Apr 9 2012

The Nature of Nature

Melissa Crytzer Fry

As bipedal, thinking creatures, we seem to crave order. Predictability and patterns alleviate apprehension for most and help us get from point A to point B.

If you look at the natural world, it seems to yearn for the same organization and structure. A clear pecking order exists down the food chain; certain things have to happen for other things to happen next; the sun rises; the moon waxes and wanes.

Ants on New Mexican Thistle near my home. Ant societies crave order in the same way human societies do, with drones, queens, workers, soldiers – specialized groups – performing organized, predictable functions to solve complex problems. Click to enlarge.

Look at the uniform structure of a desert tortoise’s ridges, the predictability of one geometric section of shell to the next. Click to enlarge.

A saguaro with a “heart” limb. The saguaro will grow only one inch in the first 15 years of its life. Such predictability allows researchers to estimate saguaro age based on height. Click to enlarge.

But sometimes things happen, and nature is nothing but unpredictable. The roadrunner loses his mate and wanders for years in search of another. The anthill is destroyed by rain, creating chaos among the colony. Benign skies release thunderous cracks and snaps into the air, followed by a deluge of devastating rain. The owl looks for a new nest because human curiosity has forced it to a safer location.

For all of its predictability, nature is often chaotic and completely disorganized – but always, it seems, striving to achieve some sort of balance all over again. Just like us.

For Readers & Writers: Do you wonder how your favorite authors organize and plan their novels? Do they borrow from the orderly side of nature, or do they embrace the unpredictable, moody side?

Me? I fall somewhere in between, though those of you pantsers (fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers) will look at the photos below and say, “Yeah, right, Melissa. You are a plotter, not a pantser.” But let me explain! I consider myself a bit of a hybrid – a plotser? A pantplot?

Meet my Organization Station (this is where I’ve been hiding the past month). My dining room table, white board and color-coded index cards have helped me organize various themes, plots, subplots, characters, symbolism, etc. Click to enlarge.

The giant whiteboard is my loose, “big picture” novel concept. When I start a WIP, it’s actually pretty sparse – with what I initially think will be my beginning, middle and end (I loosely follow Vogler’s Writer’s Journey to help me with a general framework so that I have ‘someplace’ to start). I fill in, then, with additional details as I get to know my characters and story better.

For the last third of my novel, I turned to color-coded index cards, because I had to find some way to organize the mishmash of already-written scenes that were inspired during character profile development and research of various topics.

It’s always fun when your cats offer to help at the Organization Station. Click to enlarge.

Why colored cards? They allowed me to see, visually, what content was missing altogether and which scenes were repetitive. My random color assignment worked like this:

  • Blue – medical scenes (my MC has a medical issue that plays heavily into the story)
  • Green – nature/environmental scenes (big surprise … nature is a character in my WIP)
  • Yellow – present scenes
  • Purple – symbolic scenes/events that tie to theme
  • White – backstory, character details, flashbacks, memories

With an eye-sweep of the dining room table, I could see if I had too many greens, not enough blues or way too many whites in the chapters of the last third of my novel.

Now, of course, since I’m big on my characters telling the story (not me), these stacks of cards with their one- to two-line scene descriptions have changed as I’ve continued writing, despite my best intentions. (Some stacks now have fewer cards, some have more, some have been reshuffled and rearranged).

Characters, it turns out, aren’t much different than nature. In some things, they are quite predictable in their behavior, and in others, not so much.

What about you? Do you embrace the predictability of nature, or its uncertainty? Are you an organized writer, or do you love the messy chaos of letting the characters take you where you want to go, with no restraints – i.e. colored index cards – to get in the way?


31 Responses to “The Nature of Nature”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    Such a great post & apparently we’re on the same wave length or wax and wane phase of the moon or something…. I think we have sister posts today! I think I’m somewhere in between too, although if you looked at my table today you’d think otherwise — papers hither and thither. I tend to plan pretty carefully on paper, but then once I start writing I rarely look at my notes, everything burned into my mind, and a lot of my actual writing goes on in my head too. Once I finish writing, I re-consult my notes to see what I’ve left out…

    p.s. I love your index card system, mine is far less advanced, and I LOVE the cats on the cards…. I don’t think my labrador retriever would tread so lightly 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Really? You rarely look at your notes while you write? I find that my pages and pages of research notes (which I read over and over and over) are HUGE sources for scenes. The words just seem to spring up magically upon re-reads of my research.

    Ha – nah … I guess Abby might wreak too much havoc on the index cards!

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  • avatar Millivers Travels Says:

    Loooved your nature photos symbolizing organization and structure – esp. the ridges on the desert tortoise’s back. (I’m jealous you could get that close to one.)

    Your Organization Station is impressive! I can relate to you saying you’re a plotser or a pantplot (LOL! – sounds like a dramatically confused houseplant) as I’m one of those too.

