Many thanks to the intriguingly-named Billy The Kidney who emailed me asking what type of preparation is “best” before diving into a draft head first. Before I begin, I should probably offer some kind of disclaimer, but you know the drill: writing is subjective, so preperation – and what constitutes preparation – is also subjective. I had a writer friend once who believed that preparation for a night’s writing included snorting four lines of coke, drinking innumerous bottles of Bud and smoking fifteen cigarettes. He would then write for approximately twenty hours solid and produce about three pages. He’s now with the Hare Krishnas (actually he burnt out and became an English teacher, not that I’m *ever* one to sacrifice facts for drama).
Those who read this blog regularly will know that I trained as a teacher a few years ago; it seemed the sensible thing to do, since writing and reading can be sporadic and having completed several placements, it was something I thought I would enjoy. In one sense, I was completely right – if teenagers didn’t do my head in royally. Perhaps I’m jealous because my own teenage years came to a grinding halt prematurely as I became a mother at the tender age of 18. Or maybe I never let go of my inner teen so resent the competition. Whatever, talk to the hand, or the elbow – you’re not worth the extension, etc etc.
However, when I was doing my ill-fated PGCE (though it does admittedly come in handy with the script reading/editing etc so isn’t entirely useless, though it’s not what I intended it for), we had to do a module called – you guessed it –Teacher Education. This involved thinking about education and the learning styles of our students and structuring our sessions accordingly. Niice. There are many, many theories about education and learning styles listed here. I’ll save you the time and trouble though: they are all generalisations, so therefore bullshit. Anyone wanting any insight into the brains of their students would use their time far more more usefully by actually listening to what their actual students say and do (every group’s different, after all) but hey ho: what do I know? I’ve only got a bit of paper saying I know about this shit. Which I don’t, ‘cos no one does.
But anyway. Sometimes people can outline stuff in a “one size fits all” way that can prove useful, if only on the basis that one can sort of see what they’re going on about. If you know what I mean. For me, that guy is an education theorist called Kolb. Whilst people do not remain set in their ways and are, I believe, fluid in their style of learning (who does what a particular way ALL THE TIME??), He outlines four learning styles in the classroom that I at least have witnessed to some degree or another at various points in time. These are:
1. The Activist Learner. Active Experimentation (simulations, case study, homework). What’s new? I’m game for anything. Training approach – Problem solving, small group discussions, peer feedback, and homework all helpful; trainer should be a model of a professional, leaving the learner to determine her own criteria for relevance of materials.
2. The Reflector Learner – Reflective Observation (logs, journals, brainstorming). I’d like time to think about this. Training approach – Lectures are helpful; trainer should provide expert interpretation (taskmaster/guide); judge performance by external criteria.
3. The Theorist Learner – Abstract Conceptualisation (lecture, papers, analogies). How does this relate to that? Training approach – Case studies, theory readings and thinking alone helps; almost everything else, including talking with experts, is not helpful.
4. The Pragmatist Learner – Concrete Experience (laboratories, field work, observations). How can I apply this in practice? Training approach – Peer feedback is helpful; activities should apply skills; trainer is coach/helper for a self-directed autonomous learner.
Of course we are ALL these things at some time or another: whilst I am a Theorist when it comes to learning new (largely academic) things, I am completely Pragmatic when learning how to do something phsyical like driving. However, the fact that I remain without a driving license but have lots of certificates about theory-based stuff says quite a lot about my personal bias. My mother says I live my whole world in my head: the fact then I have never wired a plug or used a lawn-mower just underlines it.
Yet what if we were to apply these learning styles to our styles as writers? that would surely affect the kind of prep we do. But let’s first look at those writing styles that I will (completely unscientifically) relate to Kolb:
1. The Activist Writer. If an Activist Learner needs active experimentation, then anything that involves the exploration of their story and its possibilities is bound to appeal here. I would imagine video games, deleted scenes and bonus material on DVD or interactive websites would help an Activist writer in their quest at looking at structure, alternate endings, etc. If they’re game for anything, perhaps a few visits to galleries, museums or seminars will be in order – not just about writing, but anything that sounds remotely interesting. A mentor or Reader would prove particularly useful to an Activist Learner, as would being part of a Writing Circle, message board group, forum or community like The Scribosphere. At the end of the day though, they don’t want their hand held; they want guidance, but ultimately go their own way.
2. The Reflector Writer. This writer would keep diaries and have masses of notebooks with ideas in. Perhaps they brainstorm a lot on trains and they’d have well-organised folders on their PC, laptop or PDA. When a person gives them feedback, they might seem disinterested or even hostile to the untrained eye, but actually they’re mulling everything over: it all has equal worth and must be broken down over a period of time. They would be found most likely at university studying scriptwriting where they will take copious notes, but even after they’ve left they will endeavour to follow the lecture route, signing up for courses with a high theory content, as opposed to ones in networking, time management, etc. They will see their scripts as successful only if others show interest or award high grades, etc.
3. The Theorist Writer. This writer loves related stuff like philosophy and english literature and will attempt to introduce allusion and metephor throughout their work. They do immense amounts of background reading, will have a bookcase full of Aristotle, but also weirder stuff like quantum physics as they struggle to relate it with Plato and the poet John Donne in their narrative. A lot of their ideas are heavy going and relate themselves more to the WTF? draft as they tend towards incoherency in earlier incarnations. Talking with a mentor, a Reader, other people is not helpful: they must struggle on alone.
4. The Pragmatist Writer What you see is what you get: workshops and individual and peer feedback/tuition is particularly helpful to The Pragmatist. They read stuff – put it into practice immediately, though sometimes they are not ready for it and get lost. Probably least likely to produce a WTF? draft, but most likely to get confused and produce two storylines as they struggle to bring in all the concepts (structure, character, arena, etc) – the infamous King Lear draft.
Do you recognise yourself in any, or all of those? I would say I am a Theorist-Pragmatist, which is supposedly in itself a contradiction since feedback is unhelpful to a Theorist and of utmost importance to a Pragmatist. However, when considering the notion of preparation vs. the actual writing of the draft, it’s easy to see where my contradiction is: whilst I am very happy to show off my drafts at whatever stage to whomever asks, I never, ever show my outlines to anyone. Why? Because they’re like my thoughts – and like my thoughts, full of holes. It’s unformed, bizarre – lacking in coherency. And most crucially: I am the only one who can fix it. I’m probably not, but that’s what I believe at the end of the day. So: whilst my drafts may be anyone’s, my preparation is mine: it’s like I have to have a baseline from which to grow before I can show anyone the writing itself. Hands off punks!
So, what would these writers like to do in terms of prep? Here are my thoughts:
1. The Activist. Anything goes – so the internet, DVD, idea generating software, books, whatever it takes. They’d be in touch with the peers, probably more likely to have a writing partner who would in themselves become a resource. Index cards would probably be useful, as would post-its and other physical paraphernalia that could be moved about and experimented with. PROBLEM: the trouble here could be they spend so long on the prep, they neglect the actual writing.
2. The Reflector. This writer most likely has an internal dialogue with him or herself, so diaries, blogs etc would be their passion, as would those seminars, so presumably their prep would rely upon that notebook of thoughts and quotes. Perhaps they’d write treatments or short stories. PROBLEM: I think this type of writer is most likely to dive headfirst into a draft without enough, not realising the plot is not as formed as the idea behind it.
3. The Theorist. This writer too has that internal dialogue and is most likely to lock themselves away – which could prove fantastic or disastrous. Like The Reflector, The Theorist may start before their plot is ready – or alternatively, they will nail it down completely, writing short stories, treatments and scene breakdowns galore. PROBLEM: one thing both types of Theorist’s work have in common though could be a lack of empathy with their Reader, it’s so clear in the writer’s own head.
4. The Pragmatist. Like the Activist, physical ways of preparing the narrative and plot would prove useful, but a pragmatist is more likely to ask for ideas and help in my opinion than the Activist – they’ll call, email and instant message their friends and colleagues with bizarre questions like: if you had been bitten by a dog that you suspected had rabies and couldn’t go to the hospital because you live in the middle of nowhere, would you tie yourself to a tree before you go mad so as to protect your family? (Yes, I got that email!) PROBLEM: because they are so open to ideas, they may try and implement too many people’s and get confused.
So, to answer Billy K’s question, which is “best”? Well, I have my own thoughts. I don’t like index cards. I don’t see the point of writing out story beats and moving them around. It just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t like idea-generating software and I hate writing character profiles, I find it boring. I don’t use tape recorders and I rarely use my ideas notebook: I carry one because it’s something you’re “supposed” to do, but privately I think if your idea is so great, it doesn’t get forgotton, it takes over your whole life. But I do like writing out my plot as a short story, since it exposes logic holes. Whenever I’ve done this, my plot’s been tight; whenever I haven’t, I’ve stumbled on to a big gaping space. I also like to write extended treatments – as many pages as it takes – as well as lists and synopses. All my prep then is written, inside my head, all my own work. The typical Theorist.
Which are you?