Tags: plotting

Conversations with Oneself

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: May 31, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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conversations with oneself-talk bubbleWhat do you know? I was using a writerly tool beloved by some top writers without knowing I was part of a tradition. You yourself may be using this tool too. Or you can consider adopting it, if it suits your style.

When discussing outlining in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell notes an alternative to the traditional outline. He got the idea from David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing.  Morrell, in his turn, got the idea from an interview with Harold Robbins, who got it from… OK, that I don’t know.

What is the tool? Conversations with oneself.  Written conversations.

Per Bell in Plot & Structure (p. 154; see also pp. 165-66), this is what David Morrell does.

“He likes to start a free-form letter to himself as the subject takes shape in his mind. He’ll add to it daily, letting the thing grow in whatever direction his mind takes him. What this method does is mine rich ore in the subconscious and imagination, yielding deeper story structure.”

In The Successful Novelist’s “Lesson 2, Getting Focused,” Morrell describes how most writers get started on their story. They talk with friends, their subconscious working as the story gains focus. Then they put these ideas in a dull outline. Then maybe they lose interest—or forget what got them excited about the story in the first place.

“What’s to be done?” Morrell asks on page 17. “For starters, let’s identify the inadequacies of the process I just described. One limitation would be that a plot outline puts too much emphasis on the surface of events and not enough on their thematic and emotional significance. As a consequence, the book that results from the outline sometimes feels thin and mechanical. Another limitation would be that an outline doesn’t provide a step-by-step record of the psychological process that you went through to work out the story. It only documents the final result. As a consequence, if you become too familiar with the story and lose interest in it, you have difficulty re-creating the initial enthusiasm. Still a further problem relates to those conversations you had with your friends or your significant other. Hemingway insisted that a writer shouldn’t talk about a story before it was written. He felt that too many good ideas ended in the air rather than on the page and, worse, that the emotional release of talking about a story took away the pressure of needing to write it. — Writing. That’s the point. While all this thinking and talking has been going on, not a lot of writing has been accomplished. But a writer, like a concert pianist, has to keep in daily practice.”

Though I, in the last couple of years, have started having occasional, judicious conversations about my novels with the Scrivas, all along, my main place to consider story ideas is a document I titled “Thoughts While Writing.” Every time I sit down to write, besides the appropriate story chapter, I open too “Thoughts While Writing.” I use this multi-part document (I start a new file when one gets too long) in many ways.

I prime myself by jotting down what I did before sitting down to write, or what I’ll do when I finish. I record plot developments to remember for later parts of the story line. I try bits of dialogue. I pray—for wisdom, inspiration, persistence. I debate the merits of new ideas, finding holes I need to plug in and stumbling across wonderful connections. I color-code the main threads I’m weaving through my novel. Everything that goes on in my mind related to my story gets written down as it comes. It’s not lost. It’s stored, ready, available. With apologies to J. K. Rowling, it’s like my own personal Pensieve.

Of course, these written conversations don’t require a computer. They can take place just as well in a notebook. Some writers have a general writing notebook storing all idea nuggets that work their way up from their subconscious, ideas for all current and possible stories. It seems to me, though, that for full benefits of Morrell’s idea, one notebook should  be dedicated to the conversations a writer is having with himself about one particular book.

So try it. Take it from me—or from James Scott Bell, David Morrell, Harold Robbins… Hold some conversations with yourself. Write them down. They’ll be useful in many ways later.


-Sabina I. Rascol


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