    The photo of your kitties walking on your colored cards is too cute. An image flashed into my mind of Kurious Kitties suddenly scurrying off to do something else, with their feet shuffling your cards into a different order. Just like the nature examples you gave of reorganization after chaos.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Milli. Seems there is always a tortoise lumbering around in our backyard. And they’re slow enough that you can walk right up and take a photo!

    Here’s to us ploster-panplots (ha – yes, confused, indeed).

    I LOVE the image you had of my cats scattering the cards, because that’s exactly what happened. If I had known, as I took the photo, that my post theme would turn out this way, you BET I’d have taken a photo of the chaos on my table after the cats passed by.

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    I love your index card method. I’ve tried something similar, although my technique is not very refined. It seems very practical to use both the plotting and pantsing methods to end up with the best possible story… writers have to use every available tool.

    Your photos are beautiful, as always. But my favorite this time is of your cats. What gorgeous markings they have.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thank you for saying my method appears to be practical. My husband thought it was slightly neurotic.

    My kitties are bengals – and obviously quite spoiled. I wish they hadn’t been in motion so I’d have gotten a better picture; but what you see is realistic. They’re a very active breed.

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Melissa – I’m organized. For non-fiction, no “props” are required as it simply flows from my head. However, fiction work for me is an entirely different story…

    For my current WIP, my home office has a dry-erase board on each wall with “North, South, East, and West” written on them, respectively. That helps me keep track of what’s taking place, where.

    I maintain a 3-ring notebook with tabbed pages to separate the characters, and have their bio, background story, and personal details at-the-ready. This helps me remember whose got what color hair, eyes, their height, etc., If I see a photograph of someone in a magazine that looks like one of my characters, I cut it out and add it to their section.

    If I left anything out on any flat surface (sticky or not), my dog’s tails would wreck havoc!

    This is a great post — thank you!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Long live the dry erase board and binders (I didn’t mention it, but I also use binders the same way you do… the only way to keep it all straight)!

    Oh, no … dog tails and loose index cards just don’t mix!

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  • avatar Cynthia robertson Says:

    Your cats are beautiful, Melissa!

    Like you, I feel I fall somewhere in between. I need to know who my main characters are, and some of the scenes I will write. I need to know what the story is about, in order to know just where to start. All this can change during the writing, however, since characters often take over and then I am just writing as fast as I possibly can as I watch what they are saying and doing in my head. I could never completely plot out a novel for this reason. It would likely be a waste of time to do so, since once the story is underway, “I” seem to take a back seat, and am really more of a secretary, than anything else.
    But initially, I have to have some idea of what the story is about, and who the main characters are. And that is when I fill notebooks with thoughts about them. Much of this never even makes it into the novel. But it’s still there, beneath the surface, and I feel it lends a depth that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
    Looks like you have a good system for getting things squared away in your mind before starting. I’m all for doing whatever is necessary to get the story started; whatever works!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thank you, Cynthia. The kitties thank you as well :-).

    Sounds like our methods are very similar; I feel completely at a loss if I don’t have some type of structure to start out (even though, like you, I know my characters will likely change much of it).

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  • avatar Liz @ Write Livelihood Says:

    As an editor who leans toward the developmental side of things, I ALWAYS think about structure! Great post taking us behind the curtain! And love the tie-in with natural structure!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Hmm… maybe it all relates to my past life as a magazine editor… 🙂

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    I think you know by now (based on “The Organized Writer” tab on my blog) that I lean toward the “structured” side of things. But it doesn’t look like much more so than you, actually. For me, organization is just a framework for creativity to blossom from. The more solid my basics are, the more I can enjoy the chaotic, unpredictable parts – knowing that I will always be able to get back on course. So I, too, consider myself a hybrid.

    Also, I want your kitties! What stunning coats they have. =)

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    Melissa Reply:

    I think that’s the key for me: knowing that I can get back on track when things veer off, because I at least have “a plan,” as loosely defined as it is. I also adore your comment that “organization is just a framework for creativity.” What a very quotable quote!

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Oh my dear! I am in AWE! Your organization has me so impressed and frankly inspired! For me, every book seems to have a different level of “structure” and I always assume I’m getting closer to a cohesive and dependable “routine” or “style” of organization but honestly, I don’t think I am! All I know is the color-coding is nothing short of brilliant!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Now, now … let’s not get too crazy here, Erika. You call it brilliant. My husband calls it anal-retentive (but it was the ONLY way for me to organize what I’d already written and actually USE most of it)…

    You make a great point though, that every book is different. What works for this one seriously may NOT work for my next.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    Okay, looking at your color-coded pile, Melissa, I realize that I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants plotter. So much so, in fact, I probably have feathers sticking out of my back pockets. Love your methodology, though, and it challenges me to make sure my scenes are not repetitive. Thanks for the idea, and I love your cats. They’re so beautiful!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Well, feather butt, then we learned something about ourselves today, didn’t we? :-). As cute as the cats are, they really weren’t very helpful.

