On not planning a novel

“A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.” So says Hilary Mantel in her Guardian article “My Working Day” (Review Section, 16/04/16). Hilary Mantel writes with such impeccable research, consistency of tone, and beautifully structured narratives that no-one would believe she doesn’t have an initial plan, except she seems to say so. Ideas come to her, sometimes in a cascade, sometimes sluggishly, sometimes in lucid form, sometimes obscure. She writes them down, easily or in disorder, then over a period of hours or months knits them together, teasing out themes, perfecting characters as she uncovers more clues to their natures, following the narrative flow until she can control and lead it to a final destination of her choosing.

Apologies if I have misinterpreted her (and yet she writes so clearly). Maybe I’m just taking from her article what I want to hear.  For my writing instinct is to protest against the deification of initial planning. These days,  whether teaching children to write (which I’ve done for over three decades) or following adult creative writing courses, I find planning presented as more important than inspiration, characters, themes or ideas, so it becomes an end in itself. “Why aren’t you following your plan?” says a teacher to a child aged six. “Look, on your plan it says the frog turns into a handsome prince, not that a lion came into the jungle and fought a crocodile.” Later I agonise over my own story. “I thought you said the girl would meet an accountant who was unexpectedly interesting, not that she’d sit next to a trumpeter on the tube and get her hair tangled in his valves.”

“But I started writing,” says the six year old, “and I thought a jungle story would be more scary. Lions have claws and frogs don’t.”  How I sympathize, since despite my best efforts I just couldn’t get passionate about the accountant. Then this trumpeter happened to sit next to me and I was blown away.

“Where’s your beginning, your middle and your end, six year-old?”  This, to her, is  clear. In her universe, it’s acceptable for the beginning to be “Once upon a time there was a frog.” The end will be, simply, “The End”, perhaps in bubble writing, and coinciding suspiciously often with the bottom line of the page although not always with the end of a sentence. The middle might be “The lion saw the jungle/ “I went (sic) Macdonald’s/ the princess ate a donut” (free market spelling rather than government approved phonic version). In the voice of Apollinaire or John Lennon this would be considered surreal and/or complete, but the six year demonstrating a stream of consciousness on the page is at fault because none of those elements was in her plan (created with equal pain on some teacher generated template the day before). The bemused child stares at the page, waiting in dull disenchantment for the bell.

And her adult counterpart? “Where’s your three act structure /your inciting incident/your narrative arc/your crisis/your resolution?”  If you have that all mapped out before you start, thunder the manuals, you can finish your novel in a week/a month/three months max. Just join the dots and you’ll finish on time.

These are necessary structural features. But will your characters breathe? Will your plot be original? Will anybody care what you have written and will the tension you sought be gobbled up by the planning monster? Will it make you succeed at first but fail in the end?

Thank you Hilary Mantel, for reminding us that the best writing arrives untidily, even for the best writers, and the author who is truly in charge of her plan is the one who gives it priority only when it’s safe to do so.


© Jessica Norrie 2016


2 thoughts on “On not planning a novel

  1. Great site. I loved reading this & Hilary Mantel has been an inspiration in my own writing life. Her autobiographical book, “Bringing up the Ghosts” is one of my favourites and she mentions how she knew she could write, but she had to learn to write fiction. That was a pivotal moment for me – a great writer declaring they had to learn, just as I was tuning into debates about whether creative writing can be taught or not. She spurred me on & I’ve been going ever since. Best wishes.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts Suzy. Yes, if even Hilary Mantel can admit she has to learn, the rest of us should be humble too! But what I like is the way she communicates, so much less didactic than many.


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