Friday, February 19, 2010

Hiking Through A Quilted Garden: Metaphors For Writing Fiction by Kit Dunsmore

Photo by Dana Geary

Kit Dunsmore is a contemporary fantasy writer living in northern Colorado. She's currently working on a novel about a witch who tries to rescue her best friend from a necromancer without breaking her vow never to use harmful magic. You can find her at Kit's Home for Orphaned Armadillos.

KitOnTrail._crpd_smallMy first attempt at this post on how I write fiction talked about generating a series of drafts, grafting together the best of the material, and how much concentration each stage takes. It was boring. So I took a walk with my dog and tried to think of a metaphor for my writing process, something vivid and visual that would give depth to my dull description of draft writing.

Of course I couldn't think of one. I thought of three.

One for each stage of my writing process.

Writing a first draft of a scene or chapter is hiking into new territory. I go down a trail after looking at a map. I think I know where I'm going, and may have some idea of what there is to see along the way, like a lake or stream. But I really don't know what I'm going to encounter until I start walking. Then I discover all the little twists, muddy dips, tiny flowers, animal tracks, steep climbs, and unknown people the trail has to offer. I may turn off the path at any time to visit a tree or rock barely glimpsed through the leaves. I may go up a hill to see what's on the other side. Whether I'm hiking or writing, there's no telling if I'll find more of the same or something unexpected when I get there.

I've honed this exploratory method of draft writing for the last four Novembers by participating in National Novel Writing Month. Giving myself only 30 days to write 50,000 words has proven a great way to keep my feet moving. Desperate to hit my word count (1667 words a day), I will chase whatever shows up, whether it is a new idea for a scene or a character who has appeared out of nowhere. Anything goes. I try to ignore any thoughts I have about how stupid, crazy, or pointless something is and just run with it. After all, I'm dying to see what's on the other side of that hill, and there's only one satisfactory way I know to find out.

But hiking is only the beginning. After I've made my discoveries, good or bad, the time has come to pick through them and select the pieces that I think are most intriguing, most colorful, and stitch them together. Suddenly, I'm no longer hiking through the woods.

Now I'm quilting.

I take the pieces of draft writing I like best and turn them into a complete scene or chapter by stitching them together with more words. I’ve thought of it as stitching for years now. Sometimes the bits of draft I use are mere scraps – a sentence or two – so maybe that’s where the image comes from. Or maybe it’s the fact that I love what happens when I sew pieces of fabric together into something new and this stage of writing brings me that same joy. What looks like odd bits of fabric become a vibrant whole. Larger patterns begin to emerge, and yet each fabric contributes something unique. Making something greater, something new, from scraps is what the synthesis stage is all about for me.

Once the stitching is done, I have a whole piece, a block or a section of my fictional quilt. I step back to look at it anew, and think about its overall pattern and shape. And yet another shift happens. I am no longer sewing. Now I must weed and prune.

It's time to garden.

Editing can be brutal. Cutting out words, sentences, scenes can seem like slashing through vines in a jungle. But I prefer a more nurturing metaphor, that of a gardener who weeds and prunes for the good of the garden as a whole. An awkward limb can rub against other parts of a tree and damage it. Weeds can choke out the delicate flowers that are trying to grow next to them. But the good gardener steps in and lops off the limbs that are harming the tree, pulls up the weeds that are smothering the flowers.

And I think good editing is the same. I'm not slashing and destroying when I cut out a sentence or drop a scene. I'm shaping the whole, for the good of the whole, making the writing attractive, making room for better things to grow.

And what do I do when I put down my shears and take off my gardening gloves?

I start all over again.

I go hiking to discover new vistas to fill in the gaps in my story so that I can stitch them onto my existing quilt blocks and then prune away whatever is destructive or ugly. This cycle keeps repeating, and with each cycle, my draft improves, my story grows stronger, and I come closer to having written something that captures my imaginary world and the people who live there.

I really had hoped for a single metaphor to describe my writing process, but now I wonder why I thought that was possible. After all, nothing I know is quite like writing.

Thanks so much for guest posting today, Kit! I especially like your idea of the editing process being a nurturing one instead of a destructive one. That will make me feel better as I slash right and left. :)