Wednesday 9 December 2009

The Timeless Question

Ed Gorman, one of the wisest people in the world of crime fiction (read his superb blog and you’ll see why I say that), described it in a recent comment as a ‘timeless question’. Is it a good idea to plan, or outline, one’s crime novel in detail before starting to write it? Or should one just start with a gripping idea, and see where it leads?

Rob Kitchin (who also has a very interesting blog) commented that he is not a planner, and that he takes a different approach with his fiction compared to his academic writing. Having written eight non-fiction books myself, I can empathise with that. When writing a non-fiction book, it’s (usually) imperative to know where you are going. And publishers tend to want to know too, before they commit to commissioning you.

I participated in a panel some time back where a gifted author proclaimed that he didn’t plan at all. A few days later, I had a chat with him and his wife at another function – and his wife reckoned he did plan in quite a lot of detail! So you never know.

The extent to which I plan does vary from book to book. So does the extent to which I stick to my original plan once I’ve started writing. Take My Breath Away was 150,000 words in its first incarnation, but the published version was 85,000 words long. I certainly didn’t plan that.

The most interesting exercise I had in dealing with unplanned fiction was when I completed The Lazarus Widow by the late Bill Knox. Bill didn’t plan at all. But it did leave everyone in a quandary when he died tragically and unexpectedly in the middle of writing the book. Though, I hasten to add, that sad story isn’t in itself a reason to start planning if it is not the writing method that works for you. The answer to the timeless question is, I think, that there is no right answer – it really is a question of what suits the individual.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think whatever works for us is what we should stick with. I've heard success stories both ways. I like a big picture type of plan and then mini-outlines for chapters and scenes.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

Martin - What an interesting question! It really is a question of what works for the individual. I know that I planned Publish or Perish very carefully, and that worked for me for that book and the next book. For the one I'm writing now, though, I'm learning that Burns was right about what happens to one's best-laid plans. It's working out far better for me to have a general plan but also to be willing to be very flexible.

Martin Edwards said...

I agree that there are no real 'rules'. And what works for one book may not work for another, just as what works for one author may not work for another.