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Plotting at the keyboard

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I mentioned to Mary Anne this afternoon that I pretty much can't plot (whether fiction or games) unless I'm sitting at the keyboard; when I try to do it in my head, I just go around and around in circles. (I think partly it's that starting to write down words somehow sparks my imagination, in a way that just thinking doesn't. And maybe partly it's that writing down the words gets them out of the way--I no longer have to hold them in my head--so I can move on to thinking about the next bit.)

Mary Anne said that she sometimes does some of her best plotting when she's not sitting at the computer.

So now I'm curious: what, if any, aspects of writing do y'all writer types need to do at the keyboard (and/or with a pen or pencil in hand), and what aspects can you do (and/or what aspects do you prefer to do) when you're not actually putting words on paper or on the screen?

Bearing in mind, of course, that there's no one right way to write, and that every writer's process is different, and that the goal here isn't to find out How It's Done but just to hear about different people's writing processes.

(My plotting at the keyboard this evening--for tomorrow's final session of the RPG--has been reasonably productive, but I still have a ways to go. But I'm too tired and headachey to keep going tonight, so my headache and I are going to go to bed, and I figured I'd stop and post a quick entry on the way.)

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To add a bit more detail -- usually, plotting at the keyboard is a bad plan for me, because I end up more confined by what's already on the page, if that makes any sense. I read and re-read what I've already written, and it gives too much influence to what I do next.

What works best (for entire short stories or for chapters of novels), is to be elsewhere -- in bed, or in the shower, or driving are all good. When I'm there, I usually can come up with a plot possibility or two, start laying it out in an arc, come up with some concrete dialogue for my characters. If I don't get to the last bit, the dialogue, then the whole thing is kind of useless -- it tends to just slip away. But if I do get to dialogue, then I'm golden -- when I sit down at the computer, the scene usually flows really fast. My best writing has always happened that way.


well, this is less about fiction plotting than about paper-writing, but I generally find that a combination is necessary. I frequently start out writing on the computer, and it's only the act of putting words on "paper" that really gets me thinking about what I want to say; but then I frequently have major breakthroughs when I'm just lying in bed or cooking or taking a walk or whatever, and thinking in a kind of amorphous unfocused way.


Tangentially, Joan Didion notes that she doesn't quite know what she is thinking until she writes.

Often true for me as well.


The seed of my stories have never come to me while sitting at the keyboard. I find walking alone (whether outdoors or on the treadmill) to be wonderfully fertile for my imagination, the kinetic equivalent of the wallpaper music that so many others seem to need to block out distractions. Walking seems to insulate and focus my thinking without cramping it. My stories tend to germinate as little islands of personalities and situations. On a good walk, they begin to snap together like puzzle pieces and then more ideas come until my short term memory overloads. I try not to walk more than 30 minutes without pen and paper in my pocket.

And yet I never get more than scaffolding during the walk, a frame on which to hang the story. The details and the flavor and the beating heart of it all doesn't happen until I put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard.


Neat and interesting; thanks, all! Further thoughts welcome, of course.

See also Peter's remark that he couldn't think without a pen in his hand.

...I'm reminded to mention that although I do almost all of my writing and editing on the computer (I almost never print anything out any more), if I'm writing a long story or document, there sometimes comes a time when I need to print it out because I can't keep the whole thing in my head any more. Sometimes just the act of printing it out seems to make something come unstuck, though; more than once, I've finally printed out a document, only to then sit down and work on it onscreen.


I'm particularly bad at having ideas while I'm sitting at the keyboard, enough that I am pleasantly surprised when I look back after an evening of writing and realize I had one. The pressure seems greater, more stifling, while I'm staring at the screen, so I'm usually engaged in whittling rather than carving, if that makes sense. My best thoughts have come to me either in the coffee shop, away from familiar surroundings and hopped up on caffeine and sugar, or lying in bed, between the moment when my internal critic falls asleep and the moment I do.


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