Friday, January 16, 2009

Building and Growing

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.


  1. My current plan is to keep up what I'm doing. I seem to accomplish more if I plot out exactly what I want to happen in a scene and then go back and actually write out the scene with full dialogue and descriptions later.

    Like you, I rarely plan out dialogue, I always set up the scene in my head and frantically try to take dictation while my characters ad lib the scene.


  2. I'm trying to blog regularly - say a couple of times a week - because both I and my daughters like to look back over old entries, although my life is not so exciting as to entertain the world at large. It's amazing how even writing down the details of a good home cooked meal will help me recall my life and state of mind a few months or years ago, and how looking back over the past helps me realise how far things have moved on. It's very rewarding: but finding the discipline to do it in the first place: tricky.

  3. I'm going to sit my butt down and write without second guessing every other word. Also going to see projects through and not give up on them when some shiny thing comes along. Heh.

  4. My current plan is to start a journal again. Possibly writing the 3 pages that Cameron recommends. Also, I want to set aside a specific hour when I am just writing.

  5. I like trying out new techniques and I'm always happy to learn a new trick, but I'm done screwing with my process. From now on, I do what works for me, period. I know what works and messing with it very nearly led to not being able to write at all.

    And yes, yes, on the journaling. I've been a daily journal writer since I was 12. I might only yammer on about how to make better bread, but it does good things for the brain. It's good training.

  6. I admit it. I'm a pantser. I have the first four or five sentences of a story and the final few paragraphs and everything in between in done however it wants done. It does go in chronological order. I can't do scenes here and there and then fit them in. I tried. It was terribly frustrating so I stopped.

    I sit at the keyboard, close my eyes and type out the movie that plays in my mind. Which sometimes proves to be as frustrating when my fingers start out on the wrong keys! But eventually, I get it deciphered. :)

  7. I am currently trying to get off my butt and write a little bit every day. I just started reading your blog and think it would be great if you starting something along the lines of what Fred White did.

  8. You are a builder. So am I. I think of those more organic writers as gardeners.

    I am sticking with my building, because it works. I've tried being a gardener and never grew anything but rocks.

  9. I think of myself as a structured organic writer. I usually know a few things going in (odd things, apparently, like themeology, story-structure, and scope) but most of the book (plot, character development, pacing, etc.) is a mystery to me until I get there. Somehow, it all seems to work, if I can write at all.

    And that's the kicker for me. Sometimes I stare at the page for hours and get nowhere. Even when I have a pretty good vision of what comes next, I reach into the vat of words and come up empty. I'm present and available for work pretty much every day. The words, however, have their own schedule that I can't seem to control.

    I'm going to try not being so hard on myself about it. Bludgeoning my psyche sure isn't working.

  10. I'm going to try to find some kind of comfortable middle ground between building and organic. Too organic and I get stuck, too much building and I lose interest in actually writing the story.

    But I still have this need to have structure. I want to have everything down before I write, for fear of becoming blocked. So, I gotta work on that somehow.

  11. I am commiting to writing, on a project of some kind, at least twice a week. I need to seriously commit.

  12. I've realized that working on longer projects in the winter is just not possible for me. So rather than force myself to do something I'm not capable of, I've decided my cold weather project this year will be to write a collection of short shorts inspired by different people and objects in my life. I can write one it one sitting, so it is much more doable than to tackle a whole chapter in my novel. Come spring, I'm back to my old writing habits and my novel will be done by the end of summer.


  13. Anonymous9:47 AM

    I just blogged about this yesterday, how I'm "breaking all my rules". Perfect timing.

    I'm wetting my feet in the dangerous book and finding I like the waters. If only I'd relax...

  14. Anonymous9:54 AM

    I've got 60k words of a novel, and I'm still trying to find the right balance between planning and winging it. Whether I find a balance or not, I'll be finishing it up this spring.

  15. I've been taking a writing course by an author I admire and this year I plan to try leaning toward the side of the plotter vs the pantser. I feel in my bones that while pantsing works for me, there is more out there and it's time to discover the more.

    I also plan to start journalling again this year - something I haven't done since grad school and for many reasons, feel that it is time to start again. And I intend to write daily. I used to do this, but lost sight of the discipline a few years ago. Being here inspires me. Now I have to put action to the inspiration.

  16. Anonymous10:32 AM

    As a former software developer, I share Lynn's architectural bent, and sometimes catch myself pseudocoding scene progressions as I start each chapter.

    I just finished my first mss, and one process change I'm going to try with the next is to produce a synopsis - even a crappy one - earlier in the process. I think this will focus me in a bit more quickly. I also will do less exploratory writing to develop character, motivation and conflict now that I've been exposed to Debra Dixon's "Goal, Motivation and Conflict."

  17. Love the organic writing/abstract art comparison because that's how it works for me. I have to get the first draft out before I put on my architect hat.

  18. With my latest novel start I'm actually trying something new. Instead of working in a strictly linear fashion, like I normally do, I'm just writing whatever scenes pop into my head and I'll worry about bridging the gaps and moving things around, later. It's probably not the best way to write a novel, but it's freeing up my creativity and causing me to think less and just WRITE, which I appreciate.

