Wednesday, September 12, 2007

William Gibson Don’t Plan (II)

Literary agent, Peter Cox, commenting on this site’s feed on Litopia, (for which I am extremely grateful) had this to say about the William Gibson post below:

The trouble is, unplanned writing is usually a mess. Usually, but not always.

As my clients know, I can be a royal pain about planning. Perhaps sometimes I even take my obsession with planning too far. But the truth is, planning makes the tough work of writing – and yes, selling – a book far easier. It ensures that the writer’s effort is expended in the most effective way possible.

I can accept though, that there are writers who have such a strong instinct for plot that they either consciously or unconsciously plan as they go. Maybe that’s a state all writers naturally aspire to

I’m not against planning myself. In something that relies on plot, it is essential. (And Gibson is the exception which proves the rule.) What worries me is that, in these discussions, the element of discovery is left out. Which is what Gibson is talking about when he says: “The book is what happens when your fingers are hitting the keyboard”

Rian Malan’s, My Traitor’s Heart is an interesting example. The book was sold to a publisher off a proposal. It was to be a history of the Malan family from its Huguenot beginnings to the present, exploring the fact that many branches of the family were black. The deal had a television series attached. It was really going to set the author up. The advance was $80 000. Malan was planning to do a quick hit. He’d write the book and retire to a fine apartment in New York.

But then he returned to South Africa and, perhaps, his senses. He abandoned the book deal, losing the balance of his advance and the television series. And he wrote the book South Africa, and his heart, told him to write.

Plots, and synopses, are finally, I suspect, mathematical. If allowed to dictate, they close things down. But there is an element of discovery in the act writing that defies analysis. When it happens, writers should welcome it.

Surely the crucial quality, Peter, is not “a strong instinct for plot”, but a strong instinct for something much grander? Story, maybe? Some resonant, artful humanity which lifts books above plots, out of the bestseller slush, and, without making them “arty” or “literary”, places them in the canon? Places them among the books we hand on to our children?

Note - Peter’s agency Red Hammer Management recently secured a luscious deal for children’s author, MG Harris. May her books be among those that live.

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