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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.

Dream the Ideal Balance of Outline and Draft

balance canstockphoto3567006The three previous posts highlight the importance of scouting your route without over-scouting it.

You want the benefits of knowing where you’re going so you don’t lay down tracks that keep leading you in the wrong direction without getting trapped in over-analysis, spending more time scouting than you do skiing/writing.

If you fail to scout, you can easily end up with hundreds of pages in multiple drafts that don’t go anywhere. But if you spend more time planning than you do writing, you can easily drain the imaginative life out a story with over-analysis and minutely detailed outlines.

How Do You Achieve this Perfect Balance?

In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler describes a method for finding this ideal scouting balance. He recommends you start with the imagination, with what he calls “dreamstorming.”

Butler 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.”

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 next session of the Entering the Flow class starts February 28.)

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 let scenes unfold in your imagination. He uses a legal pad to keep notes; I use index cards.

Senses First and Foremost

remember canstockphoto7070531Butler insists you focus on sensory details. “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 an 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 think 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 Creative 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 left over 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 because you refrain from setting tracks in the snow until the scene cards show you which route to take.

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.”

brain by mercedes benz 151835_15_0_MzQyOTE4OTQxLTUwNDcxNDUyOABringing 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.

But you don’t have to take just my word for it — our next post will be an encore appearance of “A Stack of Cards” where Susan Gaines Sevilla described her breakthrough experiences with Butler’s method.

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7 Comments on “Dream the Ideal Balance of Outline and Draft”

  1. Joel D Canfield January 31, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    This is so helpful. I need to do a better job before I start writing. Too much seat of the pants has given me far more rewriting work than would be necessary if I just scouted the slopes first.



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