[This blog first appeared on LearnHowToWriteANovel.com in May 2018].
Robert Ludlum had a firmer handshake than I was expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting or how I could even process it. Considering I’d worked extra over summer to fill a row on my bookshelf with his work, shaking his hand left my seventeen-year-old mind just numb.
He had come to a book signing in my home town of Adelaide in South Australia, which was a feat in itself considering we are tucked away at the bottom of the planet and he is, well, Robert Ludlum.
I was more than a fan – proof of that was that my favourite Ludlum title didn’t have the word Bourne in the title. I was a budding writer in first-year journalism and I wanted to know more than what he’d just written. I wanted to know how he wrote it.
After I’d got a book signed, there was a Q&A with the crowd that had gathered, and his answers resonate with me thirty years later. That advice was so strong that it now drives my process.
I learned two things from those ten minutes meeting Robert Ludlum that day thirty years ago.
Plot it, then pants it
I love stories with a plot that hooks you in, then veers into a sharp left-hand turn just before the end. The plot twist that blindsides you and leaves you breathlessly whispering, “no way.” (I’ll watch movies by M Night Shyamalan solely in anticipation of the twist.)
I loved Mr Ludlum’s books in how the protagonist veered into trouble (as expected), out of trouble (as expected), then into something unforeseen. It was as if he held a maestro’s baton as he swept his way through his plot like it was a symphony.
At the Q&A, Mr Ludlum was asked how he wrote. Okay, my question was going to be answered.
He plotted a scene (or an act) in his book to within an inch of his life. Everything was researched and outlined. Everything. Then once he knew where he was going, he was free to write. He knew where he needed to start and where he needed to end, and then “pantsed” it from there. So that was why his writing always struck me as having that balance between story and detail – guided but not forced, macro but also micro.
I now try to emulate that every day. My process is now outline, outline, outline, then I’m free to write. And it works for me. I’m not a plotter or a pantser. I’m a pantser trapped in a plotter’s body.
Writing is craft, then art
Let me share with you why this is so important to me, and why I believe it’s a definition we could all follow.
To me, craft is something that is handmade. Craft is something done by an expert, honed over years of trial and error. When I hear about a craftsman (or craftswoman), I smell wood shavings and see the flash of the chisel. I’m hynoptized by a potter’s wheel and the wet drip of clay.
Art, to me, is something more esoteric. It’s where lightning strikes. It may be brilliant, but it’s also an intangible thing. It’s the painting the guy to my left loves but I think is random acrylic on a canvas. To me (and I stress, to me) it is out of reach because it’s based on so much subjectivity.
I view my writing like a craft. Right now it is as good as it can be for this moment, but if I work at it, next month it will better. Then the following month, and the following month.
Craft speaks of care, which means it’s okay for me to spend fifteen minutes writing that paragraph about wood shavings and wet clay. It’s because I care about the outcome. I want it to look good and read well.
You know, when I graduated I did what everyone did and headed into paid work. I wish I’d stuck at the fiction writing instead of veering into work that actually paid the bills – I was still putting words on the page to put food on the table – but they were my client’s words not my story.
Now that I’m venturing back into “my” writing, I am glad I went to that book signing. Because that invaluable advice is still ringing in my ears some thirty years later. And I’m becoming a better writer because of it.
So whose advice still resonates with you? Whose writing hand are you glad to have had the privilege to shake?