About Writers, writing technique

Sterne plans

030718-09-Laurence-Sterne-Literature-History

There has been a couple of mentions of Tristram Shandy on this blog, which led me to have another look at this ‘most modern of 18th century novels’. That’s from the blurb on the back of the Norton Critical edition, which also comes with a number of essays commenting on the work. One of these essays, by Wayne Booth, is called Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?

It’s a good question. Sterne wrote his book in nine volumes released over eight years, the last one a few months before his death. The full title was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but the narrator, Tristram himself, doesn’t make a physical appearance till almost half way through. For the good reason that he isn’t yet born: the first volumes deal with the circumstances and consequences of his conception.

Sterne is a master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal of his father and his uncle that the reader willingly follows; but at times it does seem that the book is, as E.M. Forster called it, a muddle. Stern was surely the original pantser – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

 

Nonetheless, Wayne Booth argues that Sterne in fact was a planner. And he points out several examples of foreshadowing that come together in the final volume. I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked myself. To me the muddle is entertaining. But in Booth’s prose, it sounds plausible.

These days, foreshadowing is easy, if only retroactively. We can zip back and forth within a text to add the details which give it more cohesion. If I discover late in the book that my character needs a scarf, I can go back and add it to an earlier scene. That wasn’t available in Sterne’s day, at least not to a writer of his spontaneity. The manuscript shows few traces of revision.

As time goes on, I’m drawn increasingly to planning. That might be because I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime (well, not literally). Obviously, foreshadowing is vital there: that scarf could well be the murder weapon, so you can’t have it appear from nowhere.

But planning is more than joining the dots. It’s placing the dots in the first place. The number of chapters, the character arcs, the plot beats, the pace. How detailed the plan is depends on each author, but at some point the chapter by chapter outline mutates into the first draft.

My planning has recently become more ambitious. From a single novel to start with, it now stretches over a series of four. It’s the same principle, but dealing with six main characters who feature throughout, so each character’s arc needs to be thought through to the end. I love the challenge of that. But the plan evolves from the idea, not the other way round. I sometimes read about a book’s ‘ideal structure’, but in my opinion, to push an idea into a plan like the one below leaves little room for the organic growth of the story.

book recipe

If you’re thinking of planning a series, here are some useful tips. J.K. Rowling planned the whole of her seven-book series at the start; Emile Zola wrote 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Me? Four is the limit. I’ve got too many other things to write.

 

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20 thoughts on “Sterne plans

  1. Thanks, Curtis. I’m posting this to the writers’ community on Facebook, and you’ve provided the perfect click-bait lead. “I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime.”

    Liked by 7 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    “… master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal …”

    I adore Tristram. I haven’t gotten beyond book one, it’s a handful, but I love, yes, the glorious muddle.

    I muddle along also. I don’t plan, takes too much thinking. I depend on the answer to come to me, in one form or another.

    A huge challenge for me in books three-four: I’ve created a lovely, slimy creature who was recruited out of an English prison to play a role in my assassination plot. He’s now headed back to England, having escaped my pirate ship with what he believes is a boot heel full of gems (Sly has replaced them with small stones), to be on the spot, up to no good, when Sly arrives up there himself.

    What will the creep’s pivotal role be? As usual, I created a character to serve the needs of the moment. He’s such a fine goofball of a villain that I have to find some inspired bit of nastiness for him to muck up but good.

    Tristram Shandy was THE blockbuster hit of its time. I insist on being encouraged by that.

    Story arcs? Too much for me to process. Sly creates his own arcs and lays them out for me as the spirit moves him. He’s the one full of ideas, not me.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. “He’s such a fine goofball of a villain that I have to find some inspired bit of nastiness for him to muck up but good.”
    Yes! This is me! Characters pop into existence then I have to write them into the story. They are often the favorites of readers.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Planning? Hah! My trilogy started out as a short story. It grew. When I finished, readers said, “Wait, what happens between here and here? You need some explanation.” That explanation became a second book, but when it reached 100k words I saw that I must split it and make three.
    As I was writing Book 3, readers said, “This is too pat. Not enough peril and tension for your heroine.” So I added some space battles and getting marooned in space; that doubled the length of the book.
    I wrote the ending early in the process and had to write the story so I’d end up there. But that was like saying, “I want to get to the top of that mountain,” but having no idea what path will take me there.
    *big sigh* Now I’m writing Book 4 of my trilogy. There is no good term for a four-book series.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Reading what I just said makes me see that I’ve basically written my books as serials. I’ve always used crit groups that read a chapter or two at a time and give me feedback. Their feedback shapes the direction of the story. In particular, which characters get leading roles. In my current WIP, readers like my aliens, so I’ll be giving them more to do.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    “Planning? Hah! My trilogy started out as a short story. It grew. When I finished, readers said, “Wait, what happens between here and here? You need some explanation.” That explanation became a second book, but when it reached 100k words I saw that I must split it and make three.”

    I can beat that. My eight-novella series and an additional six picture books of verse dealing with Sly’s childhood all proceeded from a short story back in 1985.

    It was me who kept asking, what happened before that? I started writing in what is now book seven and wrote backwards. I have about seventy-five percent of the story complete, but books three and eight will have to be heavily rewritten because my ideas have changed so radically in thirty years. And book four was never gotten to. It exists only in notes.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. victoracquista says:

    I attended an author panel discussion where the topic of planner vs. pantser was discussed. One of the panelists pointed out for some authors it was a false dichotomy since although they don’t formally outline, they pretty much have the outline and structure in their head. I thought that was interesting.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Yes, I don’t think anyone sets off without a clue where they’re going. It’s a matter of how much detail to include in the plan. I enjoy that stage, adding little bits as and when they occur to me. Then it swells into the first draft.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Tomorrow I’m being interviewed about my book series, and I’m using material from the Reedsy blog post Curtis linked to–differentiating three types of series. Mine is a “Serial Series: featuring one overarching narrative told in several, chronological installments.” This concept is useful and validating, since many have said each book of a series must stand on its own. So, thank you, Curtis.

    Liked by 3 people

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