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To Plan or Not to Plan: My Balancing Act

The Tea Planter's Wife

To say this conflict is uppermost in my mind is an understatement; it’s banging at my skull and pretty much driving me crazy. To plan or not to plan? That’s my struggle. 

My first book, The Separation, was published by Penguin in 2014; my second, The Tea Planter’s Wife, is being published this year, again by Penguin, and they have just bought my third book which will be published in 2016. So I’m now in that partly exciting, partly terrifying space of ‘planning’ the next book.

I always intend to plan. I’ve read all the creative writing advice about how planning saves you time and, to be honest, I bet it’s true. My third book, The Silk Shop in Hanoi, needed a massive cut to make it work – a forty-nine thousand word type of cut, including two point of view characters - which meant I had to re-write half the book. It led to a stronger book but I hope never to have to go through that again. Maybe it might not have happened had I been able to plan in advance? Planning sounds so appealing: you plan your novel, with all that entails, and then all you do is follow the plan and ‘lo and behold’ there’s your book. Magic!

Except that I cannot plan the whole book. 

All my books, so far, have been set in the past and in exotic eastern countries. Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and I’ve now chosen the setting for my fourth book. I’ve peopled my imagination with the sights, smells and sounds of India by reading and watching films, and I’ve also booked a research trip to India. Now I’m considering the characters: letting them live in my head for a while. Some of them will fade away, some will grow stronger, some will demand that I write their story. Those are the ones I long to get to know better, and once I feel their presence, even down to seeing what they’re wearing, I’ll start to make notes on their doubts and fears, their longings and dreams, and decide why they’re going to be in the novel.

Ideas for the plot come and go. Usually I have too many and picking THE ONE is the hardest thing. But when I have an idea for the key story - what it’s going to be about, what the themes are - and I’m armed with some images in my mind, I will decide on the best structure for the story and whose point of view it will be written from. 

Sometimes I’ll begin without knowing the ‘big things’ that I want to happen. Risky? Yes. But here’s the thing. The moment I start tapping at the keyboard and words begin to appear on the screen, only then do my ideas really begin to flow. Only then do I get a sense of who these people really are, and what their story really is. It’s as if the act of writing releases my subconscious mind. I don’t create from my rational brain. That’s where I analyse what I’ve already done, it’s where I edit and where I consider what might need to happen next, but I don’t find it’s a creative way to start.

However, some kind of framework to hang your story from is a good idea. Every time I’m thinking about a new novel I decide that this time I will plan thoroughly and every time, so far, I’ve been unable to do it. Maybe because I’m actually bored by the whole idea of thinking it out in advance. Maybe because I already know what the ‘soul’ of my story will be. Either way I’ve developed a balancing act between planning, and not planning. I am in the process right now of outlining my new story, working out the tensions between the characters and what each one of them is after and what is going to get in their way. 

This time I don’t yet know what my key events will be but I do know where they need to happen in terms of the novel’s structure and timing. So it comes down to writing a little to release the creative juices and then planning a little, but all the time knowing what the essence of the story is. I knew The Separation would be about a mother’s search for her missing children, I knew how the heart-breaking core of The Tea Planter’s Wife would turn out, and I knew The Silk Shop in Hanoi would be about the bitter rivalry between sisters. My fourth is going to explore betrayal and guilt and will be dual narrative. It’s a scary way of writing a novel but it works for me and I can’t wait to begin.

Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. She has worked in education, lived in a commune and exhibited work as an artist. Dinah's first novel, The Separation, was published by Viking in 2013; The Tea Planter's Wife is her second novel. It will be out September 3rd. She is a contributor to the Guardian and other newspapers and lives in Gloucestershire with her husband. Find out more about Dinah on her website and follow her on Twitter here