I started writing my first stories when I was six or seven. I had gotten hold of some loose sheets of A5 paper, and a half-empty blue Bic Biro. By some kind of childish logic I wanted to see if I could fill the paper, and use up all the ink.
So I sat in my room and started writing a story…
The story involved me, an island, and a set of sabre-toothed monsters. Which if you read my Simple Story Selling book, is remarkably similar to the ‘overcoming the monster’ plot archetype.
Except… there was no plot. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
I was good at describing the island and the monsters. I successfully built in danger and suspense. But ultimately, I didn’t know where I was going with the story. So they kind of went on forever, an endless series of near-misses. I could probably have written the script for Prison Break, if I had thought of the idea!
My stories were essentially a joyride of events. My Dad read them, and said they were fun to read. My teachers said the same thing at school when we did writing assignments. “I need to know what’ll happen next!” one commented at parents’ evening.
The trouble was, even I didn’t know what was coming next. I kept everyone guessing, including myself.
Later on at school, when I was about 13, we would be given similar creative writing exercises. We’d have to write a page and a half, minimum, on some kind of story. Other kids used to groan at this, and throw dried up bits of chewing gum around the classroom instead. I used to quietly get on with it.
So by age 13 I had already nailed the creative part of writing… what was lacking was any degree of serious planning. I’d just write until I had filled the minimum amount of space, and then engineer a way to end the story.
When I was 21 I decided I wanted to write a novel. The book was to have a similar plotline. A monster comes down to Earth, causes chaos, and is eventually defeated. Without realising it, I was still trying to create an ‘overcoming the monster’ story.
I sat in my tiny rented room in the evenings, tapping away. I wrote perhaps 10,000 words, until suddenly I ran dry. I didn’t know where to go next with the story, because the overall plot was still vague to me.
My Nan read the manuscript at the time. “I need to know what happens next!” was her feedback. I had heard those words before…
That was as far as I ever got with the story. Soon after that I got busy with work. Things got in the way. I felt slightly guilty about not completing it, especially as I had told people what I was doing. Doing what I say I’ll do was one of my highest values, even then.
Fundamentally I never completed the story because I had failed to plan, and failed to treat it as a fixed-term project. Essentially I was still doing a never-ending creative writing exercise about monsters.
When left to my own devices, I always prefer to write than to plan, because writing is my creative outlet. Planning is one of my weaknesses… and will crop up again later in this series.
I still want to write a novel one day. I’ve held off because I’ve changed a bit, and no longer want to write a story about monsters. When I figure out what I do want to write about, you’ll be the first to know!
I did learn something from my novel failure. All of my writing projects now involve an extensive planning process. When you’re telling stories to build trust and sell things, I can’t emphasise enough how important this is.
As a minimum you need to know what you’re trying to say, where you’re going with the story, and what the progression is.