Writing: when to 'play' and when to take decisions - Alice Jolly

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.


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a great way to look at it. Thanks for this.
JO said…
I don't think you can have one without the other - they become a dialogue throughout the process. Unless we can free up the 'let's pretend', the 'what if ...' bits of ourselves then the whole process (and probably the novel) is turgid and unimaginative. But you're right, endless flights of fancy don't help either. Even so, I don't think - even once those basic decisions are made - we should shut play down altogether. After all, surely we want our characters to play sometimes?
Susan Price said…
I agree with everyone to a great extent - but aren't many of the decisions made early on, because of the idea and setting? For instance, once I'd decided to write about the north country reivers, then the characters had to be people capable of living that life.

If your characters are a Victorian lady, and a 21st century woman, then certain attitudes and assumptions are going to come along with those times and settings - even if you reverse them and make the Victorian a suffragette and the 21st Century woman a 'back to the kitchen' type.
Interesting, Alice. I think I agree with Susan - the idea, the setting, the time - all these, to a large extent, dictate various decisions about the work. Then you play about with tenses, points of view, structure etc - all things I tend to experiment with before making final decisions. (And I'm a great believer in productive playing!) In my current novel, I made a whole scaffolding around which I built the novel - and then removed it. But I think that was a stage I and the novel had to go through. With plays - and I've been a professional playwright for years - somebody else always comes along and plays around with your play during the production process, so for anyone who doesn't like collaboration it can be difficult! My own experience, though, is that my plays went through even more drafts than my novels. Couldn't even begin to count them. And in a 'new writing' theatre like the Traverse, you are revising up to the point at which the actors say they can't learn anything else new. It's exhilarating and challenging at the same time!
Umberto Tosi said…
Food for thought, Alice. I find it difficult to differentiate between creative "play" and procrastination, and I hate to make decisions. If I can get to that place where the characters acquire a life of their own and make decisions for me, then I'm rolling. My job then is to keep the sails in trim and let the narrative take me where I'm going - wherever that is going to be. I've never written a play or screenplay, but I've written many a story on deadline, and can testify that - to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.
Dennis Hamley said…
What an interesting thread this is. If I were to rationalise my own experience I rather think that there's a fair bit of idle 'play' before starting, but not much because I'm a great believer in 'how do I know what I think till I see what I say.' This means a bit of 'play' as I'm writing the first draft. But the main 'play' for me tends to come when I have a first draft and know it's going, more or less, to work. At least, I think that's what I do. To be sure, I'll have to catch what I'm doing as I'm doing it which could be a surprise. In a different situation, I was told that I always made gestures as I speak, which was news to me, but when I caught myself doing it, I had to agree. Perhaps it's the same with writing.
Alice said…
So many interesting comments. Thanks. I think what has surprised me is that there is no one process. I thought quite early on - right, this is the way in which I write and I guess that won't change. But it has really changed. And it is different for different pieces of work. I am definitely, overall, on that unhelpful 'play' which is actually just pointless procrastination and failure to make decisions. Which is good - otherwise I would have had to give up. Just too frustrating and time consuming.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Alice...and a strong thread has followed. I still like an image I picked up from a book called A Writer's Time by Kenneth Atchity. He referred to the 'play' time as writing on the Island. Free, uninhibited. But then more and more messages begin arriving form The City: urging this and urging that...till one must leave the Island, return to The City and take care of business.

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