Monday, August 27, 2012

HItting The Wall At 10,000 Feet

If you hit the wall at 10,000 feet, you're dead. When I did it at 6 inches, I was OK.

When you're at 10,000 feet, you're generally in an airplane going over 100 miles per hour. But when I hit the wall at 6 inches, I was a kid on a tricycle going a lot slower.

What has this to do with writing?

When you think about what you are writing, abstraction matters. If you think at a very abstract level, you can see entire planets at a glance, whereas at the least abstract level, you are amidst a forest of atoms. My point is more obvious in writing software than in writing novels: When you're debugging lines of code you need the atomic details. When you're laying out a system architecture, you need to be able to see the whole thing. You need to think more abstractly.

But I'm a writer, not a programmer!

Fair enough, but you cannot write without thinking. And this is about thinking about your writing.

But I'm a pantser, not an outliner!

Fair enough, but I'm pushing thinking, not outlining.

If you're writing by the seat of your pants, you are thinking about the sentence you are writing, and the next paragraph, and rest of the scene. This thinking is important for things like getting the grammar and spelling right. Or making a clear and interesting paragraph or scene. Maybe even setting up for the next scene. This kind of thinking is very similar to what a programmer does when he's in the code. It's vital, but this thinking is subject to tunnel vision. It's subject to missing the forest for the trees.

At some point you have to think about your work as a whole. A haiku or a vignette can generally be seen as a whole while you're writing. But longer works like novels cannot be seen as a whole without a higher level of abstraction.

You have to think about your work as a whole, because if you don't you won't know what to do if you hit the wall. Gentle reader, you may have never hit the wall. Good for you. I distinctly recall the time when I was about 60% done with my first novel. And I got stuck. I'd written myself into a corner and I could see no way out.

When that happened to me I consulted the notes that I had taken when I had thought through the novel as a whole before I ever started writing. These written notes showed me where I'd deviated from my originally intended story arc. They showed me where the story was going. Seeing this, and thinking at this higher level of abstraction, I could see how to modify my notes to get from where I had written to where I had to go.

In software development they talk about pseudocode, where you describe things at a higher level of abstraction so you can clarify your intent. In movies, they have storyboards, where the script is abstracted to a comic book representation. In your writing project, you need to think at a sufficiently high level of abstraction to take in the work as a whole. When you think at this level you'll see problems that you can solve at this level.

Those "notes" you mentioned; they were an outline weren't they!

Yes, they were. And if you're insistent upon not outlining, then don't. Make your notes in the way that's most effective for you.

Perhaps as a synopsis. You'll need a synopsis sooner or later, why not sooner? Or better, why not write a Product Description. Look at any book you might buy on Amazon. What you will see in every one of the 101,501 works available for purchase is a Product Description. That Product Description is what will move me to buy the work or move on. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Finding TimeThe Amazon Product Description should be an accurate seen-as-a-whole representation of your writing project. You can examine it to decide whether it works or not. If you write it before you start your novel, you can show your friends or folks from your target market and ask whether they would buy it or not. As you write and you discover the work needs to go somewhere else, you can revise the Product Description. Later, when your work is finished and you shop around your work to some agent or editor, Or Better when you put it up on Amazon, it will be a polished gem.

If you have a Product Description that works, when you hit the wall, it won't be at 10,000 feet, because you've already thought things through at that level. If you've thought the work through in a more detailed, thorough manner, you will have solved more problems up front. If you're lucky, you'll find you hit the wall at 6 inches and you haven't even dented your trike.

Oh, and if you'd like to see a larger version of the penultimate image, you can find it here.

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