Writers: should you plot your novel?

Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel The Wake won or was longlisted for numerous awards, including the Man Booker. Here he describes his process, arguing that a story is a living thing that finds the right writer to tell it — like, as Stephen King says, a fossil waiting to be excavated.

I’ve recently finished reading Stephen King’s hokey and enjoyable book On Writing.  There are too many books and articles in the world advising writers on how to write, but there are a few I always point people towards:

Orwell’s essay Why I Write, Charles Bukowski’s essay Upon the Mathematics of the Breath and the Way, Jenny Diski’s ‘Author, Author’ (key phrase: ‘the best writing leaves you feeling it was inevitable’) and John Rember’s book MFA in a Box

I think I am now going to add King’s book to the list.

It’s an odd book, which hangs together despite not quite hanging together. The first half is an autobiography, containing some great stories about King’s childhood and adolescence, which loosely explain how he became a writer, if such a thing is explicable, which it probably isn’t.

The second half is full of technical tips about writing, all of which King feels very strongly about. It’s fun to read through this section having arguments with him. He devotes several pages, for example, to a passionate manifesto excoriating the very existence of adverbs.

I don’t agree with him, but I enjoyed watching him explain himself.

One of the wonders of writing is that this kind of disagreement is entirely legitimate. I would encourage all budding writers to read King’s book, and agree or disagree as you wish with the points he makes.

Some of the greatest writers on Earth have made brilliant use of adverbs. Others have never used them at all.

Ultimately, this is a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is the writer’s ability to craft a sentence, understand grammar, and structure a book so that it speaks to the uninitiated reader.

Some of this you can learn on courses, but most of it you will learn simply through reading and writing.

The one piece of advice King offers which every writer should agree with is the simplest: read, and write. All the time. More than anything else, that’s what will get you to where you want to be.

A story, to me, is a living thing. It is something that circles the world looking for the right person to tell it.

– Paul Kingsnorth

There was one piece of advice in King’s book, though, that I found myself agreeing with excitedly, partly because I was surprised to see him offer it: Don’t plot your novel. Or, as he bracingly puts it: ‘plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.’

I read a few Stephen King novels during my own adolescence, and I always assumed they were carefully plotted. Not so. King believes that a story is something that is found, and not created.

He uses the image of a fossil discovered in a layer of rock: the writer’s job, he says, is to excavate the fossil with as little damage as possible.

The technical aspects of writing — adverbs or not — are tools that help the palaeontological author get the fossil out in one piece.

When I read this, I found myself wanting to jump up from my chair with excitement, because I have always held exactly the same view. A story, to me, is a living thing. It is something that circles the world looking for the right person to tell it.

I appreciate that this may sound a strange and superstitious opinion to be holding, but I’ll bet many writers and storytellers understand exactly what I mean.

Stephen King certainly does. ‘Stories’, he writes, ‘are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.’

My new novel, The Wake, is set a thousand years in the past and is written entirely in a language I invented myself: a language designed to give the reader a flavour of the Old English the characters would have spoken.

I’ve been asked several times, by people who are clearly being polite about what they regard as an act of commercial suicide, why I chose to write the book in this way.

The honest answer is that I didn’t choose to do it: I had to do it, because it was what the story wanted me to do. In retrospect I can see that until I started to do so, the story wouldn’t come.

Ask yourself this question as a writer: does it seem to you to be true that a story finds the author and not the other way round? If it does, you will begin to see the technical aspects of writing in a very different light.

Suddenly, writing a book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction (and both, incidentally, are acts of storytelling) is not a technical challenge, like building a bridge or tiling a bathroom.

It is an act of summoning: of plugging into something that exists beyond your rational mind, then using your technical skills as a writer to channel that onto the page. and thus into the hearts and minds of other people.

Does this sound weird to you? If so, you probably need to sit down and do some more writing.

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