Do writers need to plan their route?

640x425px road by Desmond Kavanagh on Flickr

I am reading the ever-fascinating “Write to be Published” by Nicola Morgan, which argues – rather cleverly in light of the title – that no writer actually has the “right” to be published. Rather, we as aspiring writers must be realistic about the market who would buy our book, the ability of the bookseller to figure out ( literally ) which shelf to put it on , and crucially whether we are writing our book in the right way.

I’m still in the middle of Nicola’s book, but the section which really caught my eye, and inspired me to put down the book for a moment and write this blog, was the bit on planning. When I was writing my first book in 2003, “SPACE KIDS AND THE PLUTO PLOT,” I simply mapped out the series of bullet points that I wanted to be the key sections of my narrative arc, and then wrote to them, like steppingstones I was aiming for in crossing a stream. I tried the same thing for my second book, SPACE KIDS AND THE SPY FROM PLANET 12, jotting down a list of bullet points and, again, writing towards them.

The interesting thing is, I used the bullet points for my second book about eight years after first writing the bullet points down. I’d received agent rejections on my first novel and simply shelved the second one in discouragement, and then was waylaid by several years of giving birth. When I rather poetically discovered book one and the bullet points for book two last summer in my mother’s attic, I thought, why not give it go?

Even though the structure was old for book 2, it still gave me a kind of scaffold I could work with.

“But doesn’t planning ruin the spontaneity of my writing?”

I hear you. But planning works for me, and my characters still surprise and impress me with the turns they take within the confines I’ve given them. My day job for years was working as an IT and business journalist, and feature stories demand this kind of organization. Now I’m working as a commercial copywriter to develop people’s websites and marketing brochures and the like, and the same kind of planning is critical.

Clear writing is clear thinking, and having something to aim towards as I “let it flow” during my fiction writing gives me the combination of freedom and structure I need: like an improvisational actor being given a few facts (“in the park…holding a shovel…taking to your brother,”), or like a hitchhiker, who knows what city he’s aiming for, but has no idea who’ll bring him there.

How do you write? Do you work towards milestones that you like to tick off as you go?

Review: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce 2008

Cosmic from Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children's
I’m doing a grand tour of all the best writing in my own novel’s age range, and Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children’s) is my favourite so far.

The story opens with 12-year-old Liam trapped in a rocket that’s spun out-of-control beyond earth orbit. It uses the well-established diary device to allow Liam to tell his tale of how he got stuck in space, taking us back a few months to when it all began – around the time when he first realised he had grown facial hair.

Liam describes himself as “above average in height and maths,” and his unlikely presence on the rocket is down to a number of factors, some to do with him (wanderlust, stubble) and others to do with the adults around him (pettiness, an inability to listen).

Early in the book, Liam and his friend from drama class, a girl called Florida, are mistaken for father and daughter because of Liam’s unusual height. Being mistaken for a grown-up gives Liam a holiday from the misery of premature puberty, and he encourages Florida to take their playacting as far as they can push it. Things go awry when Liam gives his worried parents the slip and gets Florida to compete with him (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style) in a ‘Best Dad Ever’ contest: the grand prize is a rocket trip.

The book has plenty of space gaga for fans like me, from zero g training in the vomit comet to a terrifying EVA in space (NASA even co-sponsored a competition for readers to win a trip to NASA, yay!) but the exploration of fatherhood is the best part of this story. Boyce comes at it from every angle: Liam and his dad, Liam and Florida, Florida and her absentee father, the other dads in the contest…it goes on.

Writer’s lessons from Cosmic

Deadpan has a peculiar power: having read A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime just before this, Liam’s deadpan delivery was especially noticeable for me. Liam’s way of describing events, with real economy and restraint in the writing, has a great power.

Brilliant in-character reactions: you can almost feel Boyce sinking into the persona of Liam when he writes his reactions to events; Liam reaches to his best frame of reference, his World of Warcraft gaming experience, when trying to describe how things feel for him. Scottish author and speaker Nicola Morgan says voice is the quality that allows the writing to disappear, so readers suspend their disbelief and become lost in the story…the difference between an amateur theatrical production and a professional. Boyce does voice flawlessly.

Secondary character’s emotional arc: Florida’s journey is as satisfying as Liam’s own, intertwined but discrete. Florida’s metamorphosis is just about credible, and like Liam, she is not overdrawn, but sketched with delightfully restrained strokes.

Boyce wrote a hasty, flawed draft first: that’s what he reveals in the interview at the book’s end (I read the US version). He was excited about the story and tore through draft one rapidly. Boyce’s daughter pointed out the problems with it, which he addressed carefully, seeking also the input of NASA veterans. This should give all writers heart: you might have your story, but your book takes a bit more chiseling before it comes forth from the stone.

I need to read more brilliant adventures for age 9-11…please help me by leaving a comment below with your suggestion

What astronauts do

L to R veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee
L to R veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee

I came across this image on the NASA archives – these are the three crew members who died when a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule. From left to right they were veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee.

Continue reading “What astronauts do”