‘How do you think we stand it here?’ said the nurse. ‘You specimens come in here talking like ordinary people and then you go down to Shayol. Terrible things happen to you on Shayol. Then the surface station sends up parts of you, over and over again. I may see your head ten times, quick-frozen and ready for cutting up, before my two years are up. You prisoners ought to know how we suffer,’ she crooned, the pleasure-charge still keeping her relaxed and happy, ‘you ought to die as soon as you get down there and not pester us with your torments. We can hear you screaming, you know.’
– A Planet Named Shayol, Cordwainer Smith
I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so disturbed by a story as A Planet Named Shayol. In it, the protagonist, Mercer, is banished to the punishment-planet, Shayol. No one quite knows what is in store for him – only that it is horrible.
The first part of the story is Mercer on the ferry to the planet, and then him on the satellite that orbits it, as doctors prepare him for transport to the surface. Smith gives us a wonderful, sickening mix of the very vague (‘terrible things happen to you’) and the very, very specific (‘I may see your head ten times, quick-frozen’), all filtered through characters with their own tones and agendas. The nurse in the above extract is wearing a medical cap that releases pleasure into the body – it’s illegal to abuse it in this way, but the fact that she feels she can run the risk suggests a huge amount about the place Mercer’s headed – none of it good.
I have recently undergone a bit of a Road to Damascus moment with regards to planning. If you’d asked me before now what my approach to writing novels is, I would have sworn upon a stack of NES cartridges that I am a pantser. That is to say, one of those freewheeling, inspiration-led rebels who gets a single, burning idea, who sees some characters in an initial scene, and simply begins writing. I’d say I write and I discover the story as I go along, following the characters down different twists and turns, allowing the novel to unfold organically. Lustily I would have advocated for this method as the One True Method for Great Fiction, offering as it does the capacity for genuine surprise.
Planning out chapters and scenes in advance just seems a bit, well… clinical? How can characters live in a blueprint? World-building is only useful if serves the story, right?
Then I actually looked back at how I had written The Honours. I opened my notes folder, and tens of thousands of words of forgotten planning documents clattered out, like so many orphan skulls crammed into a broom closet. It turns out, although I pinch a bit from both disciplines, I am primarily a planner. I write a couple of chapters just for flavour text, and to let the characters speak and breathe, but then I need to put serious time into planning.
When I say serious time, I mean weeks. Often it doesn’t feel like writing – it feels like skiving, like avoiding writing. But, for me at least, when I’m attempting something as huge and as complex as a novel, I need a sketchbook where I can just try out the shapes of ideas. My notes are full of parentheses and notes to myself (‘No no – this is hacko; THINK OF SOMETHING BETTER’) and capitalised alt. versions of the scene starting with ‘MAYBE’. That capitalised ‘MAYBE’ gives my imagination a lot of permission to go batshit. It’s like a fakeout for my internal editor that says ‘nothing to see here – definitely nothing that might become a final scene in our book!’.
The great advantage to this method is that it allows you to spot major structural problems early on. Not just structural problems, but structural opportunities – little concordances where you’re like oh, this scene has a thematic echo in this later scene here, so maybe I can use something concrete from Scene A to anchor it to Scene B. I try to walk myself through major set pieces, adding notes for particular details, even filling in the words of dialogue exchanges if I get a sense for particular phrasing a character might use. And I write myself questions like ‘What is the function of this scene?’ or ‘What does X want here?’ or ‘Why the hell doesn’t she just ask him directly?’ and if I can’t think of a coherent answer then I start a new paragraph and I start trying to come up with one.
I’ve said before that it’s much easier to come up with ten answers to a creative question than it is to come up with just one. When you’re trying to come up with a single answer to the question ‘What’s inside X’s suitcase?’ your mind often freezes up because any response you come up with feels like it has to be the definitive answer. If you ask yourself to list 12 mutually-exclusive things that could be inside X’s suitcase, it’s easy, because you know anything you write down has, at the very least, an 11-in-12 chance of being thrown away.
I heartily recommend you visit the website Dungeon Dozens and read some of their amazing lists which do exactly this for a variety of Fantasy questions. Each title has 12 possible ‘flavour-rich yet detail-free’ suggestions, such as ‘Almost Indestructible: Villain Death Requirements’, which include:
1. Must be immersed in sanctified wine for not less than 10 minutes
5. Vulnerable to physical attack only when consumed by lust for a mortal
10. Must willingly drink hemlock
Brilliant. I defy any author to read these without stories springing unbidden into their mind.
But my point is, planning can be just as organic, just as freewheeling, and just as creative as discovery writing. In fact – for me at least – I can afford to take bigger risks and be more creative, because I don’t have to worry about having screwed up the story 400 pages hence. If I think up a big, bold, dramatic twist, I can spend an hour working out the various permutations and whether they hold up – which sounds like a big time investment, but is a mere snap of the finger compared to six months of diligent discovery writing to reach the same stage.
Cordwainer Smith’s brilliant, atmospheric set up only works because he knows what’s coming, so he can get inside characters’ heads and choose what to leak. He famously wrote down all his world-building ideas for his fictive universe in a set of notebooks (which he ended up losing). Planning doesn’t free you from doing four, five, twelve rewrites, it’s not a means of dodging the tough business of redrafting – it just gives that redrafting process a Platonic ideal to work towards, and allows you to focus more of your energies on style.
Planning and world-building in advance really helps with showing, not telling, because you’re not explaining the world to yourself through your writing. You’ve done the discovery stage off-screen, and once you knuckle down to write you have a rich mythos to draw upon and the characters arrive on the page feeling fully-formed. You will still cock-up a whole bunch, but you will commit a more limited and nuanced suite of cock-ups, and they will be easier to recognise against the good stuff. Also you have less chance spending a week writing a scene which you later realise is unnecessary and can be cut entirely.
The most disturbing thing about A Planet Named Shayol is that, after all that build up, when we finally get to see what all the fuss is about, it is far worse than anything we could have imagined…
Please support me by pre-ordering my debut novel, The Honours. It’s out next year but pre-orders get booksellers excited by implying demand, so they have a disproportionate impact on my career. You could have it pre-ordered in like, three clicks and 90 seconds. Then it’d be done, you’ll feel great for having done me a solid, and when the novel drops through your letterbox months later it will be like you sent yourself a sweet gift through time and you will be winning life.