Puzzling out the story

From the "Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time" by Frederick Litchfield (1893)

Frederick Litchfield, “Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time” (1893).

What’s your mental image of the process of writing? Not the act of putting words on the page, but the process of converting nebulous ideas into strings of unchanging letters.

To me, it always feels like assembling a puzzle. I have an idea of what I want to accomplish (the picture on the puzzle box) and I just need to find the right way to fit the pieces together. It feels this way on a macro level — how does this scene connect with that one — and on the micro level — how does this sentence, or this phrase, or this word, fit in with the rest. One major difference with an actual puzzle of course is that while the puzzle pieces never change, the act of piecing together a story typically causes me to find new ways to fit things together that often result in an outcome very different from the initial picture on the box.

Because I conceptualize writing in this way, my work in progress tends to come out in fragmentary chunks. I’ll write along happily, until I run into a difficult section. That’s where I’ll stop and run through several iterations

When that happens, I simply add a line-break and start

I just work through the section over and over until I find something that fits, often moving words, sentences and whole paragraphs around until I’m satisfied.

When I reach a difficult section, I’ll

Just dropping the false starts and abandoned lines until I’m finished and I know I won’t need to refer back to them.

Often, this process leaves a lot of clutter behind. Once I have the section to my satisfaction, I will merge it back into the manuscript and then hit the enter key a bunch of times to move the literary detritus to the bottom of the page, far away from my pretty draft. Then the process repeats itself.

I’ve always been struck how my practice of writing has been entirely shaped by the advent of word processors. I simply could not do it on a typewriter and attempting it by hand would at best be incredibly time-consuming. There’s no way of knowing how I would have gone about things without word processors, but I suspect that my entire concept of the writing process would have ended up very different in a work where fragmentary scribbling meant actual ink on paper. And that’s not even getting into the value of electronic resources for collecting and organizing research. The thought of having to write in that pre-PC, pre-internet world makes me shudder.

How has technology shaped the way you approach writing? Is your conceptualization of the writing process completely different from mine? Let me know!


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