A few years ago I heard author Tracy Chevalier talking at a literary festival. She said something which fascinated me. People think, she said, that writing a novel is a hugely freeing and imaginative process. You can do anything you want, create any characters you want, any world. But the reality, she said, is that writing a novel is mainly a process of closing doors, identifying the novels you don't want to write.
I think that is very true. But the question is - how much time do you spend 'playing' and when does the moment come when you have to take decisions? By 'playing' I mean time spent experimenting, trying things out, messing around to see what comes up. When I talk about 'making decisions' I'm thinking of that moment when you suddenly say - no, the main character isn't a doctor, she is an architect.
I became interested in this question of 'play' versus decision making through writing plays. Until I started doing that I had written only novels and those novels had involved a huge amount of 'play.' They had been through numerous drafts and been written in many different forms. Then I got commissioned to write a play and I had to do it within three months. That changed my writing entirely. I knew that I couldn't 'play.' I had to make decisions at the beginning and stick to them.
Surely, you might say, the latter approach has to be better. Why not be focused and structured, make the decisions at the beginning, get to the finished product more quickly? In some ways I would agree. But having said that, the plays I've written are not that good. Is that because I didn't 'play' enough? It might be.
So how important is 'play?' Very, I would say. But equally it can go on for too long. From my own experience, I can say that you can simply become lost in all your different versions and ideas. At some point, decisions do have to be made.
Is it a choice between time consuming 'play' which produces a complex and multi layered book? Or early decision making which produces a lower quality product? Happily, I don't think it is.
And that's because, the more you write, the better you get at taking the right decisions and being confident in the decisions you've made. You spot a red herring more easily. Your 'play' becomes productive rather than confusing. It does get easier - but only slightly.