Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Playing solitaire with ideas

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Yesterday, I spoke briefly about how Walter Murch, editor of Cold Mountain and longtime collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, had to cope with the loss of providential randomness that occurred when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Final Cut Pro. Over time, Murch has developed a number of ways of dealing with the situation, including detailed script notes, picture boards, and handwritten scene cards. And in an elegant instance of convergent evolution, Murch’s tools of the trade, as an editor, are not so different from the tricks that most novelists utilize for similar reasons.

In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman gives as beautiful a description of the reasoning behind such tools as any I’ve ever encountered:

The scene cards, picture boards, and script notes are simple and uncomplicated. But they aren’t just different methods of cataloging. Like composer and printmaker John Cage’s throwing the I Ching to determine creative choices, these tools allow Murch to incorporate randomness into the edit process. If a scene isn’t working for some reason that isn’t readily apparent, a sideways glance at the picture boards might reveal a hiccup in the pattern of images that wasn’t obvious before. Let’s reshuffle the scene cards and see what color pattern emerges…But it requires forethought and effort to plan for the unplanned, to invite the unexpected, and to prepare these alternate tools for working on a film. [Italics mine.]

This last point is essential. It can take many hours, and a lot of planning, to be sufficiently random. Murch could prepare scene cards much more quickly on a computer program, but he prefers to do them by hand: “There is something appealing about the visual handcraftedness,” he says. “The personality of handwriting is more engaging to the eye, especially if I’m going to stare at them for a year and a half.” (Which is one reason why, as Jon Vagg recently pointed out in the comments, my own mind maps tend to look so weirdly calligraphic, until they almost become aesthetic objects in their own right.)

Scene cards, too, can be a useful tool for a novelist. Once I’ve generated ideas through a mind map or other method, the individual nuggets—which can be lines of dialogue, plot points, or fragments of action or description—usually end up on cards. (I used to use index cards, but I’ve since found old business cards, obtained from local merchants or friends changing jobs, to be a more convenient size.) Then, once I have enough cards, I play solitaire: the cards go on my desk, or on the floor, and I rearrange them until the outline of each section begins to take shape. And I’m not the only writer who does this. Nabokov, famously, wrote entire novels on index cards, and here’s Joseph Heller talking to The Paris Review:

I keep a small sheath of three-by-five cards in my billfold. If I think of a good sentence, I’ll write it down. It won’t be an idea (“have him visit a brothel in New Orleans”). What I put down is an actual line of intended text (“In the brothel in New Orleans was like the time in San Francisco”). Of course, when I come back to it, the line may change considerably. Occasionally there’s one that sings so perfectly the first time that it stays, like “My boy has stopped speaking to me and I don’t think I can bear it.” I wrote that down on a three-by-five card, perhaps on a bus, or after walking the dog. I store them in filing cabinets. The file on Something Happened is about four inches deep, the one on Catch-22 about the length of a shoe box.

In the end, the cards for Kamera, as pictured above, took up a couple of long boxes. For my most recent stories, like “Kawataro”—which I’ve just learned will be appearing in Analog in June 2011—I’ve been doing much of this organizational work on the computer, but for my next novel, I’m planning to return to the card system. It’s slower and more cumbersome, but as I’ve said before, writing things out by hand can generate ideas by itself. And, as Murch observes, handwritten cards are much easier to live with, especially if you’re going to be staring at them for a year of your life.

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