Finding Order in Chaos

I talk a lot about process on this blog. I love it. I love reading other writer’s processes and I love writing about my own. But here’s the secret every person who’s written more than one book knows: process — the idea that you can follow the exact same path every time and a book will emerge at the end  — is a fantasy. It’s a helpful fantasy, for the most part. There’s a certain comfort in the idea that I’ve done it before, so I can do it again. But it’s a fantasy, none the less.

This is what it’s like: I once spent a day clearing lantana in a forested area as a community service. Lantana is this thick, thorny, strangling vine that takes over land incredibly quickly and is almost impossible to get rid of:

By Louise Wolff (darina) (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
They told us at the beginning of the day that what we were doing was basically pointless. Within a week the lantana would grow back again, no matter how much we pulled out, no matter how much skin was ripped up in the process. We did it anyway, of course. Maybe next week another group would come along, and maybe our progress would help them to fight a little harder, go a little deeper.

This is the writer’s mind: a thick, tangle of lantana. Sometimes, maybe once a year, we blaze a path through the lantana and end up with a book at the end. But the next year, that path will be gone. We can’t walk it again. We can try and find the general location of the path, and maybe the lantana will be a wee bit thinner there, but we still have to start over, and we can never walk the exact same path twice.

Each book requires a different process. You may know whether you are a plotter or a pantser, but each book will require a different level of planning, each plot will have its own snags, each character will push you in a different way. It can drive you crazy. And that’s why we talk about process. If we can map out, even in the most general terms, where the path used to be through the lantana, it’s like finding a little bit of order in all the chaos. It keeps us sane.

Last Friday I tweeted this photo:

Mapping the landmarks
Mapping the landmarks

The red stickers are the scenes I plan to delete and the green stickers are scenes I plan to add. Over the weekend I started reading through my manuscript and placing other stickers: yellow for scenes that only need light edits, orange for scenes that need rewriting. In the middle columns I started adding in my revision notes for each scene.

Adding in street signs and road markers.
Adding in street signs and road markers.

I was full of plans and good intentions. Look at all that yellow! This was going to be the easiest revision ever! And then… I hit a roadblock. Honestly, it was the best kind of roadblock. Like a stream cutting through the lantana, but leading in a slightly different direction, I had an Idea. A really, really good idea. An idea that would mean completely scrapping the middle portion of my novel.

I thought I knew the path forward. I thought I could impose order on the chaos. But my crazy writer brain had other ideas.

So, this weekend I’ll be starting my revision from Chapter 1. I have a vision of where I want to end up, but not a map or compass, not like I’d hoped to have. But I’ve done this enough times that I’m not absolutely terrified by this idea. I’ve beat my way through the lantana enough times that I have faith I’ll find a way through to the other side.


Finding Order in Chaos

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