I've been skimming through the 366 writing meditations of Fred White's The Daily Writer, a how-to tour he guides through one year of writing ideas, philosophies and exercises. Although it's probably more appropriate for a literary writer (Fred is a Ph.D. and an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, and trust me, he sounds like it) I'm enjoying the fact that he isn't snotty about it and has plenty to offer genre writers as well.
I'm also picking up some useful angles and directions to take with my own writing habits. One entry for July 21 caught my eye; Pofessor White talks about creativity and compares it to analytical thinking, using Einstein and Fuller as examples of creative thinkers in the mathematics and geometric/architectural sense. Without these two guys' creativity there wouldn't be a theory of relativity or a geodesic dome.
I kept going back to the phrase architectural; besides it being one of my favorite words it describes perfectly everything I love about the process of writing books: envisioning the construct of a story, gathering a team of characters to help me build it and bring it to life, laying out and drawing up the plans, designing for purpose as well as beauty, and having the satisfaction of not only creating something out of nothing, but expressing new and abstract ideas in a concrete material form. I do a variation of the same thing when I take photographs, make quilts or paint.
All those codes and procedures and precise steps might smother another person's creativity, but not someone who is as architecturally-minded as me. It also explains why I'm forever trying to draw diagrams and compose templates and nail down even the most nebulous aspect of writing -- I like the architecture of order. There is no surer way to send me to hell than to take away my blueprints and plans and building codes and tell me to write off the top of my head. Except maybe someone who doesn't understand story at all telling me what I have to build.
The organic pantser writer has none of these tools to help them; they write the way abstract artists paint. From what I'm told there not only is no plan, there can't be a plan. For these writers story is simply a seed that has to be planted and tended and grown with little or no idea of what the end result will be. It's a natural evolution, something that seems to thrive only when it's permitted to grow freely.
I've tried organic writing -- once -- and the entire time I wrote the story, my brain was three chapters ahead of me frantically trying to plan out what was going to happen next. There are plenty of organically-written books on my keeper shelves, and I admire anyone who can write without a net like the pantsers do, but I'd much rather hang out at the construction site with my hard hat and my blueprints.
Somewhere in between the territories of the strictly architectural writer and the wholly abstract writer is a wide open area that has never been mapped. It's where most writers seem to search for the right spot between obsessive-compulsive planning and the free-for-all on the extreme ends of the writing process scale. I think writers even move back and forth as they hone the process and when they try out new things. Some of them will draw up a simple plot and then pants the rest of the way, some outline certain elements like characters or conflict and then let them loose and see what they do on the page.
I do a little of that with how I write dialogue, with the exception of a few lines that come to me out of some specific inspiration like a dream or an early concept I never plan out dialogue. Setting the stage, sending out the players and knowing what needs to happen in this particular act is enough for me; I just sit back and take dictation. On some level one part of my brain is probably working out the dialogue as I write it, but that seems to be in one of those subconscious gray areas that barely registers. So I'm not all plumb lines and (cough) stud finders.
I know after I wrote my first five published novels that I was very anxious to get my methods straight and establish a routine. I felt that was important if I was going to deliver books on a regular schedule. But I hung onto the importance of learning, too, and every now and then I ditch my hard hat, climb over the fence and wander around the other side. I am a daily writer, so technically I don't need to read The Daily Writer, but if I didn't jump that fence once in a while I think all my buildings would start looking alike. Being open to new ideas means incorporating some of them, but even with the ideas that don't work out, I still learn from them.
Today Professor White advises me to start a journal, right now, because I need that to become a better writer. While I don't need to start one -- I've been keeping some form of journal every day since I was thirteen -- I like seeing one of my oldest habits being recommended. It tells me that my instincts are right. And I might try out his advice on May 3rd, the possibly annoying exercise on August 24th, and the cool thing on October 29th.
I'm also thinking about writing one of these daily devotional-type how-tos myself. I just wonder if I could think up an entire year of stuff for writers to think about, try or practice -- that can't be easy.
We've got eleven and a half months left in this writing year. What new things are you going to try with your work this year, or are you sticking with the process you've already established? Let us know what you're planning (or not) in comments by midnight EST on Saturday, January 17, 2009. I'll draw three names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners an unsigned copy of The Daily Writer by Fred White. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.