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7/1/2016: Clustering for My Novel

· 12 min read
Patrick Pace

The central impression of this process, and one that I would do well to remember, is that I am learning.

I think I found the following either on/in Rico’s book, Writing the Natural Way, or on her website, but I didn’t record its exact location.

“Human beings are capable of processing the world in two distinct ways: Named Sign and Design mind by Gabriele Rico, the Sign mind (left hemisphere) thinks linearly, parts-specifically, logically, one step at a time, while the Design mind (right hemisphere) thinks in whole patterns, drawing on images, emotional webs, sensory patterns, as in a memory that suddenly flashes into consciousness as a complex whole.

Although writing requires Sign mind sequencing, writing also requires global search strategies for what groups together, requiring the Design mind’s non-linear jostling of emotions, memories, ideas. A too-hasty emphasis on Sign mind sequencing often shuts down the search strategies of our Design mind.

Clustering, developed by Gabriele Rico in her doctoral work, is largely a Design mind process. This non-linear brain-storming encourages playfulness, wide instead of narrow attention, and mental flexibility. By letting Design mind associations spill onto the page, clustering makes this non-linear search for patterns visible, manipulable, and so, teachable and learnable—long before the Sign mind steps in. Once both sides of the brain have a say in the writing process, the creative potential inherent in all of us is activated. The resulting writing flows quickly and easily.”

Clustering allows you to get the whole, unlabeled, unsequenced, unanalyzed, Design mind vision for the pattern. Then you engage your Sign mind paired with your Design mind to lay it out on the page.

The trial-web-shift happens when the broad pattern held by the Design mind is recognized by the Sign mind. You begin with the complex image, then you Sign it out. Of course, you develop the complex image by the free associating of clustering. Of course, if you are freely associating while writing, you could potentially develop the complex image that you are working to Sign out as you are writing. This seems to happen when you have nothing ahead of you that you want to write, you just start writing without knowing where you’re going, and then you find something and keep going with it until it’s done. I wonder if this is a good way to do it, though. Or the best way, even if it’s a good way.

So it seems like this might be a good practice:

Prewrite by clustering. Develop the unsequenced pattern that will turn into a segment. Write it out until it feels like you’ve finished the segment If it takes multiple sittings, read what you’ve written and then recluster prior to writing. Recluster the same idea? Write generatively, exploring the unknown. Don’t make things fit, don’t edit, don’t stop writing. Just write. Once you’ve finished a segment, go back, find the impression, set that as the subtitle if it’s a chapter. If it’s just part of a chapter, write another segment and on until you feel like you have a chapter with a central impression. I think it might be more freeing to cluster any unit of the book, not necessarily the whole book. That is, I always feel the boundary that I should be able to draw the entire thing to a closed connection, and that’s my primary goal. But I can also do this for chapters, for scenes. For two or three chapters (a Part) or whatever.

Don’t go cold from old clusters. That’s the same thing as writing cold from any other idea. Or writing cold from no idea at all. The problem is writing cold. You’ll just end up trying to make things fit.

I just read the Constellations chapter in Rico. It has a lot to say about writing a novel, though not explicitly. Also, the previous content on re-visioning, essentially reclustering things over and over, delving deeper and deeper (or perhaps wider and wider).

For constellations, she says to cluster and write different vignettes without focusing on how they interact, without paying attention to the patterns they might make. The only overarching intent is to autobiograph, so each vignette is autobiographical (though not necessarily historically accurate). Then, when you have completed so many of them (I think 20), you read through them in a sitting, find the central impression, and cluster that impression. Then, I think she has you write a final part or final piece that begins at that final cluster. I need to read it again.

For novel writing, it seems like you could so something similar. Not necessarily that you just cluster and write about just anything, but you cluster and write about the character’s biography, so to speak, or about the character’s story.

Essentially, I have been treating my first draft like one long vignette, which I’m not sure is the right approach, since it is difficult to encompass such a drawn-out process into a pattern, into an impression. That’s why perhaps identifying the dominant impressions in the various sections would be good (and finding the most natural sections—perhaps these are the ebb-and-flows that I have already noticed).

There are times where she enforces boundaries (and that, again, I need to reread). For instance, you have a particular time in which to write. You have intentional products—an autobiography, for instance. You close the story as it started. You recur ideas or sounds. And on and on. So boundaries, themselves might not inhibit the Design mind (in fact, I think she says they can help it). I also need to remember that the goal is to use both sides together, not to close down the left side. Obviously, you need the left side to string words together and to write a story (series of events). The problem is that we tend to reject the right side and do these things only with the left side. We need both.

