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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Blending Both From the Very Beginning

Blending Your Perspective

Blending Your Perspective

By Rosanne Bane

The most promising way I found to blend outlining with drafting is a technique that Robert Olen Butler describes in From Where You Dream. The best part about Butler’s approach is that you start blending from the very beginning, not after you’ve drafted hundreds of pages in multiple drafts or after you’ve drained the imaginative life out of a manuscript by overanalyzing and outlining it down to the minutest detail.  

Butler’s recommendation is that you start with the imagination, with what he calls “dreamstorming.” He suggests, “You’re going to sit or recline in your writing space in your trance, and you’re going to free-float, free-associate, sit with your character, watch your character move around in the potential world of this novel.” 

Note: I’ve used this technique to start another novel and to complete a novella, which I completed surprisingly quickly. Students in my Entering the Flow class have used it for novels, short stories, screenplays, memoir, even poetry. I suspect the approach could work for essays and other types of nonfiction with a bit of tweaking. The important thing is that you’re relying on your imagination, but you aren’t drafting yet. 

Butler suggests you let your imagination take you all over the novel (or whatever you’re writing), beginning, middle and end and in no particular order  yet. You just letting scenes unfold in your imagination. He uses a legal pad to keep notes; I use index cards.

Senses First and Foremost

Butler is specific about what you write about the scenes: “You’re going to write down six or eight or ten words, not many more, that represent a potential scene. Just identifiers of scenes. Don’t hesitate to put something down as long as it’s coming with a sensual hook… it can be very faint, very fragmentary, but some sensual, concrete hook. A little vision of something, a little smell or taste of something, a little sound of something.”

For example, on one of my scene cards I wrote: “She smells bacon in the hallway and knows it’s a hallucination.”

For weeks, you go into the writer’s trance and let scenes unfold in your imagination, but, Butler stresses, “you do nothing – and I emphasize nothing – to try to organize, structure or otherwise manipulate these scenes. You do not even try to reconcile totally contradictory scenes.”

Structuring and Drafting Second

When you’ve recorded scenes for several weeks and when you have most of the scenes you’ll need, you transfer those scene identifiers with their sensory hooks onto index cards. (I work with index cards from the very beginning to skip this step.)

You go into the writer’s trance and read through the pile of cards, looking for the best scene to start the manuscript with. This card goes in the upper left hand corner of a table.  Then you flip through the cards again to find the next scene and the next and put them in order on the table. You use the cards to structure the novel.

Then you start drafting, using the cards as your starting point for each scene.

More Imaginative than an Outline, More Flexible than a Draft, and Faster than a Speeding Bullet

What’s the difference between cards and an outline? The cards originate in your imagination and they focus on something sensory; an outline relies on analysis and logic before you’ve discovered what the imagination has to offer.

When you lay out the cards, you’ll probably have cards leftover that you won’t use and find you need to add a few more cards. The key is to first imagine and dreamstorm, then structure and organize, then draft, and repeat.

What’s the difference between writing scene cards and drafting your way through? You have to draft eventually, why not just start drafting right away? Because you don’t want to lock yourself into drafting (and falling in love with) scenes before you know how they fit into the overall structure. Refraining from drafting too soon keeps the writing flexible.

When you do start drafting from the cards, you may discover that something changes and you need to add a few scenes you hadn’t planned. When you go back to the cards after adding those unplanned scenes, the cards no longer fit the way you thought they would. So you go back into your trance and rearrange the cards. Butler calls this “rewriting your book structurally.”

Bringing Both Brains Onboard

You’re not relying exclusively on your intuitive brain; you use the cards to bring order to what you imagined, and you do this before you trap yourself in a manuscript so big and unwieldy that you’re unwilling or unable to rewrite and revise. You’re not relying exclusively on your rational brain because you create the cards from the imagination before you look for the logical structure. You’re blending both abilities in a surprisingly effective way.

The biggest challenge I’ve found is in that phrase that Butler tosses off as if it’s no big deal: “you go into your writer’s trance.” So many writers don’t know quite how to do that or find that they can do it sometimes, but not predictably. That’s why I teach the Entering the Flow class – to show writers how to enter the trance intentionally and to give us all a place to practice being and working in the writer’s trance  in the company of other writers.

So what do you think about Butler’s approach? Have you tried it or something similar?

Are you resistant to trying it? What problems do you anticipate? Personally, I was worried I wouldn’t remember what I was thinking of when I went back to a scene card I’ve written months ago, that I’d lose the spark of inspiration. I’m happy to report that I was able to draft entire scenes from the few words on each card, as long as the card had a sensory trigger, not just an idea.

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5 Comments on “Blending Both From the Very Beginning”

  1. Linda January 11, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    I’m trying to use Butler’s dreamstorming process and I have a question: are you supposed to create the entire scene in your head while you dreamstorm, or do you just let come what comes, and worry about actually completing it when you write it? I’m not sure if just a nugget will do, or if I should be “dreaming” the entire scene. Thanks!


    • rosannebane January 18, 2010 at 11:18 am #

      I let the scene unfold in my imagaination as fully and completely as I can while I’m dreamstorming. I used to worry that I’d lose essential details by writing down just a few key words of the ‘sensory hook’ but I’ve learned that the sensory hook is enough to later evoke most of the scene as vividly or better when I’m drafting. I often dreamstorm the same scene a couple of different ways and create cards for each version. By the time I draft the scene, I think my subconscious has really developed the scene.
      Please keep me posted about how dreamstorming works for you!



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