Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Working with no text

Having successfully recovered the very latest version of four out of six-and-a-half chapters of my novel, For Love, For Power, I'm feeling good and lucky - if also frustrated because of the two and a half I have to redo. This gives me a great excuse, though, to talk about working with no text.

Working with no text is actually something I enjoy. I think that every story can benefit from it (though I don't recommend flushing the chapters in question!). For me, this takes three different forms:
  1. Talking about principles. This is when I try to hone aspects of my story by walking away from it and talking about it with friends.
  2. Echo listening. This is when I identify the strongest lines of my story by seeing which ones pop up in my head when I'm not looking at the text.
  3. Constructing a structure scaffold. This is when I try to rethink my story on a structural level without getting bogged down in the text which is already there, as an aid to revisions.
I'll take these one at a time. I can't recommend number one highly enough. My friends know that I like to talk story with them (sometimes incessantly!), but the fact is that getting away from the words that create your story can help you put your mind on underlying issues more easily. You can talk about characters as though they were a real people, talk about their growth and progress and what you think they'd do or what they wouldn't do. You can also brainstorm small elements to change here and there without being limited to one single instance in the text. This is where I do most of my work on "story," that intangible thing that lies behind the words. My friends and I talk about what matters in the story - and that usually isn't a question of the words themselves.

Echo listening is a different kind of tool. I use it for the most part as a guide to editing, to show me what kind of things I should try to keep no matter what (even if, for example, they need to be moved to another location). It's also a good test for poetic meter (which I don't usually bother to count out explicitly) and what sounds good.

Building a structure scaffold is enormously useful. Some of you out there may simply sit down with a blank page and start to write, but I almost never do that. I generally have an outline - and by that I don't mean something that is numbered with Roman numerals and indents. Sometimes it's just "this has to happen here," "X goes to this place," or "Y realizes A." Especially when you have a large unwieldy chapter with lots of words that need organizing, walking away from those words can help you identify the most logical progression, which elements are core elements of the story drive, and which are peripheral. This then makes it much easier to go back to the chapter and reconstitute it without getting caught up in the flow of the existing words - to see which ones are truly necessary to core drive, and which are not.

All of these are useful for reconstructing lost text. Because of all my talks with friends, I retain a lot of the information that we've discussed about the way the story is supposed to work. I bring this to my blank page and then use echo listening and the structure scaffold that I remember to put things back together. Currently my reconstruction file is up to ten pages worth of good lines interspersed with notes on scene and structure elements that I remember coming up with. And now that I have those, I'm much less scared about regaining my lost chapters than I was when I was staring at a blank "Document 1."

I hope they can also give you ideas for dealing with text loss, or with revisions.


  1. I used to use 1) all the time, but I called them plot walks. When my boys were much younger, we would walk about the neighborhood for exercise. When we started, I would make up stories (about the grand stopasaurus for example who left footprints on street corners), but later I would discuss my stories and it's amazing some of the contributions my kids made between ages 2 and about 6. They still remember the stories too, which I take as a hopeful sign.

    While this might not work for you, another reconstruction technique that I used recently for a friend is chat logs. We talk about our on IM and drop in our favorite lines, etc. Well, my memory has cost me so much, that I log them (my friends know and I don't use the logs for malicious purposes :)). Then a friend went to go back to a story she'd thought of four years before only to discover it was trace of her notes or anything. But I was able to reconstruct the key elements from comments she'd made in chat.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Margaret! I get a lot of ideas from my kids too. Interesting thought there, about the chat logs. I've never tried that before.