Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Four-Window Method

During the course of the past few days I've had the pleasure of chatting with a goodly number of writers. It's been good for my soul to talk shop with knowledgeable peers. But one question that invariably cropped up concerned my method of writing. How did I prepare my drafts? And as I explained it, curious looks would blossom over the visages of my brother-and-sister scribes.

Apparently, my method is just a little odd.

Here are the mundane bits: I write on a laptop, a very austere Dell with no bells, whistles, or Internet access, and use two four-gig USB drives to back up my files (one in a fire safe, one on my person); I use Microsoft Word exclusively -- I've never found any need for a specialized "writing program", especially when you're just going to export your work to Word for publishers, anyway. Lately, I've not been able to put in desk-time every day, but when I do I write for at least four hours, usually in the mornings. Afternoons are reserved for PR or editing, and evenings belong to my wife.

Where I go askew is with the process of composition. I write one scene at a time, but in four Word windows. One window for dialogue, one for exposition, a third for bits of description or color or notes to myself (sometimes that third window will also contain a brief synopsis of the scene I'm working on), and the last window is where I assemble the draft. So, using the prologue for THE LION OF CAIRO as an example, the contents of first window would look something like this:

*That . . . that b-blade!
Yes! You feel it, do you not? It is the Hammer of the Infidel, and none can stand before it! What is your name, dog?
*Assad.
The Hammer of the Infidel kills before ever the final blow is struck! Even the gentlest caress of the blade strips a man’s resolve from him to leave him naked and trembling at the edge of the Abyss! Assad, eh? My brothers will know the name of the fool who thought to challenge the chief of the Afridis!
*A fine trick, since your brothers are already in Hell!

In this window, I use an asterisk to identify my POV character . . . in this instance the protagonist, Assad. I read the dialogue aloud to myself, tweaking inflection and wording to make sure I'm saying exactly what the plot needs me to say -- I try to remember the dictum that every word of dialogue should advance the plot or the characters.

In the second window I start drawing the scene with words . . . and it looks really disjointed:

Baber Khan ran a thumb and forefinger along the edge of his salawar, collecting the Assassin’s blood. His grim smile widened as he licked his fingers clean.

Assad sat with his head bowed, oblivious to the blood dripping down his lacerated cheek. The knuckles of his right fist were white where he gripped the hilt-shard of his saber. My birthright. His lips writhed, nostrils flaring as he fought off the fearful paralysis induced by that devil-haunted blade by focusing on the broken steel before him. My father’s saber!

Baber Khan laughed. He stepped closer and raised his salawar, its tip poised for a killing blow.

Assad glanced up. Before the Afridi chief could react, the Assassin exploded with the unexpected desperation of a wounded lion. He launched himself at Baber Khan, drove the hilt-shard gripped in his right fist into the Afghan’s groin. Blood spurted and steamed as his ferocious bellow turned to a shriek. The jagged length of blade bit deep; Assad sawed upward, ripping Baber Khan’s belly open to the navel.

The thing that makes this work for me is this: I know what's going on, who is saying what and to whom. Action, to me, should be as choreographed as a ballet, with each participant reacting to the other in a realistic fashion, as skill, training, and personality dictate.

The third window in this instance is fairly sparse, with a few notes to myself:

Assad is younger; show him as impetuous.
Kurram, per REH, is the village of the Afridis.
Look to Frost Giant's Daughter for inspiration -- battle in the snow, hot breath in cold air, pale sunlight.

And finally, once I have the elements of a scene to my liking, I open the fourth window and splice dialogue and exposition together. I polish as I go, sometimes going back to the drawing board if an element doesn't fit like I need it to. It's almost like I'm handcrafting the pieces to a puzzle, with only a sketch to go by.

Here's the finished version:

“That . . . that b-blade!”

“Yes! You feel it, do you not?” Baber Khan replied; he ran a thumb and forefinger along the edge of his salawar, collecting the Assassin’s blood. His grim smile widened as he licked his fingers clean. “It is the Hammer of the Infidel, and none can stand before it! What is your name, dog?”

“Assad,” the young Assassin replied. He sat with his head bowed, oblivious to the blood dripping down his lacerated cheek. The knuckles of his right fist were white where he gripped the hilt-shard of his saber. My birthright. His lips writhed, nostrils flaring as he fought off the fearful paralysis induced by that devil-haunted blade by focusing on the broken steel before him. My father’s saber!

