May 21, 2008

Searching for a Method to the Madness Part 2

Last time I talked about two extreme writing methods. Today I have three more moderate methods to discuss.

The Brainstorming Tree Method

Other than outlining, building a brainstorming tree is the only method we covered in school. I'll admit to thinking it was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard when it was first introduced. Writing in little thought bubbles and connecting them with arrows just seemed like a silly, mixed up outline.

The main difference between the brainstorming tree and the mega outline is you stick to just the big points with the tree. It provides structure while allowing for more flexibility. You don’t necessarily need to restructure the whole thing should you change your mind about something halfway through to update your road map. Noting the change is generally as easy as swapping the direction and/or placement of the arrows.

The trouble here comes in if you have difficulty remembering the small things. You can add them into the tree, of course, but the more cluttered the tree becomes, the harder it is to read.

Also, some have trouble working with graphic representations of a broad idea. I actually work well with graphics, but they give Hubby headaches. Whether this is due to the damage done to his visual centers or the fact he's much more of an auditory person than visual, we don't know, but we do know a brainstorming tree isn't the method for him.

The Zoom Out Method

I'm rather fond of this method myself and use it in some form with my larger projects. The last three or four pages of my Yekara world book are filled with novels in miniature. As I mentioned in this week's world building post, Yekara and Right of Succession spawned a slew of ideas for sequels. I took the main plots of these ideas, wrote a single sentence for each one, and the results reside in the world book waiting their turn to undergo the zooming out process.

You can think of this method in several different ways. Personally, it helps me to think of it like being a forensic artist. You take the bare bones of the story and then carefully add layers representing complex systems, muscle, sinew, fat, skin, and finally the last details of eyes, hair, and coloring to see the organism as a whole.

It works well, but the zoom out method also takes a lot of time, generally speaking. I’ve used this method almost exclusively with Right of Succession, going through at least twenty-five or thirty drafts in the past thirteen years, each one longer, more complex, and vastly more detailed. I can’t take years writing the next one though if I want to publish more than just one or two novels in my lifetime.

Zooming out does make for an excellent learning tool for beginning writers. I know I learned the most about writing through all the incarnations of Succession throughout the years. Plus, lots of practice gets worked into the zooming stages, helping you slog your way through the “million words of crap” while keeping to one big piece.

The Jigsaw Method

Finally we have the jigsaw method.
This is a good one for writers who prefer working in short spurts and in no particular order. You’re free to write any part of your story at any given time and worry about piecing it altogether in an orderly fashion, occasionally adding transitory paragraphs to glue it altogether as needed, later.

In the few writers’ groups I’ve participated in, there was always one or two people who became sidetracked from their WIP because an event scheduled for much later in the piece came to mind, crystal clear and begging to be written. They just couldn’t seem to get their mind off the troublesome scene to finish the section they were working on at the time. The beauty of the jigsaw method is it allows you to go ahead and write the scene ahead of time, save it somewhere, and then just cut and paste it in at a later date, making only what changes are necessary for continuity and voice’s sake.

Yet, the jigsaw’s main strength is also its weakness. The author has to be careful, or the novel as a whole can come out sounding disjointed. New ideas crop up, and this can cause differences in both continuity and voice if the novel as a whole isn’t read over with a careful eye and ear as the puzzle is put back together again.

I’m struggling with this myself as I work on rewriting Succession for what I hope is the last time. Over the years I’ve written shorts and character studies I’d like to incorporate in some small way into the novel, and as I read through the last version not long ago, I found several chapters in need of reordering, merging, or splitting apart. Luckily I have the old version in hard copy to work from with my notes in bright red ink in the margins as I work my way though the novel from start to finish. I only hope I can make sense of my scribbled notes as I continue on in the coming weeks.

This is it for today. Tomorrow will see my personal favorite method thus far and the end of this short series. I hope you’ll come back, and as always, if you have something to add, please join in the discussion.


  1. As I gain more experience, I find myself moving toward the jigsaw method. One reason for this is that I use Scrivener for the Mac and it makes it very easy to create little bursts as one might with index cards (in fact, that is the exact metaphor the designers included in the package)...

    What I like about that method is that it makes it easy to rearrange the story for dramatic effect. As you note, you have to be careful about creating ragged edges, but for writers like me who tend to begin new stories like they are watching movies it can be helpful to have the option to move the scenery around later. :)

  2. Exactly. I think that's why I'm growing more fond of the jigsaw method as well. I have a tendency to hop from one story to another and back again as the muse wishes.

    Rereading the last chapter or so before picking back up helps a little with the ragged edges, but not always.