Robert Olen Butler’s Try-it-if-you-dare Tip
In Robert Olen Butler’s renowned book on fiction craft, From Where You Dream, he provides a tool for finding the form of a story in the earliest stages of writing. I’d much rather you purchase a copy of From Where You Dream yourself, rather than rely on my paraphrasing his invaluable advice on how to use this tool correctly.
My latest pet project is, indeed, about a pet. Jackson is a black lab who was the faithful companion of a touring actor in the mountain West in the 1970s and 80s. This story will be billed as true-to-life fiction. It can’t be anything but highly fictitious; it’s a biography of a dog after all. Additionally, almost all my sources are actors and artists with, well, highly inventive story-telling tendencies. The dog’s owner has given me carte blanche to make things up at will. Sounds like fun to me.
Going in, I thought there couldn’t possibly be that much material. (I said that to a dog trainer recently and got quite the look of scorn in return.) The dog lived for 16 years. I have about a dozen sources to consult about him. I figured this would be a 30,000-word project, a fun little novella-length piece that would help me learn more about fiction craft.
Within a year, I had 30,000 words of crappy draft content and reams of interview notes. Then the outright fictional scenes started coming to me. The cute little dog story had officially turned into a beast. I had a bad case of overwhelm and clutter brain any time I even thought of the project.
Enter Butler’s book. In my own adaptation of his index card tool, I wrote every darn scene in snippet-form (3 to 7-word summaries) on index cards. After several days of reviewing my notes, sitting quietly, and listening for more, I felt I’d squeezed the sponge dry. Every significant scene that wanted “in” was physically on the table.
From here, seeing the story laid out in front of me, I began to re-arrange the cards. This puppy (sorry bad pun) will be fiction, so I get to re-arrange at will to adjust the pace and build and order of revelation. I played like this for several more days, trying out new arrangements, beginning to see the ups and downs and complications of the story. The index cards were especially helpful in determining how to arrange side-plot scenes:
- Side-story scenes where Jackson has turning point interactions with his owner’s father.
- Scenes where Jackson encounters death—of animals in the wild, of a sick human in a back alley.
The index cards made it possible for me to literally pick these scenes up and place them elsewhere along the main storyline. I could test where they might resonate best.
For those of you who despise outlining, and yet you feel overwhelmed at the start of a project, index cards may be a playful entry point. Don’t rush it. This is not a one-weekend task. From start to finish, I wound up taking a full month. Then I transcribed all the cards into a long scrolling list on my computer. Don’t panic. It’s not an outline. It’s just a list.
That rough list has since evolved and re-arranged itself even more. But it was the springboard I needed at a time when the project seemed too big to manage. Definitely worth a try in your own book project!