“The Hammer of the Infidel kills before ever the final blow is struck! Even the gentlest caress of the blade strips a man’s resolve from him to leave him naked and trembling at the edge of the Abyss!” Baber Khan laughed. “Assad, eh? My brothers will know the name of the fool who thought to challenge the chief of the Afridis!” He stepped closer and raised his salawar, its tip poised for a killing blow.

“A fine trick,” Assad said, glancing up, “since your brothers are already in Hell!” The Assassin exploded with the unexpected desperation of a wounded lion. He launched himself at Baber Khan, drove the hilt-shard gripped in his right fist into the Afghan’s groin. Blood spurted and steamed as his ferocious bellow turned to a shriek. The jagged length of blade bit deep; Assad sawed upward, ripping Baber Khan’s belly open to the navel.


So, there you have it. The Four-Window method is a little more involved than simply writing scenes out, but it works for me. If you're a writer, too, do me a favor and post something about your own method of composition . . . use the comments section or, if you prefer, write your own blog post and send me a link!

6 comments:

zornhau said...

I'm one of the wannabes, and consequently have racked up hours of trawling published authors' websites to see how they do it. I'm almost 100% sure that you are in fact unique. (However Scrivener for Windows would support your method quite painlessly.)

Me, I tend to use Word for Windows in outline mode, outline down to beat level, then use a macro to remove the outline. Footnotes enable me to track decisions I made.

Tom said...

Interesting method, Scott. I would never have thought of dissecting the process like that. But it obviously works for you. :)

I posted my "method" on my own blog.

http://tomdoolan.blogspot.com/2010/12/how-i-write.html

Kristopher said...

I would suggest, for people not wanting to spend money on a fireproof safe, get a Gmail account and email your rough draft to yourself every chapter or so. Google operates parallel servers all over the world, so not only is your work accessible anywhere you have an internet connection, its safe from everything except nuclear war or zombie pandemic.

Scott said...

Scott, after reading about your writing process and thinking about it for a bit, I see it makes sense and also that to some degree I think most writers draw from the same toolsets, only I dare say many writers do not compartmentalize them in quite the same way, i.e., the use four Word windows to so strictly differentiate them. Many writers do use multiple mediums to compartmentalize though.
For instance, I may think about a story, a scene, or chapter, for several days before I actually sit down to write it, turning it over in my mind at odd moments of the day. And during that period of time I tend to also occasionally jot down a number of very spare notes to myself (in my Franklin). In the end these notes have contents very similar to your own note window. Oh I may also scribble down a turn of phrase or two that suggests a possible dialogue path, a characterization aspect or a plot development or turn, but only a very few words, just enough to jog my memory when I do find my way to a keyboard, just enough to point me in the right direction.
On longer works, I will think longer about the whole work and generate a fair body of notes, and eventually these notes will be organized and reorganized and fleshed out further and be used in the generation of a continuous flow outline the action, something that catches the arc and key points, but still sparingly.
But I am still puzzled a bit, I mean, just how stringent is your compartmentalization? What happens when you hit that writing stride and the words begin to flow? Do you really hop from window to window, tossing dialogue at one, description at another and so on, on the fly? I think I would find the pausing to shift from one window would simply break my flow, but perhaps the shifting could become a second nature thing given time.
So, you compartmentalize. Then you consolidate. Question: After you consolidate, how much do you re-write? I understand you may cut in changes and rewrite according to an editor's suggestion, but before you send something off to the editor in the first place, how much re-writing do you typically do before you are personally satisfied?
Learning how the writing tools/processes are arraigned and the sequence and manner in which they are used by various writers is ever fascinating, and think I shall never grow bored hearing or reading of it, but of greater fascination to me is both the perceived and actual role of the Premise of a work, its role both before and during in the writing of a tale. Are you one of those writers who determines and establishes that core element to yourself before you actually begin a work, is it a thing more felt intuitively, or is it something that forms itself as you work?
Scott H.

Stephen Taylor said...

- PHEW! Scott. I thought I was long winded but I can see the sense in what you do. You set out to get it right and it obviously works for you.

I too have several word documents open as I write, but they contain my conceptualisation notes, research notes, a repository of dialogue intros - i.e. he worked his mouth and spat a gob of spittle, and then said

I think yours is better

Mi Vida said...

this was so interesting and helpful, I'd never heard of this approach. Keep it up. I look forward to reading the book