Some writers are planners and know how each story, poem, script will start and end before they begin writing. Other writers are explorers and have an idea, a situation, a character, a place they want to write about but have little inkling of where the writing is going until they are in the middle of it when they might find they are actually still at the beginning or just as likely at the end. I guess there is actually a spectrum from explorer to planner, and many of us would place ourselves somewhere along this spectrum, not wanting to own up to being definitively one or the other. You might of course find you are a planner on some days of the week and then give up planning for exploring at the weekend when Monday deadlines suddenly loom closer.
The poet, Vernon Scannell, once wrote a piece in an English textbook for secondary school pupils, where he said that short story writers plan and poets explore. I’m not sure that I agree but his idea is an interesting one and he illustrated it by explaining how he came to write the poem called A Case of Murder. He had read a short notice in a local paper which reported how a young boy killed the family cat.
He wondered how that came about, so he decided to put a boy and a cat home alone and see what happened in the poem he was about to write. The method is a useful one for poets and short fiction writers, and is open to planners or explorers. As T.S Eliot said in a Paris Review interview in 1959: “One doesn’t know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one’s got it off. But I couldn’t apply the word “intention” positively to any of my poems. Or to any poem.”
Scannell was not on an academic course although for the purposes of the school book he did explain something about structure, point of view and language. And that is where the importance of redrafting and taking control of your writing becomes apparent.
Incidentally, in the same T.S.Eliot interview mentioned above, Eliot said Ezra Pound had made him cut large chunks out of the original draft of the Waste Land. And we know Siegfried Sassoon suggested redrafts for the title and many lines and phrases in Wilfrid Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. So as students and tutors involved in Creative Writing we have plenty of famous examples to follow.
Forget those excuses for weak writing like: “But that’s how it happened” or “But that’s how I felt about it”. Make your happenings into a strong plot/structure and avoid emotion (as I wrote in a blog a couple of months ago). Let the reader feel emotion as a result of your well-thought out structure and powerful images/metaphors. The script-writer has to trust the actor, and the prose-writer and poet have to trust the actor within the reader. If your images are good enough, you don’t have to do any explaining.
I sometimes have students, both on OCA courses and on other courses, who excuse their explanatory use of language by saying they have some issue or problem they want to express in their writing. Stories, scripts and poems are often effective if they deal with central issues of human life but writers have to be careful not to rub their readers’ noses in the mire of their own/characters’ problems. Let the readers work out what the problem is: they’ll appreciate what you have written much more if they have to do a bit of detective work themselves. Sometimes, of course readers may see a problem the writer hadn’t intended and was totally unaware of. That’s fine because unless you are writing a diary for personal consumption only, once you have given your writing to a reader, that piece of writing is no longer yours: in effect the reader re-writes it in the light of their own experience and understanding.
Roland Barthes, the French linguist and critic, first put forward this idea as long ago as 1967 in his book The Death of the Author. He introduces the idea with a quotation from a novel by Balzac where, Barthes claims, readers are left to determine themselves whether the comments/information come from the author as writer, the author as philosopher, the author as narrator, the author as character.
But before your writing is made available to the general reader, or in the case of OCA students, to the assessors, you are still in control. You might like to try and keep tags on your writing process as you write. Frank Smith, in his book, Writing and the Writer (Heinemann 1994) explains how writers (planners and explorers?) have specifications in mind for their writing which then change, consciously or unconsciously, as they write. I have tried keeping tags myself but find that this process may actually hinder the writing process itself even if it brings to light aspects of your writing you were not originally aware of. It’s rather like the way scientific experiments actually lose their objectivity by unavoidably having the subjectivity of the observer imposed on them. However, there’s an interesting account by Rosalind Brackenbury in Delighting the Heart edited by Susan Sellers ( The Women’s Press 1989) of how she kept a notebook commenting on the writing process of her novel, The Woman in the Tower. Brackenbury found that her notes recording the progress of her writing, became signposts helping her to write and redraft, and sometimes were incorporated in the text of the novel.
So as an author, make sure you don’t “die” too early in the writing process.