Sunday, December 4, 2011

Charles Dickens' Plan Sheets

Last week, I read Jane Smiley's Charles Dickens, A Life (Penguin, 2001). I found it very interesting. One thing that caught my attention was her claim that Dickens kept lists of names for his novels and characters. Names were obviously very important for Dickens. They are highly evocative and have often "symbolic" significance. As I am interested in lists and note-taking, I began to wonder about what note-taking methods Dickens used and how he integrated it in his writing.

There are a number of publications that deal with this. The ones I looked at were Harry Stone (ed.), Dickens' Working Notes for His Novels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and John Butt and Kathleen Tillottson, Dickens at Work (London: Methuen & Co., 1957). This is what I gathered from a cursory perusal of these works.

Dickens wrote his novels usually in installments for journals over a certain number of months. When he began publishing the book, he could therefore not have a clear idea of the end or, for that matter, of the middle of the work. On the other hand, he needed to have some idea about what was to follow and plan for it. To this end, he made "working notes" that  deal with the structure of the work as a whole, explore and plan characters, their relations, the themes he wants to explore, and, in particular, the symbolic "pictures" that characterize his works.

The working notes took the form of "plan sheets" for each installment. In these he worked forward and backward in planning the whole novel. He followed the following procedure:
taking a sheet of approximately 7" x 9" of (pale blue) paper, he folded it at the long side horizontally in half,  which he then opened, using the left half to make notes about ideas for future developments: things having to do with planning and decision making, writing queries to himself about which options to take, what character to kill when, tags and motifs, about names, alternate possibilities in story development, etc. Often, he answered such queries later a laconic "Yes," "No," "Not yet," "Consider for next number," etc.

On the right side dealt with the substance of the chapters. Thus he uaully wrote on the top right of the sheet the name of the novel and the installment number; below the title he wrote the name of each planned chapter. In the space under each chapter he listed the most important events. The "plan sheets" varied very much, as one might expect. Some plans are very full, some remained rather empty.

Sometimes he supplemented these planning notes with supplemental notes about chronology, calculations of the ages of characters, ratio of manuscript pages to printed pages, considerations of what he had done and needed to do; plans for the end of the novel.

These Plans were succinct outlines of reminders and motifs, resumes. They are "compact and cryptic," as they were only intended for him. Apparently, he kept the notes together with his manuscripts. One might therefore say that Dickens was of necessity an outliner.

However, his outlines were not hierarchical so much, as they were flat. They were plans about what to do first, second, third, etc. that left open the possibility of changing some of the order of the scenes and picture, but on the whole fixed the order of the action. There are some people who like to claim that one needs a special program, like Scrivener, for "non-linear writing." Dickens' approach show that nothing could be farther from the truth — or so it seems to me.

In some ways, his working method may be said to resemble the a simple outlining program, like for instance, Notetab's outlining feature. It is not very elaborate but very functional. It also resembles the kind of approach that is evident in Scrivener, but any modern writing application would do. Even Notational Velocity (on the Mac) or ConnectedText (on Windows) would do with proper tagging and linking. In fact, I prefer the latter for both planning and writing — not to sound like a broken record.[1]

1. See also Hölderlin and Version Control.

1 comment:

WillN2Go1 said...

Thanks for this page. I found it both helpful and fascinating. Dickens' "outlines were not hierarchical they were flat." Well put.
Edward Tufte writing about multiple levels of information points out that Richard Feynman, physicist, never went deeper than three layers. Bureaucrats and baloney-makers use many many layers. Excellent thoughts here. Thanks Will N.