As promised a long time ago, here’s the final part of my notes from From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler.
As I mentioned before, Butler advocates a process of “dreaming” your novel, scene by scene. Here’s the process as he describes it:
Phase 1: Start with the characters. Get to know them. Spend a lot of time pondering them, daydreaming about them. Intuit their yearnings. Attach them to a milieu, a circumstance, an external moment, an event to block that yearning.
Phase 2: The dreaming. Dreamstorm potential scenes for these characters with these yearnings. Float all over—beginning, middle, end. Don’t try to stay in order at all. Have a notebook in hand and make a list (6-10 words each) of potential scenes. “Don’t hesitate to put something down, as long asit’s coming with a sensual hook.” Every scene you list must have come with some—it can be very faint/fragmentary—sensual hook.” RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO WRITE OUT THE SCENE AT THIS POINT. ONLY identify. Example: “John ponders his digging trowel.”
It’s fine if one scene leads to another. Write that down and follow to the next one. But NEVER pus it; never try to find what goes next.
For 6-12 weeks, do nothing else. Do NOT try to dramatize, structure or manipulate scens. Don’t try to reconcile contradictory scenes. Don’t ever think about continuity. “Embrace the seeming randomness.”
Finally, you will run down and feel done (150-300 scenes).
Phase 3: Organizing.
Put each identifying phrase (each scene) in the middle of a 3x5 card.
Next day: go into dream state. Flip through cards imagining scenes. You’re looking for the first scene of your book. When you find it, put it on the top left of table surface. Continue. You might get eight in a row. Bind them.
Next day: flip through first eight. Then continue.
When/if you come to a gap, dream up some scenes to go in there.
A lot of scenes you have dreamed won’t make it into your novel.
You can do research for sense details, images, etc. Write them on cards as you get them, to be inserted into sequence later.
Phase 4: Writing.
Start with first card. Go into dream state. Visualize the scene. Write it. You might see/dream something different than you thought of before. You might need to go back to remaining cards and rearrange them.
Another way is ordering only 8 cards at a time (Phase 3), then writing them, then ordering the next 8.
In short stories, the dreamstorming is different because there are fewer scenes. Each working part (your card) might be a scene, an image, a detail, a beat of dialogue.
What should be said at the beginning of any literature course: “What we’re going to do this semester is a purely secondary and artificial thing. We are going to do that in order to tune up the instrument inside you which thrums. We’re going to add some new strings in the upper and lower registers. We’re going to tune up all the strings, so that after you’ve taken the course, when you encounter a work of art, you will thrum to it more harmoniously and completely.”