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The spiritual art of planning

The spiritual art of planning. See post at Jericho Tree.

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Zadie Smith reads at the Ding Dong lounge by deenah moffie.

Zadie Smith giving a reading

I posted a few weeks ago about hedgehogs and foxes: Isaiah Berlin’s way of categorising intellectuals as ‘big thinkers’ with one key idea, or as feral creatures who scurry around picking up scattered ideas.

Zadie Smith has a wonderful article about the process of writing a novel. She says that there are two distinct approaches. The Macro Planner ‘makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page’. The security of the overarching structure gives him a freedom to adapt what goes on inside. The Micro Manager, Smith herself, starts at the first sentence of a novel and finishes at the last. The story can only emerge once the starting point is right.

It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first 20 pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first-person past tense, and so on. Several times a day I change it. Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began: third person, past tense. But months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognise fellow Micro Managers: that opening pile-up of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first 20 pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first 20 pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

I always thought I was Macro Planner: I’m pretty organised and I like to know where I am going. But I recognise this experience of obsessing about a single sentence, or searching for a single idea or image. Often, writing a talk or a sermon, I will draft a whole plan — and it just doesn’t work. It’s only when I find a single thought that encapsulates what is important and what I want to say that it all falls into place, like a roll of carpet unfurling itself with a single shake.

It’s well worth reading the whole article and applying it not just to writing, but to thinking, and to life. I like especially step number 8: ‘Step away from the vehicle’.

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