Hot Robot Love: The Novel Via Dictation

Hot robot love

This is kind of how I see verbal storytelling getting together with dictation software. But that’s just me.

I’m doing something that’s really fun, possibly crazy, and almost certainly ill-advised. I’m composing a novel entirely via dictation.

In my last post here, I noted that I prefer to compose first drafts via methods that feel “softer” than word processing–namely handwriting and dictation. I also noted that I find the process of revising-while-copying to carry infinitely less burden than sitting in front of a whole lot of words that seem to have taken on a kind of inevitability, simply by virtue of the fact that they have appeared in a particular sequence in a Word .doc.

I’ve always been a process-oriented person. But this, I have to say, takes process to whole new level. Weirdly, it’s like marrying the very roots of storytelling–the oral tradition–with the computer, via dictation software. But more on that in posts to come.

Part of me wonders what Ursula K. LeGuin would have to say about this. The great lady once said,

“I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you’re writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn’t flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work.”

It could certainly be argued that composing via dictation is a device. But as far as coaxing myself goes, I find I have no resistance whatsoever to this process. I don’t have to be motivated to write this way. I don’t even have to know what I’m doing. It doesn’t feel like work–unlike the sort of writing I did in grad school, which almost always felt like pulling teeth.

Maybe it’s just the subject matter. The novel I’m writing now is science fiction, after all, and the novel I wrote in grad school is literary fiction.

But maybe not.

There’s a fascinating TED Talk by Daniel Pink entitled The Puzzle of Motivation. In it, he argues that the higher the stakes are–in terms of rewards and punishments–the worse people perform in completing tasks that require creativity.

Given that fact, it’s not difficult to see why writing with the desire to impress my mentors in grad school didn’t do much for my creativity. Nor, I would argue, does the simple act of trying to improve my work while I’m still writing it. As a professional editor, it’s extremely difficult for me to turn this part of my brain off. (In my experience, all writers either suffer from this syndrome or its opposite, as per my recent post for Indigo Editing & Publications.)

So let me amend Ms. Le Guin, if I may, in this way:  if you don’t enjoy the process of writing, maybe the way you’re writing doesn’t jive with the way your brain actually works.

I’ve found, over the course of the past four months, when I compose with recording software, I free myself to do a number of things:

1) Break the writing of fiction down to what is probably the smallest possible increment: two to ten sentences a day. (Which can be accomplished in 15-30 minutes–a big plus if your life is busy, the way mine has become since student loans hit. I imagine this might be useful for parents as well.) This might seem an extraordinarily slow way to compose, and maybe it is, but when you consider the fact that you never lose a single moment (or a word) to that internal editor, a story can move along quite quickly.

2) Compose by ear. Many of us who lean toward poetry edit our prose by ear. Why not compose that way? By repeating my sentences out loud before hitting record, I smooth them out by ear. I haven’t seen a single word of this yet (that’s the crazy part), but intuitively, I feel like this is significantly more polished work, at the level of the line, than is at all typical of my first drafts.

3) Start at the end. I suffer from the neurotic need to edit my novel from the beginning of the document whenever I open it. Left unchecked, that impulse keeps me spinning in place like a hamster on a wheel. With sound files, I never hear the beginning of my document–all I replay for myself is the last few sentences, then I come up with the next few sentences that follow.

4) Gestate story slowly. I am writing a science fiction story with no outline and virtually no notes. It’s a big world, with a lot of concepts and emotions, but I’m bringing it to light in just a few sentences at a time. This gives me plenty of time to daydream on what’s just up ahead in the headlights of the story–while I’m walking, say, or falling asleep at night. I generally know what I’ll say tomorrow, but have no idea where the story will be at its climax. So far, it seems to work better than speeding out ahead in a story and getting stymied by what I don’t know yet. This feels like a much more organic pace for dreaming–which, after all, is what the first draft is.

5) Concentrate on process, rather than product. I have never seen the novel I’m writing, and I’ve been working on it since July. All I have is the feeling of it, taking shape in some nether-space.

6) Intuit Freitag’s Pyramid. In the past, I’ve had a story (plot) for which I had to discover a world. For this project, I have a world, for which I need to discover a plot. Good news! Pretty much the only bit of anything you could call reproducible science in storytelling can be encapsulated by a very simple shape, called Freitag’s Pyramid. I know where I am in my plot, basically, because I know where I am on the classic scheme for rising action. It’s so simple (given the way I’ve written stories before) it’s boggling.

This novel, by the way, is a hot robot love story, ca. 2112, called K.U.B.L.A.I. I’m looking forward to sharing more about it with you in the weeks to come! =)


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