Plots and Process and Samuel R. Delany

Many years ago, in fact while a student in the Clarion Writers program at MSU, I read an essay by Samuel R. Delany in a book edited by Robin Scott Wilson and entitled THOSE WHO CAN: A Science Fiction Reader. Delany had been given the assignment of writing about the topic of Plot. Immediately and unapologetically, he explained that he distrusted the term (and most of those, like “Character” and “Theme”, that headed the other sections of the book) because it and they reflected a perspective on writing that was the reader’s, not the writer’s. Discussing and analyzing plot as is usually done in writing books and classes was, he explained, akin to describing for someone how to make a movie by studying film reviews. So instead he described what the process of writing looked and felt like to him. As it happens, what he described then is very much how the writing process still feels to me today.

To borrow a bit more from Mr. Delany, it is a process of envisioning events vaguely in my mind’s theater, and then writing down what I see/experience. The specific things I write in the current sentence will cast the next things–nouns and verbs, images and actions–(and sometimes those that came before) more clearly, and I will write the next sentence, pushing the action along, and to the next and the next. The critical thing in this process is to notate as precisely as possible the details I see. Any interference from the alert brain–the one engaged with the external world, my cup of coffee, notebook, telephone–will almost surely skew this. The process is the literary equivalent of the “Raw” setting in a digital SLR camera. You can haul your picture into an image editing program later and do almost anything you want to it, but first you have to capture the sharpest, brightest, most correct image in the first place.

The same is true with your words and images. You want the sharpest ones, the ones that allow, if not force, the reader to see more than is being described, to sense more than they’re being told (and hence that well-worn term ‘telling details’). Anything that gets in the way of precise notation, as I say, skews things. Sometimes you’ll realize this immediately. Sometimes you’ll write pages and pages before you realize you’ve screwed up. I’ve done both, and the latter is a lot less entertaining.

The hardest thing in writing is probably delivering clear correct notation.

I used to insist on absolute silence in order to write. Then I started writing in coffee bars. There are two within easy walking distance of my house, which was a dangerous idea on somebody’s part. Dangerous for me, anyway. I’ve discovered since I began frequenting these places that quite often the ambient noise will cause me to focus more tightly upon the work in progress. This surprised me when it first happened. Then I read a biography of the late Preston Sturges. It seems he used his Hollywood money to buy a nightclub in LA, where he had a table permanently reserved for himself. He would show up nights with a manuscript and work away at the script in progress despite all of the screaming and laughing and shouting going on around him. I’m guessing the noise acted as a focusing device for him, too. Now, I’m not advocating coffee shops (much less night clubs) for everyone, but I’m saying that sometimes what you expect to be a problem turns out to be a solution, and process… well, process is just plain weird.

There are people like Fredrick Forsythe who’ll spend 18 months on an outline for a book, or like Jeffrey Deaver who’ll write 200 pages of outline before starting in, and will as a result spend far less time with the actual writing as a result. I think Forsythe spent something like 3 months in the actual writing of “Day of the Jackal” after all that preparation. Then there are those like Delany and me (I do so like the company I’m keeping here) who do not begin with a solid outline or synopsis, but with an image, an idea. Like Raymond Carver, who would simply write a first sentence that intrigued him and then follow it to the end of the story, a method that sounds utterly mystical to the outlining crowd. As Delany notes, great fiction has been written via both processes, and both processes have produced pure garbage. The approach–the way you get to the page–is as individual as you are, and you will sooner or later find the necessary one for the thing you’re writing (and, yes, as horrifying as it sounds, the shape of the process can shift from book to book). But once at the page with whatever material you’ve brought with you, the notation process–the need for precision and specificity in putting down what you see–is universal. Write a sentence like “Sara moved quickly out of the room” and you have failed to notate anything at all. Your reader will have to do it for you. That example comes from a friend of mine and terrific writer, Janine Latus, who uses it in teaching nonfiction writing. Take that sentence now and replace the thoroughly useless verb and its desperate adverb with a real verb. The correct one all comes down to context. Let’s say Sara is leaving a room where she has just slapped her boyfriend. What verbs work? Pick a couple. Now, pick two if she’s exiting the room because she’s discovered there’s someone hiding in the closet beside the door. How do you see her leaving? Now find one to replace her ‘moving’ if her long-lost lover is waiting for her outside. And so forth. Pick the context and the action changes. You should then be able to present the sentence without the context and have the reader able to suss something close to the situation.

Accurate notation is the means whereby you invite the reader to share the movie running in your head. To do that, you have to envision it right. There are no shortcuts, at least none that will do anything but damage your work. Sloppy verbs and overworked adjectives aren’t going to do the job.

So to relate this all to the process of revision: When you’re revising your fiction, watch for those dead and shored-up verbs. Read through your manuscript and circle everywhere you have someone “move”. Then close your eyes and find the word that tells the reader what they’re *really* doing. Your work will be so much stronger for having rendered it more accurately.

And finally, one more point of Delany’s that I find endlessly fascinating: The act of accurately writing down what you see in your mind transforms that vision completely. Like the notion that by observing an experiment you affect the experiment, so too the act of writing down the imagined events changes them forever. To me that’s just part of the fun.

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  1. 1. Simon Haynes

    I didn’t outline my first novel – in fact, I didn’t know it WAS a novel until I hit 25,000 words. That one took me over six years to write, on and off, and I was still editing it 10 years after writing the first word.

    My second and third novels took me 18 months and 8 months respectively, with rough outlines. Each was completely rewritten before publication.

