Zettelkasten Forum


Degrees of certainty in creative writing: from idea to decision (with emojis)

edited June 24 in Writing

Lots of fascinating academic discussions here! But it seems the Zettelkasten can also be used for creative writing, and so as not to only be asking for input as I negotiate my first zettels, I though maybe I could share in turn with the community what I have come to in terms of idea flow through years of fiction writing. (By the way @sfast , if you have a few moments to share more about your workflow in that original thread, I'm mightily interested!)

I write SF&F, so about worlds other than our own, but at its core, fiction is always about a world other than our own (if only because fictional characters are depicted). After years of writing novels and trying to negotiate a workflow than could give some form to the inevitable chaos that represents, I have come to a cycle of information (which takes some inspiration from the GTD model).

The problem or joy with art (depending how you look at it and how close your deadline is…) is that everything is always in flux until the very last moment. It's also the case with academia, but in creative writing, it's often the case that you find, in your material itself, a tiny detail at the very last moment that sheds an entirely different light on all your work and that explains to you what it has been about all along. For that reason, a novel, theoretically, can always fundamentally change until the very last moment. Therefore, I think the facts of creative writing establish themselves on a scale of certainty as you build the whole thing.

At first, you have ideas. Random thoughts, images, scenes, possibilities that come through your head – "wouldn't it be cool if…" They can be huge (an idea underpinning a whole saga) or small (a cool line of dialogue). The need to be captured, in the GTD way, to make sense of later.

Then you organise (process, in GTD terms) those ideas to make sense of them, realise where they fit (and if they fit). People with Zettelkästen have a lead here, because they can already lay the relevant zettels out. That organisation becomes plot threads, characters, lines of thought that you have chosen or discarded. At this stage, you realise where the holes are (where you haven't explored to get the whole story in plain sight). You will explore those holes based on what you already have, which becomes, in effect, hypotheses. You can alter them as along as you want, but they're the firmer material on which you start building new material.

Now the fun begins. Hypotheses and new ideas start to represent a world from where laws and rules emerge. If you envision a character with a given past, then it will probably influence how they see the world. Ideas and hypotheses therefore draft necessities. "If things work that way, that means that…" Necessities will orient your exploration, and give new ideas and hypotheses.

Once you have enough material (depending what kind of writer you are), you start writing. What is written tends to take a life of itself, creating more and more necessities as the story unfolds.

Then – to steal a term from Star Trek and Star Wars fandoms – what is published becomes canon. If you want to write a sequel or another story in the same world, you cannot go back onto what has been said. Canon creates its own kind of necessities and ideas.

So it's a cycle –
Ideas → Hypotheses → Canon
Canon or Hypotheses → Necessities → Ideas

Bonus emoji: I found that using emoji in documents, mind maps, outlines, tags even works extremely well to separate the degrees of certainty associated to each kind of material:

  • 💡 for Ideas (I know there's fun there, I can look for that when looking for inspiration, I'm also free to capture but also disregard whatever I want)
  • ➡️ for Hypotheses (reminds the implication mathematical arrow: "this is what there is, pursue that line of thought")
  • ❓ for to-dos (these are fundamental story questions I need to study to move further in order to build safely)
  • ❗️for Necessities (things I cannot evade, or that I have to mention, or that I have to remember not to contradict)

Hope this can further the discussion around creative writing and help maybe the aspiring writers around here. I'm thinking this could maybe map nicely onto a Zettelkasten, as notes can be linked to one another, reinforcing train of thoughts – maybe Hypotheses could even work with Folgezettel. I have no firm idea yet, but I'm looking forward to explore.

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

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