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    Can I borrow you for a bit? You would cry if you saw my desk right now. In thesaurus, there I am, the opposite of organized. I have many things “organized” on my computer in bookmarked files and labeled accordingly. I have been using Scrivener and I can copy web sites and put together character profiles in it. I have yet to understand all of its components but when I do, boy will I be organized!

    As a writer, I am orderly in my mind but chaos in appearance. 🙂 Great post and you have given me some ideas on how to use the color coding for my novel. Thanks!!!

    Also, love your kitties. They look like mini wild things.

    XO, H

    P.S. Haven’t talked to you in forever! Miss you!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Interesting that you mention Scrivener. I would LOVE to try it, but for the reasons you’ve mentioned, I have decided to rely on the ‘old fashioned’ method. I am so visual, it totally has helped to be able to lay things out in front of me. If it’s in the computer, it might as well be buried in the trash.

    Kitties are Bengals – part wild Asian leopard cat (where they get their spots and incredible athleticism, love of water, etc.) and part domestic kitty. Not very good writing partners, sadly.

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    I love the color-coded index cards, what a great idea! Like you, I’m a hybrid (though not quite as organized as you in my plotting phases). I have to know where my story is headed before writing, so will usually, at the very least, have a timeline sketched out, where I put the beginning, middle, and end of the story on a line, and start filling in the in-between spots. It’s not necessarily chronological in terms of the events in the story, but chronological in terms of how I want it all to unfold in the narrative. So some points might be flashbacks, others take place in the present, etc.

    But like you, I love that it can all change at any minute. And the biggest surprises are usually the result of a character acting in a completely unpredictable way. That’s the best part!

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    Melissa Reply:

    To tell the truth, I don’t feel organized at ALL in my plotting phases. Whatever it takes, right? Your linear timeline is very much like my circular timeline — very sparse at first, then fill-as-you-go. I’m SO curious to know what your newest WIP is about!
    Agree; SO fun when a character behaves unpredictably and changes the game for us.

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  • avatar JODI Says:

    LOVE, love, love seeing this. I’m in the process of plotting out mine. I just have to. My mind is too mercurial to begin with, but throw in 4 boys and all their noise and joys — and it’s just too much to think a coherent plot could emerge unaided. Thanks for sharing how you do it!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Oh my GOODNESS, Jodi. FOUR boys and their noise. I give you props for even TRYING. Here’s to plotting amidst the madness :-).

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    Incredible!!!! I admire that table and white board. Also so cool how in the smaller version of the cat photo it really looks like they are flying over the notes to avoid messing up the cards.

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    What a fabulous post and nature comparison. I’m such a sucker for those turtle shell shots!! Hybrid writer is probably me too. I have scenes I never anticipated and my MC stubbornly refuses to follow my original plans. But I feel the drafting starting grow out of control. Thank you for sharing — I sense this will be my summertime project.

    PS: The picture of your cards wouldn’t zoom in enough to read what you have on them!!! Bitterly disappointed as I’m dying for details. =)

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    Melissa Reply:

    Sometimes it’s fun to see where those stubborn characters take us. Makes for a much organic reading experience on the other end, I think. Go hybrids!

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  • avatar Christi Craig Says:

    Melissa,

    What a great post. I’m like you, somewhere in the middle. The novel I’m working on now is the first big project where I’ve done more initial planning, and the one that has initiated me into the use of note cards. I discovered a monstrous bulletin board taking up space in our basement, so I made it my own. I haven’t tried different colored cards (yet), but I did buy a few different colored sharpies I use to dress up my cards.

    And, while I don’t have cats, I do have a husband who called me one day (after I spaced cards out on the bulletin board) and said he was “enjoying this new card game set up in our living room”…. Funny guy.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I LOVE the monstrous bulletin board and colored-Sharpies concept. I hope it’s working for you (and I got a chuckle out of your husband’s comments). They just don’t “get” us writers, do they?

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    I love routines and the reliability of (some!) of nature. I think I’ve loved it since I was in the womb! Apparently, I hiccuped at 7 p.m. every night … and then did it when I was an infant!

    With my current WIP, I have embraced a semi-chaotic approach. I like knowing the major story beats (though I’m only halfway through those, I think), but I prefer letting characters and situations surprise me, too.

    I love the pic of your cats on your index cards! Perfect blend of order and chaos!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Hilarious about your hiccup reliability! Nothing wrong with semi-chaotic; sometimes I think it bears more creative results. And you got it spot on with the blend of chaos and order with the cats walking on the cards. Some reorg was necessary after their little jaunt.

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