Nov 6, 2008

No plot outline? No problem.

The first four days of NaNo have been very interesting. A while ago, I mentioned that I was seriously thinking of winging my way through NaNo – I had a vague idea of characters, plot points and of genre, but I had no plot outline or anything other than a vague sense of where the story would go.

The past four days of NaNo have reminded me of how I used to write essays at school. (For essays read stories because my essays were almost invariably fiction.) I free-wrote them all. I never had an idea of wordcount, number of pages to limit myself to, characters, plot, nothing. All I had was the title we were set, and away I went to turn that title into a short story. Unless the title was altogether too rigid, in which case I had to write a non-fiction piece.

I remember an incident in Sixth Year when I got into trouble for not planning my essays. I was eighteen years of age, and the Leaving Cert was not that far off. We’d been set an essay and the English Teacher (I have to capitalise, this woman’s presence cannot be encapsulated in lower case) told us to make sure we did an essay plan, because it might get us extra marks in the Leaving if the examiner marking the papers saw we’d done one.

Of course, I got caught up in the whole essay-writing and gaily free-wrote away for half an hour or more that night till I had the whole thing down on paper. I can’t remember what the story was about now. The aftermath has completely wiped that memory from my mind.

Up went my copy book to the English Teacher for marking. Back it came to me in the next English class with an entire page at the end of my essay covered in a red scrawl, questioning why there was no essay plan and demanding that I include one with my essays in future.

I was livid when I got it home. I stared at the page for a long, long time. How dare she write in my beautiful, clean copy where all my creative outpourings went. A clean, innocent sheet of paper that had been waiting only for my joyful imagination to fill it was defaced almost beyond my endurance. She had disrespected my property and something of personal value.

At last I made the decision.

That red scrawl had to come out of there.

Out came my tip-ex pen and I went back over the red scrawl with a healing white line.

And then I wrote the start of the next essay over it.

Well. English Teacher was not at all impressed, not even with the fact that I’d included her beloved tool, the essay plan. (Incidentally, I wrote it up AFTER I’d written the essay.)

She called me up from my desk in class, had me stand in front of her seat on the podium, and spoke to me in furious low tones. Of course, all my classmates were agog to hear what English Teacher was saying to me. You could have heard a pin drop. I stood there getting hotter and hotter and more and more resentful, my face bright red. And she kept me standing there. (In those days, there was no back chat allowed in class, and even if there had been my experiences in a convent school had bred in me the belief that adults were to be respected. Looking back now from the perspective of an adult, I believe she was more intent on abusing her power and humiliating me, than she was concerned about guiding me in a 'right' direction, whatever that was. But no matter; that's beyond the scope of this blog!)

The reason why this sticks out in my mind is that I’m not planning this NaNo project either. There's no essay plan, no outline. I’m writing now the way I used to write when I was a child and teenager. There was no plan, then, either, and yet I always finished the stories I wrote in those days, and I always enjoyed my efforts.

It’s happening for me again now during NaNo. I write more per day than the required wordcount. I love what I’m writing. I never have more than a vague notion how what I’m writing is going to finish. And it’s fun. I’m going on a journey with the characters and it’s wonderful.

The value of this memory - and it's thanks to English Teacher that this memory is so sharp and clear in my mind - is that it tells me that I seem to have the sort of writing-soul that does not want to be constrained by an outline. I want to be free to roam about in the story wherever I choose, discovering and deciding as I go along. For a first draft, anyway. After that I already know that I have the discipline to sit and edit and read critically and re-word and revise and so on.

The first draft, though; that's about freedom and joy and excitement and breathless wonder.

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