Notes Toward an Architecture of Writing

I have 60+ pages written of the first draft of my novel manuscript. These past couple of weeks have been great. I’m writing six pages a day with about two days off a week. I can see some pretty big holes in my writing: undeveloped characters, elements of the setting not clear, and some plot points need work. But I have an entire year to re-write, edit, and rework it. Also, I will have two writing groups to bring it to in the Fall.

So for now I’m focusing on getting a completed first draft. I have about three more weeks until the Summer Writing Program to get it done. That’s plenty of time.

Here is an excerpt from my final paper in my Notes on Architecture class where I review the process I’d gone through last semester towards beginning the work on this novel.

I used eight steps of problem solving that I learned as an engineering student. I did not consciously begin by initiating these steps. When I examined what I had learned throughout the semester and how it connected with architecture I came across these steps once again and recognized their form in how I approached writing. The eight steps of the process are (http://fie.engrng.pitt.edu/fie95/3a5/3a54/3a54.htm):

  1. Recognize the Need
  2. Accept the Challenge
  3. Define the Problem
  4. Collect Information
  5. Synthesize & Ideate
  6. Analyze & Optimize
  7. Evaluate
  8. Implement

Last semester I recognized the need to write a longer work. I want to get my writing into as many hands (minds & souls) as possible. Writing a novel manuscript will be helpful towards getting published. I also felt that I had a longer story to tell. I have something I want to express that needs a longer form.

After writing a short story of thirty pages, longer than I had ever previously written, I also came to believe I was capable of writing a novel. I talked with people about my intention and devoted time and energy to it. I accepted the challenge.

The third step in the process is to Define the Problem. At the beginning of the semester we were given the question: What is this space for? ? In class and out of class I did free writes around this question. I brainstormed lists of themes I wanted to write about. I imagined potential readers of the work. These activities helped me to understand what it was I wanted to do with the writing. I defined the problem as How do I write a work that will represent these themes? ?

Then I began reading. I was Collecting Information on longer works. I read novels over a wide range. Among the thirty or so books I read were classic and modern literature, adventure books, trashy romance novels, lesbian pulp fiction from the 1950’s, science fiction, westerns, mysteries, as well as the urban fiction which most resembles my own writing.

Instead of reading each book in its entirety, I started at the beginning. I read the first 25-45 pages of each book. Within the first forty pages or so of each book there was a beginning ?, a place where I, as the reader, more or less had a grasp of the characters and the conflicts in the story. This recognition was part of the Synthesize & Ideate step of the problem solving process.

Although problem solving can be expressed as a series of eight steps the progression is not strictly linear. The process is iterative and loops back to previous steps repeatedly. With the information I had collected, I returned to the previous step of defining the problem.

I already had several characters in mind for the story that embodied the themes I wanted to write about. My new working definition of the problem became: How do I write a long story with these characters? ? I wrote character sketches and monologues. I wrote scenes with the characters so that I could understand them and understand how to write them. I brainstormed lists of character traits, of goals, and of conflicts they might face. Meanwhile, I began reading a psychological case study of a young boy who had runaway from home and a sociological report on the relationship between suicide and homosexuality. These were themes that concerned my writing.

Continuing with the Synthesize & Ideate step, I came up with rough plot outlines based on the characters, their goals, and conflicts they face. At this time I have three main characters that I am referring to as Boy, Josie, and City. The plot outlines identify scenes that progress the plot based on my understanding of the characters. When I begin writing (the Implement step), I will be able to refer to the outlines as a place to start.

The next step was to Analyze & Optimize. This is what I am doing now as I prepare this paper. My intention is to write the first draft of a novel in the next four weeks. If I write six pages a day towards that goal I will have 120 pages before the Summer Writing Program. To facilitate the writing process I am creating outlines that are detailed down to the scene level. For example, one of the scene bullets in the outline is Boy stops a fight on the train ? and another is Boy stays at Dex’s where another street kid sells sex for a can of ravioli ?. The scene bullets are notes and starting points for me.

When I’m in the act of writing the scene I do not know exactly where the scene will go. I do not know what is going to happen at the end because the outline is unfinished. The outline is a set of cartoon train tracks that appear just in front of the train and disappear just after. The outline’s function is not to pre-determine my writing, but to provide a jumping off point and a space for the work of writing a longer story.

The next to last step in the problem solving process is to Evaluate, which requires me to have something to base my evaluation on. In Brain of the Earth’s Body, Donald Preziosi briefly discusses the tripartite system of sign types from Charles Sanders Peirce: index, symbol, and icon. He adds to this system a fourth sign type, artifice, based on conversations with Roman Jackobson. To help me understand what I want my writing to do and how I want my writing to be, I investigated these sign types. (Represent!: April 16, 2006)

Having a starting point for scenes will free me from plot concerns while I am writing so that I can focus on the emotion of the scene. For example, when I am writing the scene Boy stops a fight on the train ? I can focus on the train and the fight without being concerned with how Boy will meet the other main character in the next scene. When I have written shorter works I was able to keep the plot outline in my head and did not need to specifically articulate it before writing, but for a longer work I want to have something I can turn to. Being able to let go of the plot and focus on the emotion of the scene will facilitate writing that expresses my life and in which a reader will hear her own experience.

There have been uncanny moments in my life that I’ve been able to predict the actions of others based solely on the intuitive understanding that it’s what would come next. ? I’ve based these plot outlines on my understanding of the characters and situations. As I write I will continue to revise the plot outlines, for example by adding new characters or scenes, but I trust that what I have represents my best effort.

I was not initially aware of following these eight steps as I approached this issue of writing a longer work. But having recognized them I can fine-tune my approach to this process. The value of being aware of these problem solving steps is that the process can be improved and made more effective. I am still revisiting previous steps and collecting information, analyzing & optimizing, and re-defining the problem. In fact, I return to the first two steps of recognizing the need and accepting the challenge even as I begin to implement and write.

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