    My fourth was comprehensively outlined but I diverged from the plot after a couple of chapters. The further I got the less I was using it, so in the end I sat down and wrote a new outline, keeping the material I already had for my next book.

    I do prefer to write organically, jotting down wacky ideas and linking them into a book-like shape by trial and error, but I can’t write to a fixed deadline using that method. Once published, outlines became a necessary evil.

  2. 2. Oz Drummond

    I’m especially interested in the comments that the process of writing changes the internal vision. That rings true for me. The moment I try to make my artistic vision concrete, it’s different. The very nebulous nature of the idea, the chasing of it, the process, it all changes what’s on the page.

    But the one thing I find frustrating in that is that as my mood changes, so does what I’m writing. While you write of the distraction of everyday ambient noise, you do not mention the ambient emotional noise. While it’s appropriate for me to filter my experience of the world through my writing, it seems to mutate the vision before I can finish the draft. I can’t write the notation fast enough. And if my mood shifts again, there goes the notation. In those situations I find an outline I wrote earlier helps me remember what I was trying to say in the first place.

  3. 3. retterson

    I’m finding it hard — as a child of television — to stop writing the movie in my head. I’m not writing a script; I’m telling a story. I find a lot of aspiring writers who do this and the result is gawdawful. You can almost feel the author’s nervous concern that they move all their characters across the screen: he moved here and she sat there.

    There are great differences between narrative on screen and narrative prose.

    It’s just too easy to write it the way one would “see” but, truly, the best writers don’t do it that way. They use words, not to form pictures in your head, but to induce a trance state that taps into a wholly different processing center of the brain. They tell a story that speaks to some primal instinct within.

    (NB: I gather you know the difference and only used the movie-in-head analogy as short-hand for your internal process.)

    I think it’s essential for anyone wanting to write stories to understand that it’s not just a matter of writing the movie they would see. It’s a matter of finding a narrative flow — a cadence of words, a sequence of action, etc. — that incites the reader to turn the page and keep turning as an autonomic response to a trance state.

  4. 4. Gregory Frost

    That’s a very good point. And I’ll borrow from Delany one more time to concur with you: Writing isn’t about what you see in your head as the author. It’s about what you cause to happen in the mind of the reader. And a lot of it, it seems to me, is learning what you can and can’t cause to happen. As with your television analogy. A lot of what you can cause in a screenplay, you cannot do in a short story. But in any case, just moving the characters about like chess pawns on a board isn’t getting at it at all.

  5. 5. Chip Delany

    Dear Greg,
    Thanks so much for citing my essay on “Thickening the Plot” from back in the seventies. I’ve had a couple of thoughts on the topic since then, and they may be useful. When I wrote the piece, the country had been “televisionized” for only about twenty-five years. As someone sixty-five today, I had probably read a hundred or so books before, at age ten, I saw my first TV show (Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, at my friend Robert’s house). I’d had a chance to start the process of absorbing the various models for narrative from written texts, many of them books specifically for the young–Freddy the Pig, Doctor Dolittle, The Wind and the Willows, The Hardy Boys, The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, The Door into Summer and The Rolling Stones. That’s not how the process has likely worked, however, with anyone under fifty. While our young writers may eventually get to read all these books and many others, they start the process of learning what a narative is from television and–often–from films on television.
    This one reason why recently I have been stressing the importance of the internalization of the proper models, as I do in my recent book ABOUT WRITING. While it includes the essay you so generously discuss, it puts it in the context of a discussion of model absorbtion–and specifically model absorbtion from written sources. What is made (and what you cite) as a small point in that essay is now much more important, with the growth of the visual media. Written stories do things that film and TV don’t do, don’t do very well, or can’t do.
    By the way, though I didn’t mention it in that essay (because, in the mid seventies, I didn’t think I needed to), I’ve always been an outliner. There are things that structure –the over arching modular structure of a novel–can bring off
    that no amount of “showing not telling” can accomplish.
    When, after reading four-hundred pages of Henry James’s Wings of the Dove, Kate Croy turned to Merton Denscher and, to his question, “Why can’t we be as we were?” answered:
    “As we were? We can never again be as we were,” I practically fell off my kitchen chair, had to get a class of ice water, and generally calm myself down, because I was so deeply shaken.
    Though, forty years later, someone made a very good movie of the book, it did not have the same effect.

    That’s structure at work.

Author Information

Gregory Frost

Gregory Frost's latest book is LORD TOPHET, the second volume of the SHADOWBRIDGE duology from Del Rey (Random House). Fantasy Book Critic calls Lord Tophet "a richly rewarding experience, it is also one of the few must-read fantasies of the year." And Paul Witcover says of the tale ""His pages bristle with the kind of lively energy I associate with Miyazaki films, and his delight in the stories his characters hear and transform and retell is palpable and contagious." His short story collection, ATTACK OF THE JAZZ GIANTS & OTHER STORIES (Golden Gryphon Press) was hailed by Locus as "a notable collection, likely to stand as one of the best of 2005" and Publisher's Weekly once again,in a starred review(*), went even further in saying, "Frost demonstrates his mastery of the short story form in what will surely rank as one of the best fantasy collections of the year." Recent short fiction can be found in the anthology POE, edited by Ellen Datlow, and upcoming in URBAN WEREWOLVES, edited by Darrell Schweitzer. Visit his website for excerpts, publishing info and appearance dates. He blogs here and here. More on Shadowbridge here. Visit site.

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