A Writer’s View: Snowflaking, Agile, Philosophy

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr – and hey, think this should go on the Sanctum too?)

As mentioned earlier, The Snowflake Method really jumpstarted my return to writing with my new novel “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet.” It was a smart, mature take on writing that gelled both with my techniques and with Agile.

The basic idea is iteratively detailing your work. A story starts as a sentence, becomes a paragraph, becomes several paragraphs, and eventually becomes a scene-by-scene outline – or more. The author used to detail scenes out before writing them, but found it wasn’t necessary as he got good at this.

I felt most of the same way, but some scenes troubled me as I wrote them. Frustrated, I thought it over – and used the “Five Whys.”

  • WHY does this feel wrong? Because I don’t have a grasp of the scene – I’m stabbing at it.
  • WHY am I stabbing at it? Because I’m starting too ephemerally – yet when I write the scene it often surprises me with its depth.
  • WHY does it start ephemeral then get “deep”? Because I don’t start off with enough “gut” feel for it.
  • WHY don’t I have a gut feel for it? Because I’m diving in and not getting a feel for it.
  • WHY am I diving in and not getting a feel for it? Duh, I need to sort of “ease in” to this.

Once again the Five Whys comes through. I was diving into my scenes not “easing in” to them, so I’d start them without a good feel for them. The gentleman behind the Snowflake Method had long experience writing so didn’t need to detail his scenes; I’ve been writing for a long time, but was a bit rusty, so needed to “ease in” to a scene.

So now how do I ease in? Well, back to the Snowflake method and Agile.

The Snowflake method emphasizes starting small and general and expanding – just like good product design and good Agile planning. So what I did for scenes (at least when I felt disconnected) is the following.

For every scene as I prepare to write it:

  1. Sum the scene’s goal and viewpoint, and possibly a theme.
  2. Use that to create a single-sentence description. It might mean revising #1
  3. Once that sentence feels “right” write a paragraph of the scene.
  4. Once the paragraph feels “right” do an outline of all major events, in order, a sentence apiece.

What’s funny is this is what I used to do for short fiction. It had gotten kind of automatic in my writing and I think I forgot where it fit.

So once again the Five Whys, Agile, and the Snowflake method come through – however there’s more.

This has made me wonder, again, how much we can detail scenes and documents before writing them. A simpler fiction book or a general nonfiction book could probably be diagrammed to the paragraph level; something more complex, not so much. Some work requires you to get your hands dirty before you realize what’s really going on. I’m very curious what my writing will be like after this.

Then again you get to watch that process.

(Oh and if you need some other creative boosts, check out my book on Creative Paths!)

– Steve