The writing process: an analogy

Donko makes a book

To clarify how I work.  By analogy.

The story as building site. An empty space.

There comes first an essential idea, a kind of story I want to tell, and it is very broad, ephemeral, but not quite. There are no blueprints. Maybe I know it is intended to be a house and not an office, a bungalow and not a skyscraper. But who knows?

First the ground is cleared and made ready, so I know the parameters of the space available, now I can build anything, but within these boundaries.

Then the foundation is poured, the support structure for the entire story. The essentials are placed. Then the bricks that will contain and support the space. First one brick, then another, then another … but again without drawings or plans, allowing the placing of the bricks to determine the location of the next and the next, until there is a foundational row on which to build.

In time, the bricklayer begins to see a pattern to the formation he has placed. Soon there is enough foundation to create a necessary picture of what must come next. In time, there comes a vision of the completed structure,  what will appear at the end of it. To deny this would mean destroying everything that came before, tearing out all the previous work. When it is the previous work itself that makes the rest of it. If the early work is wrong, everything stemming from it will end up wrong.

Enough analogy.

When I begin a story, I have no plans and no scheme. Often all I have is a character who interests me, or maybe a single compelling scene. Possessed by Shadows began its life as one small scene – two men in a storm-buffeted tent on a mountain side with a dying woman between them; the questions who and why?

The current novel began as only the idea that it is only love, the only one of our human emotions, that can completely wreck a person, no matter how sane or rational or stable one is.

Those things constitute the cleared ground.

The making of the story is setting each word in each sentence so that it rests solidly on each word and each sentence preceding it. If I have made a mistake on the first page or pages, that mistake will become compounded over time, until the story falls apart from lack of proper support. I believe that writers who find themselves going back again and again revising entire manuscripts are forced to do so because a mistake in the early stages of construction become compounded and destructive because it wasn’t seen. (Neglecting the rebar weakens the wall, so a strong push later on knocks it down.)

I have always thought this obvious. Each sentence necessarily follows the one before, and each page the one before. If you make a mistake and make something yellow when it really would have been better red, then everything yellow after it will be wrong, and all of it thrown out to be replaced by red, as it ought to be have the first time.

For that reason, I do not leave a page behind until I am confident that it is exactly right. Which gives the next page a solid support from the start.

What I cannot know is what this steady progression of details may imply for the whole, because the next page is always a mystery, it is always empty until filled. Story-telling in this way is an accumulated effect, the revelation of the layers.

Returning to analogy. Each day the builder steps back and surveys what he has built so far. Each day the structure rises incrementally and defines itself.  Ah hah! the builder says. It seemed to be a bungalow, but now I see it will make a better apartment building.

That is how the plot developed step by step to make a bigger story than I had first imagined.

Had I plunged ahead, placing bricks willy nilly, almost with literary whimsy, just to see what forms I could make, at some point I would be likely to see that I had made something possibly interesting, but probably insubstantial, a structure with no purpose.

Having to write the same story over and over means to me that it was built on unwitting mistakes.

So when I top out, or place the last stone, I am done and the reader can move in right away.

That is why I write the way I do. I am lazy and just want to do it once and get it right the first time.


Categories: Writing, Writing processes

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7 replies »

  1. as i mentioned before…i pretty much write like you do, i.e. obsessively revising every word until i’m sure it’s the right one, because one false sentiment will lead to more chaos over the page and then the story is doomed.

    except you’ve been professional for longer than i’ve been alive and i don’t have your discipline, so i never write enough.

    • Then when you have been alive and writing as long as I have, think of how powerful you will be based on the distance you have already come.

      I think you are right that one false step early on dooms what follows to a false ending.

  2. But are you never possessed by a fever that demands you get all of this out, as soon as possible, now? That’s how my first drafts always are: all this stuff bubbling to the surface that has to be gotten out, or it will go away, be lost. Chasing the dragon, if you will.

    Undoubtably this leads to a good deal of structural weakness – a lot in a novel, less in a short story – but that’s what revisions are for.

    I don’t think I could bear to write in this way. There is a time and a place in my process for the sort of plodding sentence by sentence work you’re describing, but for me, this comes later. I am usually chasing a perfect little vision (which of course is never gotten down perfectly on paper) that will escape if I don’t get it down.

    I also do all my first drafts by hand – I would find it impossible to revise “on the go” in the way you do – it would mean physically rewriting every sentence over and over.

    I do wonder, though, if this is why my manuscripts and short stories go through 50+ revisions each and every time …

    • The short answer to your first question is no. Not for novels. I have written poetry (in my poetic youth) that way, and most of those were never revised. I have also written a few short stories that way. But never a novel.

      So, because I am not “possessed by a fever” that demands getting it all out, there is no need to “get it all out.” My stories are built solid at each stage, not thrown together to see if it works and then go back making substantial repairs.

      I am not claiming one is better than another, only describing how I go about writing a novel.

      I also go through hundreds of revisions, but on each page before going to the next one, where there will be hundreds of revisions, and the next one, where they will be hundreds of revisions. And yes, I write it all by hand, and I do rewrite each sentence multiple times. It is only when the handwritten page feels right do I put it into the word processor, where it is revised again, so there are two stacks of paper rising on the table — one typed, one handwritten. That is also why I think a truly fine work day produces one or two pages of solid, keepable work.

      I never have any sort of vision of the whole thing, perfect or not. I have a vague idea of an interesting character, or a mental scene that intrigues me, then I see if I can make a novel out of it. Half the time, yes. But there are failures, usually because the character really wasn’t interesting enough to sustain a big story, or the scene had nowhere interesting to go beyond itself.

      Different strokes, just like some people prefer living in Nebraska to Rome.

  3. Great analogy! I really like it!
    Recently I started posting interestnig analogies I found on the web on blog.ygolana.com. I thought it could be a good idea to create a place where people can share useful analogies.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Peter, and what an interesting idea for a blog post. I am a fan of analogy and will come over and see what you have to say about it. Thanks for visiting here.