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My wife cleans one room at a time. This, she insists, is the normal, the sane way to clean a house. You start with one room, you pick things up, you sort things, and then you vacuum (or mop, as the case may be). And then you have a clean room.
That’s not the way I clean. Much to my wife’s despair, my preferred method of cleaning is to drift from room to room doing a little bit here and a little bit there. Dishes here, book stacking there. All this so that I can clean while pretending this isn’t really what I’m doing. Fool the cleaning gremlins, you know. Also, I suppose, so that once a room is finally clean, I don’t feel like I have to go all the way back to the starting-point on all the other rooms, which would be unbearably depressing. (As opposed, say, to cleaning for a while and not actually having any rooms clean, which is the natural result of my method of cleaning and which my wife finds unbearably depressing. But she’s learned to put up with it just so long as I actually do some cleanup – which we’ve both learned is more likely if I do things my way, bizarre though it may be.)
Anyway, my point – for those of you who have stuck with me this long – is that it really shouldn’t have surprised me to discover that I write this way as well.
Back in high school, my various English teachers used to demand that I produce an outline along with the papers I wrote. Typically, what I did in these cases was to write the paper first, then derive an outline based on what I wrote.
This pattern continued through about the first half of my undergraduate college career. Typically, my writing pattern in those years was to write a first draft in order to figure out what I was trying to say – often discovering my thesis about the time I arrived at my conclusion – then rewrite the thing backwards. A very painful process, and not one I particularly recommend, unless you find (as I did in those years) that it’s the only method that actually works for you.
And then around my junior year in college, I discovered outlining as a tool for writing, and my world changed.
Outlining… outlining… The power of outlining, in a nutshell, is that it puts half or more of the mental work of writing up front, before you ever start putting words on a page. This was the great secret I discovered about the time that I started using outlining as an actual planning tool for writing. Up to then, I’d thought (and frankly my writing teachers had taught me) that you start with your thesis, develop an outline, then write. The notion that you don’t even get to the point of developing a thesis until you’ve put in substantial mental work – including the bulk of the research and thinking that wind up as part of your outline – was the insight that allowed me to bring outlining into my own real-world writing process.
(I should add that I’m uncertain whether it would have been possible for me to learn how to use outlining effectively much before I did. I think you have to reach a certain point of mental maturity before you can even contemplate putting that much mental work into a writing project before you start to write. It requires also a facility with knowing the various rhetorical approaches, so that you can imagine the direction and thrust of what you might say before actually saying it – which I don’t think I possessed prior to my twenties.)
I now write for a living: teacher’s guides and marketing white papers and such, mostly in the field of educational products and technology. Outlining is a key part of the process in much of what I do. Typically, I’ll budget about half of my time allotment for the part of the process that results in an outline (which the client then reviews), then reserve the other half for the actual writing. But it’s a lie. Really, the outlining is typically considerably more than half the effort.
So you can imagine my reaction on discovering that outlining doesn’t work for me with my creative writing.
I admire fiction writers that can draft from an outline. One friend of mine tells me that he outlines in multiple phases, including a phase that winds up with a paragraph for every page he’s planning to write (or maybe it’s a paragraph for every scene, which would seem more reasonable).
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be something I can do. Instead of an outline, what I started with for my current novel was a general sense of the novel’s thrust, a desired ending-point, and several tentative stops along the way.
One of the things I’ve found is that when I do try to outline things, I don’t know if they actually work until I’ve written them out. Conversely, things arise during my writing that take my stories in new and more interesting directions. I’m a better scene writer than outliner – and sadly, that often winds up involving ideas that affect the overall plot. So I’ve uneasily decided that it’s better not to outline rigidly, but rather to write one scene at a time. So far at least, the writing seems to work out better that way.
But wait; there’s more.
Based on what I’ve said so far, you might think that my ideal writing process is to start at the beginning and keep following the plot thread scene by scene, chapter by chapter, until I have a novel. (According to sf&f writer Gene Wolfe, you know you’ve reached this point – that is, the point of completeness for your novel – when your stack of paper is tall enough that it falls over.) What I find in reality, though, is that doing it this way, I get stuck: I don’t know what’s going on next or where I’m going, and I run into problems (like how to get the dialogue right for a particular scene) that I simply have to walk away from and come back to later on, or keep chipping away at in small bits – thus making my writing process even slower than it might otherwise be.
The solution I found to this was to work on multiple miscellaneous scenes as the inspiration struck me: things I thought might happen or knew would happen, even if I hadn’t got to them yet. This also worked very well for my preferred method of composing away from the computer, notebook in hand (see my earlier blog on Writing Conditions). It provided opportunities to pursue vagrant thoughts when they first occurred rather than waiting while inspiration cooled.
Over time, I’ve found that this method of mosaic-writing works remarkable well, not just for giving me something to work on when the main storyline is stalled but also for opening up new insights into where the story is headed. These in turn feed back into my earlier story, telling me things about what needs to happen to my characters in order to get them to the later scenes I’ve already composed. My chief worry – that I would be unable to make the different parts and pieces of my story, composed at different times, fit together well – has proved unfounded. In fact, I think that working on different parts of my story simultaneously has actually helped keep the story more consistent in some ways.
All this, of course, aside from the fact that it serves the valuable purpose of muddying still further the question of just how far along I am in the composition process at any given point in time. In short, it aids in the fool-myself-into-writing-a-novel-whilst-playing-quist ploy – which I must concede would probably work better if I knew how to play quist, or even had a very clear idea of what quist is. (Looking it up in the dictionary, I don’t find an entry for quist. Maybe I meant whist?)
One of my very favorite books in the entire world is Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. It’s everything for me that Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer was supposed to be (and wasn’t): a story that captures the essence of boyhood and summer and growing up, in a setting that’s particular to a specific time and place but somehow communicates a sense of timelessness.
I’ve heard it said (though I have no idea if this is actually true) that the way Bradbury composed Dandelion Wine was that each morning, he’d wake up and write a story about something he’d dreamed about the night before. Then he wound up weaving them all together into a single loose storyline.
Certainly the book reads like this could be the case. Some of the sections were originally published independently as short stories, and a lot of them only touch the life of the main character (Douglas Spaulding, age 12) tangentially if at all.
I’m no Bradbury. Still, I figure if it works for him, then maybe something similar is worth trying for me. If my narrative mosaic can capture even just a bit of the freshness, life, and color of Bradbury’s story, I’ll be content.