George R R Martin calls them architects and gardeners; most other writers call them plotters and pantsers. Either way, there’s general agreement that all writers fall somewhere on a spectrum between detailed up-front planning and complete seat-of-the-pants improvisation. I fall towards the latter end of the spectrum. I wish I could plot a novel before I start writing—it seems much more efficient—but that doesn’t seem to work for me. Instead, I’ve gravitated towards what I call Franken-plotting.
Whereas other writers boast/complain of having loads of different unrelated story ideas, I tend to have one core idea for a plot/setting and another couple for characters, and then lots of “satellite” ideas as to how these core elements will play out in the story. The trouble is, these options are often mutually exclusive, and my left brain and right brain find it hard to agree on which is the best, so I end up writing at least a scene or two for each one – and sometimes many chapters.
This certainly happened with The Alchemist of Souls, which started out as a secondary world murder mystery and ended up as an alternate history spy thriller! All that remains of the original idea is the 16th-century urban setting, the fantasy element (skraylings) and the main characters of Mal, Ned, Coby and Kiiren – and even they changed somewhat in the retelling.
Usually, the idea that wins out is the one I get furthest with, but that doesn’t mean I have to discard all the other attempts. Lately I’ve been finding there’s great synergy in taking two or more versions of the story and stitching together the best bits into a greater whole.
That’s what I’m doing at the moment. I have 35,000+ words of last autumn’s draft, which has some solid material in the later chapters, but I’m not so keen on this version of the protagonist. Hence I’m taking another, more recent draft of his opening chapters, and adding them to Act Two of the longer draft. It’s going to take some editing to make the two marry together, but editing is my favourite part of writing. Better still, the ideas from the two drafts have combined to inspire some cool stuff for the second half of the novel, so at last I have a vague notion of where I’m heading.
Anyway, that’s why it takes me so long to get going on a new project. Once I’ve settled on a final version my writing speeds up a lot, so I’m hoping I can get this Franken-draft finished in the next few months. After that it will still be a while before it’s ready to send to my agent, and who knows how long after that before it gets published.
As Hippocrates said over two thousand years ago, Ho bios brakhys, hê de tekhnê makrê*
To which I can only reply: Allons-y!
* Life is short, the craft is long