There must be a difference between “finish where you started” and “start at X and finish at Y.” It’s like connecting something to itself and connecting something to something else are different types of processes. Indeed, at first glance, the second seems a logical process (how do these fit together? How does X end at Y?) and the first something else…

At times, I have regarded generative writing as clustering-on-the-go. You don’t cluster each idea, you just write and let come out whatever comes out. It’s like perpetual clustering. But I don’t think that’s how it actually works… So far, I have tended to cluster to start and then just to write until I run out of steam. I wonder if running out of steam is a sign that I have finished a segment, and at that point, I should go back and find the impression, and then I can cluster again and start a new section. Indeed, that’s kind of what I’ve had to do because of the difficulty of getting started again once I reach the end of the motivation in a section. I wonder if I have stumbled onto the trial-web-shift generative writing without realizing it.

A case study—the backstory I had so much trouble working on.

The issue arose because I felt constrained to make the backstory fit. And of course, a backstory should fit. But I think my problem was 1) trying to fit into Tolkien’s model, 2) to make it fit the type I had in mind for what I wanted the protagonist to do—an idea that had been developed previously (“it would be cool if he did X”). So I wanted to make a backstory that would lead him to do that thing. That wasn’t a productive constraint.

Contrived – “deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously.”

“I want to make X happen. This will make it happen,” (Do this). That’s left-brain, isn’t it?

Right-brain generation works the other way. This, then this, then this, oh X is happening, fill it out. The this then this then this does work toward connections, but it does so without an end in view. That is, it makes a whole, unsequenced pattern with unnamed parts. An intuited whole. A complex image.

(1/23/2016 – I later thought of it like one of those web-making colonies of worms you see sometimes. From a distance, their colony just looks like a grey cloud in a tree. Get closer, and if you’re neurotic enough, you can trace each segment of web and see how they all fit and to what else they connect. It’s the amorphous, complex whole and the parts that make it up and connect it elsewhere. It’s the left side that picks it apart).

Having a destination at which you want to arrive requires left-brain processing. This process doesn’t find new connections but linear connections. It analyzes discontinuity and makes continuity. It fixes mistakes. It yields the feeling “It did what I wanted it to!”

I wonder if left-brain generated stories are what feel like first-draft stories or if they are just poorly edited.

(1/23/2016 – I think I had yet to nuance the whole end-in-sight idea as including both right and left sides. Yes, you find and develop the right side complexities. But you’re also engaging the left side to put it in story form. Even closing the segment at its beginning is a left-side function, or it at least uses the left side even if it plays more toward the other because it logically fits two things together [the beginning and the beginning again after a middle]. I think that was causing the difficulty for me here, and I don’t know if I wrote about that after this. Actually, in general I tended (tend?) to idealize right-side generation and forget about the left’s necessary place in writing…)

There are difficulties in transferring constellations into novel writing.

Rico emphasizes sequentiality-agnosticism, even for chronology. This seems to disconnect with the typical chronology of fictional narrative. Sure, you could just write a story that jumps all over the place, and it could be great, but there has to be a way to use these same principles for writing a chronological story. Her principal is to be free of restraint and to allow your Design mind to explore and to work out its own patterns. It seems like having such potentially out-of-chronology segments might be difficult to fit together into a chronological narrative—kind of like the Hobbit must have been. You’d have to either write some new piece or edit the pieces together (or both).

Perhaps there is some way to cluster each section as a “what happens next” type of scenario. Or else, “what happens in the story,” even if those things aren’t necessarily next. But if you write something that happens later, you will be tempted to figure out how to fit what happens now to what happens later. You’d need to resist this temptation until after you find the pattern of each of the pieces. Then I guess you’d connect the pieces or else leave them separate, depending on what the pattern requires.

Action List:

It seems like going back and revisioning and reclustering the stuff I already have would be good. It would be good to find the impressions of each section or chapter—like I was doing at the beginning with the chapter titles. I need to break it apart into it’s natural segments, so find the segments. Identify the overarching impression of each of the segments. Perhaps I should be sure to avoid imposing structure or chronology or any other expectations on the story and just let it come out. That will be difficult because of all the rules by which I tend to abide. Even now, the idea of not imposing chronology irks me. While clustering, it’s perfectly possible to organize rather than to explore. The difference is in intent, purpose, what you attempt to do. Are you imposing “what it should say?”

I just started reading back through the first quarter of my first draft, and I am finding things that I had forgotten. And upon reading them, I am finding connections between them and things that I wrote later on after having forgotten them. We’ll see how this plays out, but it seems like sometimes it’s good just to go back and read what I’ve written. Chances are, I’ve forgotten stuff.

Also, I wrote quite a bit last night without clustering. I had that drive to write, that sense of a whole that I wanted to fill out. I may have had this in part because I read the context around where I wanted to write. In fact, I didn’t just keep pressing on, I rewound a bit and filled out a section that was a bit lacking. But I didn’t cluster, and it didn’t seem like I was missing anything.

Cluster, then get an impression, set as a nucleus, and keep clustering. That’s how you can get a theme and then a bunch of things that you can put in to demonstrate the theme. Think about “Traps.”

Right now the concern isn’t to make everything fit perfectly. It’s to have the mega vision, to keep writing it out, and to bring it to a full close.