On Writing: The Architect and the Composer

A few weeks ago Conrad, from the blog A Side of Writing, asked me if I would do a guest post.  Well, shoot!  Someone’s interested in what I have to say?  

I started a great piece explaining my philosophy of life, my understanding of our purpose on this backwater rock, what I consider the nature of our existence, what “42” really means . . . but Conrad stopped me.  It turns out he just wanted a post about writing.

What the heck do I know about writing?  I mean, I write . . . but there are nearly 63 million blogs out there, and that’s just WordPress.  And each month, just on WordPress, there are 39 million posts (ref.).  That’s . . . each . . . month.  

“That’s a lot of writing, Bob.”

“I know.  So, Emilio . . . er . . . Disperser; what makes you qualified to express an opinion about writing?”

“Beats me, Bob.”

Edited to Add: I removed all the links because Side of Writing is no longer a valid site (a bit of a loss as there was a lot of stuff there). But, it also points to the advisability of ensuring your content is also not lost. Meaning, if you are doing a guest post on another blog, you should duplicate it on your own blog as I did below.

A Side of Writing itself has great references for writers.  Conrad shares his progress, plans, and efforts with his readers.  He also provides writing prompts (which I generally participate in).   And explores both the tools of writing and the structure of it.

And now, he’s providing the opportunity for people to express and share their experiences related to writing.  Even if they are engineers.  That man’s a saint.

Anyway, this was my guest post

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The Architect and the Composer

By E. J. D’Alise (Disperser)
Copyright March 2013

I am a “discovery writer”.  The short explanation for what that means: I begin with a vague idea, and I start writing without a clear-cut destination in mind.  

There is a lot written, spoken, and . . . no, that’s it; just written and spoken.

See what I did there?  I started something, was writing it out, and got side-tracked.  

Back on point, there is, in fact, a lot of stuff written about the two methods of creating works of fiction.  

Most of the material compares discovery writers versus outliners . . . outliners being them strange creatures who lay out the complete story, action, characters, bowel movements, etc. before they start fleshing it out.

While opinions abound, and while (whilst, for them British chaps) most of those opinions are by people with far stronger credentials than I will ever have, I will now go out on a limb with a bold statement.

Everyone is a discovery writer.

WHAT?”  you ask, wondering who this madman is, and why he is spewing nonsense.

Bear with me, and I will attempt to explain.  And remember, I’m making this stuff up as I go.  I know, I know . . . I should have made an outline.

Outliners are often described as writers who wake up with a whole novel splayed out in front of them.  They then proceed to jot down a summary, presumably so they don’t forget it later, when he, or she, write their manuscript.

In actuality, everyone is making up cra . . . er . . . brilliant stories, working out scenes, characters, and chapters, as they go.

The difference is in how one arrives at the finished product.  One is a lot like an architect, and the other is a lot like a composer.

An architect will get an idea for a living space.  Out comes a straight edge, paper, and pencil – these days it’s a CAD package, but bear with me – and he proceeds to rough out the framework and boundaries of a single story structure (see what I did there?  I played on the multiple meaning of the word ‘story” . . . never mind).

Once he has the basic shape, the outline, if you will, he plays with the flow of the living space, the arrangements of key features, the layout of the substructures.  Once he (or she) are satisfied they have a solid framework, one that balances aesthetics with the necessities of living spaces, she begins to fill in the details.  Floor coverings, hardware, fixtures, basic materials for various areas of the living space.

If she’s done her job well, the buyer will walk through the completed single story structure, and not feel impeded, uncomfortable, or restricted.  And, most important, the buyer will not feel this is a cookie-cutter structure.  

The composer can’t create a symphony the same way. (Note: I don’t compose music, so I don’t know how they do it, but what I’m about to say sounds plausible, so please . . . just go along with the spirit of it.)

The composer can’t lay out a periphery, major load-bearing points, key features he has to hit.  Instead, he may choose an instrument, and begin making music.  His mood may dictate the tone of what he improvises, but at the same time, the sounds he produces may propel him in a particular direction.  His ear will “expect” a certain sound to follow given a particular sequence.  He might go with it, but he might also deliberately choose a different sound and see where it leads instead.  

If it is discordant, he will retrace his steps, and try again to find a path forward.  If he has enough practice, he has a number of tones and moods he can experiment with, and the very act of choosing a particular one will direct him to the next one.

It’s not totally improvised, for he might have particular chords he wants to strike, pauses he knows will work with a particular sequence, or perhaps he builds tension and expectation, culminating in a dramatic cacophony of sounds.  He may have begun with a particular mood or tone, but may find himself transported by his very creation to a place he had not intended, but which nonetheless pleases him.

In the end, he will have a finished piece.  If he has done a good job, the music will take the listener from reality, and onto imagined worlds.  

I know I made the composer sound “better” than the architect (or at least it does to me), but in both cases, the process is irrelevant to the end customer.  In both cases, the customer gets what they want.  In both cases, the structure itself, and how it’s laid out, is something the end customer may not even notice.  The details, the nuances, the little things are what will sell the end creation to the customer.  

Getting back to writing, a reader has no way of knowing which process was used to create the story he reads, and he won’t really care much.  The only people who care are other writers.  For that’s a peculiar thing with writers . . . they want to know how other people write such wonderful stuff, as if knowing the process will somehow help their own writing.  

Now . . . I must admit a bias toward the composer’s method.  Mostly because I can’t get into outlining, not even for long stories.  The long stories I have written and published on my blog (each 10,000 words in length) were all done one vignette at a time.   In fact, trying to plan them, trying to lay down a roadmap to follow, results in a massive writer’s block.  Basically, my mind is unable to see the road ahead.

But, sit me down in front of the keyboard, and my finger start to fly, dancing atop the keys.  It’s the details, you see.  Putting down a detail, an action, a thought, leads me to another.  Sometimes, the thought is the destination, and it guides the details.

The good thing is readers don’t care that I did not plan the ending or key events; they either like the stories, or they don’t.  

There is an advertising I saw for Kohler that best describes my writing process.  

Not exactly like that, but the idea is the same.  I have a scene.  Something I would like to see (read).  I have no clue how to get there.  I just start writing, looking for a path to the scene I want.  

Truth be known, being a composer, I may never get there.  Along the way I may step onto a path that gives me a glimpse of something more interesting.  And off I go exploring . . . just like I did for this piece.  Originally I was going to write about strawberries in literature.  

I like this better.

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That’s it.  

If you enjoyed reading it, if you found it useful, please tell everyone you know.  After all, why deprive your loved ones, your friends, and your work colleagues, and other writers from this amazing writing insight?  

BUT . . . If you did not enjoy reading it, don’t tell anyone. 


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