    I tend to overthink everything. Even things I love.

  19. Anonymous11:17 AM

    Never giving up on a project before it's done, and writing every day. Lofty goals, at least for me!

  20. I had a challenging year last year and lost the writing habit. To help get it back this year, I am writing in my journal several times a week (still working my way up to daily) and working on my short story collection. I have some editing to do on the older stories and I always seem to come up with new story ideas as a way to procrastinate on the editing.

  21. This year, I've been committed to writing ten lines a day. Before, I was writing when I felt like it, and this small amount of discipline has been really helping my focus.

  22. Please sign me up, I think I need all the help I can get!

  23. I'm still learning and experimenting with my writing. The beginning of this year I hope to learn how I'll revise my story. Last year I learned more what it took for me to reach the end in a first draft.

  24. Anonymous1:38 PM

    This was very helpful, thanks for sharing it. I'm committed to writing two pages a day every day this year, and currently as part of that I'm working on my first novel. Suffice to say, I'm trying to figure out what works best for me. I've outlined some, I've pantsed some, and sometimes I've done things I can't even find names for. It's heartening to hear someone w/ your experience say it took five novels before you consciously got it down to a system that worked for you. Helps me take a little pressure off myself.

    Jeff P.

  25. I'm just starting out so this year I am going to try to learn as much as I can and develop a writing habit. So much to learn!

    I can't prove it yet but I'm guessing I have strong builder-ish tendencies.

  26. I'm sticking with the process that I've found works for me, but I have made a commitment to clear everything out of my workspace that doesn't belong there--in other words I'm respectfully requesting the rest of the family retrieve their possessions. (Or words to that effect.)

  27. My plan is to stop being so critical and just sit down and write. I think I've figured out how to turn off the inner editor and that is by NOT planning. I am an obsessive planner. My house is covered in to-do lists and post-its. I can even go grocery shopping or do laundry without a battle plan.

    When I write, I like to plan out the details, but I have found that once I have the structure built, I start doubting myself and telling myself that it's stupid, no one will buy it, blah blah blah. Then, I discovered that when I don't know what is going to happen next, I don't have time to tell myself how much I suck. I'm too busy discovering the story.

    We'll see how it works. I'm hoping that I'm not going to end up with a pile of crap with this new method, but anything to get me out of this rut would be nice.

  28. I'm working on revision techniques again this year. I finally got to the point last year when I decided the way I went about revision sucked. A bit like gliding through with my eyes closed.
    I've taken two intensive courses that have really helped, and I intend to stick to what I've learned, putting the techniques into practice. I can see a huge difference already.
    I still get impatient with rewriting, but now I have a method that slows me down and gets me to think more deeply.

  29. I'm going to learn where to put commas.
    That's it. That's my goal for this year - learn where the comma actually goes and keep up to date with the industries idea of where that comma goes because they keep changing their minds all the time.

  30. Honestly, 2008 was just terrible for writing and subbing. Especially on the writing front. There is nothing like family drama and a good dose of the blues to kill a muse.

    This year, make writing more of a priority. Two-three hours first thing in the morning even before I log in anywhere. Before I hit blogs and forums. And yes, submit more projects. I'm lovin' those rejections.

    Yes, I know reading this over it probably doesn't sound like big changes but if you could see how messed up things have been this last year, this is a pretty big change.

  31. Natalie,

    I have a friend who's signature is:

    I never met a comma I couldn't misuse.

    You are not alone. :)

  32. Try to find the balance between rigid planning and pantsing. I think this might apply to life, too, come to think of it.

    Finding Holly Lisle's How to Think Sideways program to be helpful and thought provoking in seeking the balance.

  33. I used to write organically, then stopped when the plots became to big to keep in my head. This year I think I'm going to try to write an organic YA urban fantasy fueled by seething emotions. *g*

  34. You already write something in the blog pretty much every day, sometimes more than once, and you keep a journal. Spend a year writing an inspiration a day and you'll have a fabulous book :).

    As for me, I'm working my way slowly through Holly's TS course. Some of what she says is stuff I've already been doing, but other pieces are brand new (and hard to grasp at times ;)) I do this because I believe the more tools I have available, the more likely I am to figure out the best for each project. LOL, that sounds like a page from the programming side of my website where I have Rules of Thumb, so guess I'm with you on the architecture, just from a software perspective.

  35. Anonymous1:11 PM

    Last year was disastrous for my this year I am recommitting to the novel I started , recommitting to blogging a few times a week at least, and keeping a journal.

    I think I work best when I find a way to keep writing uppermost in my mind while I am doing other things--and write those ideas down while they are fresh. I'd like to start "pantsing" less and "planning" a little more.

  36. Anonymous3:08 PM

    I need to have at least a general idea of where things are going before I can start writing.

    I don't have the patience to do a really detailed outline, but I also can't just write without knowing what's going to happen.

    I've found that doing morning pages, from The Artist's Way, is a great way to figure out what's going to happen next. I also sometimes get surprised by what happens when I'm actually writing, because I thought I'd planned it another way.

  37. Anonymous7:59 PM

    Mine is simple:

    Write more.