24 January 2015

Top Down or Bottom Up? [GUEST POST by David Wake]

Top down or bottom up? It’s a phrase from software engineering; always design your computer code from the top-down, never hack it together from the bottom-up.  It’s the same debate we find in writing: plot or seat of the pants? 

It’s no surprise to me that the developer of the ‘Snowflake Method’, a popular plotting method, has a computing background. I do too. It takes one to know one (my degree is in Software Engineering and my Masters is in creative writing... now there’s a weird career path).

I certainly recommend this approach to your writing; plan, plan, plan.  Otherwise it’s ‘spaghetti programming’ to create code that’s impossible to unpick, understand, maintain and rewrite.  Or as a story, so messy that no reader can follow it.

However, that’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. It doesn’t work for writing and it doesn’t work for software either.

Once upon a time, Word (the software most people use) had no spell checking.  It was impossible to implement, then along came the ‘spell check’ button.  Nowadays, if you write ‘speling’, a red-underline magically appears.  Word processing only requires a certain amount of oomph, so as computers became more and more powerful, more and more functionality turned up (and boy, did they add too much functionality to Word).

Now, back in the day, there was no point in a ‘top-down’ designer insisting on red underlining - it was impossible.  But how would you know then?  You had to ‘bottom-up’ bits of code to see whether Idea A was feasible.  If not, then an Idea B (or C or D) would be thought up.  Speed was a key to this.  Under 0.5 seconds to access the dictionary means red underlined spell checking, over 2 seconds and you have a screaming user trying to type before the computer has checked your first creation against ‘zygote’.

In novel writing, you need to know how your characters behave before you can put them in a plot.  No good planning a heroic rush to the rescue, if they turn out to be cowardly.  You can fill in forms with their favourite colour and what they eat for breakfast, but to my mind the only way to get to know someone, real or imaginary, is to spend time with them, share a beer or two as it were.  For characters in a story that involves writing, and that’s bottoms-up.
I’m nearly a third of the way through the first draft of the next Derring-Do Club book and it looks like the usual mess.  I’ve five sections.

1. Contents - great for zooming to the bit I want to write, includes chapters and section headings and notes.  I insert headers in my text to remind me to do something and this creates a ‘To Do’ List in the contents.

2. Outline - a page long, but although it starts well, and had some lines about the ending, the middle is kind of full of stuff that might be a good idea.
3. Notes - bits of research and random thoughts.

4. Text - the actual writing.  (It again starts well with a coherent storyline and then disintegrates into bits that’ll go somewhere, probably.)

5. Cutting Room Floor  - it’s very hard to ‘kill your darlings’, but far easier to cut-and-paste them into a catch all chapter.  They aren’t dead, just resting, I can tell myself.  (They never make it back in, although some bits this time around seem to be part of the next novel.)

You see, I write the novel and the outline at the same time.  Eventually, the contents page matches the outline, and they’re both finished, then I can show to an imaginary examiner and say that I planned properly: “Look, here’s my outline.”

So, advice. Given that I run writing groups, I have to say:-

You must, absolutely must, write to a proper outline...

...but you can write that as you go along.

David Wake started writing one-act plays, won a couple of awards, and toured theatre productions in the UK.  His work has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Since completing an MA in Writing, he’s published two near-future SF novels, I, Phone and #tag.  There are also two novels out chronicling the steampunk adventures of the Deering-Dolittle sisters: The Derring-Do Club and the Empire of the Deadand and The Derring-Do Club and the Year of the Chrononauts.

He was Guest of Honour at the ArmadaCon SF convention in Plymouth and lives within smelling distance of a chocolate factory.

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