is your first opportunity to fuse your research and pre-planning. Strategically placed nuggets of research within your plan will add authenticity to your writing, whilst avoiding research overload (a mistake I have made in the past). Less is more here. The aim is not to prove that you know your subject matter inside-out, but to entertain. If your plan is groaning with the weight of statistics and historical anecdotes, then your full-length draft certainly will be.

 

Once your scaffolding is complete, congratulations – you have a narrative in front of you! Next is the hard part – writing it properly and writing it better.

 

For more insight on my writing process, see the following…

 

Igloos in the Tundra: Idea Formation

A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning

Exploration and Sterilisation: Research

 

Successes and Failures

The vast majority of authors fit their craft around jobs, family, homemaking, and other commitments. Anyone who expects to write in blissful solitude at a sprawling desk with coffee steam curling into the ceiling fan above them will be swiftly disabused of such fantasies. A more common tableau is stealing half an hour at the end of a stressful day to write on the sofa with Peppa Pig ringing in my ears and my three-year-old’s legs entangled in the laptop cable. Most of the time it’s not a glamorous hobby. Most of the time it’s a grind.

 No matter how many times you remind yourself that rejections are part of the game, that it’s not personal, that even Hemingway’s writing was initially dismissed, it still hurts. It should hurt; you’ve invested time, effort, and passion in your work. All of which makes it important to celebrate when things do go right.

 In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to have short stories accepted in Soft Cartel, Penny Shorts, and Shooter magazine. Two of these are paying magazines, which makes it all the sweeter! Doubtless I’ll have barren spells again. Those rejection slips and oh-so-close emails will disappoint time and time again, but it’s important to remember the successes.

Exploration and Sterilisation: Research

Surgical

I know, I know. Research isn’t the sexiest part of writing. It isn’t sitting in a Paris café with a cigarillo hanging out of your mouth, and it isn’t battering away at a Sholes and Glidden typewriter in a converted shed. However, unless you are writing the flashiest of flash fiction, or scribbling on a subject with which you are entirely conversant, most narratives will require a level of research.

The [copious] gaps in my knowledge should have been highlighted in the pre-planning stage of my writing process. Some pieces, like THE PREDATOR, will require less research – we’ve all been in a bar before. Others, like WATAN, will require substantially more. I certainly haven’t flown a kite on the rooftops of 1960s Lahore before, and to write as if I had without research would result in a story lacking in authenticity. Research adds weight to a piece when used appropriately. It gives a writer confidence that they know their subject, something that will be immediately apparent to a reader.

I research my work in four main ways:

  1. Journal articles

Fantastic if you have access to a university library or similar. These have the benefit of being targeted; if you want to write about a subject, odds are that someone will have written a journal article on it. This was certainly the case for WATAN. I was able to research Pakistani immigration into Scotland with ease and got access to the statistics I needed quickly. There is a certain skill in searching for suitable journals, not too dissimilar to hash tagging effectively.

  1. Books

The most obvious and best resource available to writers. Charles William Eliot said, ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.’ Unless reading for pleasure, remember that your research book is there to serve your writing. Use indexes, use contents pages. It’s not cheating to dip in and out of a book for research purposes. At present I am reading Robert Graves’ ‘The Greek Myths’ for a story. Although immersive, it is perhaps not practical to read and annotate all 784 pages for the purposes of a 2,000-word short story. Read well and read with a purpose; the better your source material, the better your writing will be.

  1. Travel

‘Write what you know’ is perhaps too cliched a piece of writing advice, but its sentiment has solid foundations. If possible, visit the place you are writing about. I am writing a story set in a Scottish port called Mallaig at present and have booked a weekend away with my wife. This will hopefully allow me a sense of mise en scene, thereby doing Mallaig justice. I know from experience that the trip will also provide me with those anecdotal nuggets that are gold dust in fiction – the smells, tastes, and impressions that are impossible to garner from the comfort of your writing desk.

  1. Interviews

If you haven’t experienced what you are writing about, then the next best thing is speaking to someone who has. Odds are that if they consider the anecdote worth telling and you find it worth listening to, then it will translate well into a story. I had the good fortune to attend a writing group with a gentleman who had grown up in Lahore and who was able to add to the authenticity of WATAN. Going the extra mile and speaking to someone with experience in your subject area will undoubtedly show through in your final piece.

To finish, I’ll discuss one thing I try never to do when researching. If I am writing a ghost story, I won’t read Susan Hill whilst I’m writing it. If I am penning a piece of crime flash fiction, I’ll avoid Raymond Chandler for the duration of the process. Why? Because their styles will inevitably bleed into my writing, resulting in a depressing parody of an author I admire. Read other genres? Yes. Read research? Definitely. But I steer away from polluting my train of thought with other authors’ work. I see research much as a surgeon would their scalpels and clamps – keep them sterilized to avoid cross-contamination between styles.

As always folks, I would be delighted to hear about your creative processes.

Previous posts on my process are below.

Igloos in the Tundra: Idea Formation

A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning