I read His Dark Materials many years ago. I remember being very busy at that point in my life, and not having much time or focus, but I am certain that I blew by any page before chapter one. Now that His Dark Materials has become HBO-ified, I've picked it up again. This time, I started at the beginning. I started at the preface.
What I found was probably the most rewarding page and a half I have read in a long time. Here is how it begins:
"I began to write this novel with little sense of the plot, even less notion of the theme, and only the vaguest idea of the characters. I'm convinced that's the way to do it."
As someone who is in the throes of writing his own epic tale, full of a large cast of characters and rich world creation, I find these words inspirational, both in writing, if not in life. As a person, I've lived life in a supremely organic sense, which is not to say that I don't work hard and long (I do), but more to say that serendipity and wonder fill me with spirit (and possibly faith). Yet, when I began Clara Poole and the Accident That Started Everything, I did so with months of detailed plotting and outlining. So much so that I became a bit more academic than necessary, reading article after article about what is commonly referred to as Plotsers vs. Pantsers. Plotsters, those who write by structured outline; Pantsers, those that write by the seat of their pants. Ironically, I denied my true nature and embraced the Plotster. In hindsight, I will profess it was good for me, because while I have an unbridled creativity, I lack traditional writer's craft. Add severe dyslexia to the mix (my ultimate irony in wanting to become a writer) and one couldn't blame me for wanting a real backbone to my story. For the most part, I think it's worked, allowing me to write freely within a defined framework. That is, up to a point.
My story initially focused around a young girl coming to grips with the death of her mother, a death she caused in an accident of her own doing. That was my theme, meaning to say it was about loss. But very quickly I realized that it was much more, if not entirely different. My theme, per se, became more about a young girl realizing her independence and how she fit in the world around her. About 80k words into what was becoming book two of my novel, I found my storyline breaking, until finally, what I thought was leading up to the big ordeal, wasn't that big at all. Moreover, I was fatigued trying to keep to my outline. Again, the word of Phillip Pullman: I had no idea what Iorek Byrnision, the armoured bear, would say when Lyra first came face to face with him... These surprises are pleasant and exciting; they feel like a kind of reward. If I knew they were coming I wouldn't enjoy them at all. So I decided to go pantser. To my delight, I found my characters again and the storyline. And, I got back the thing I was missing most: the element of surprise. Theme emerged more clearly and my writing became more lived than imagined. But maybe the most valuable part of Pullman's preface are things which I've now experienced as a part of a writer's struggle — positivity and self-trust. As rewarding at it is to write something at length, there is also its share of loneliness, confusion, and self-doubt. And if you have a tendency for negative self-talk, which I do, it can be a real slog. With that, I hope to write something similar to the end of Pullman's preface when I get to the point of working on mine: So here is a story that was the best I could do at the time, written with all the power and all the love I had, about the things I think most important in the world. I think it was worth writing. I hope you think it's worth reading.
Taylor Tyng is a children's book author focusing on middle grade fiction. Taylor is repped by Erin Clyburn of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.