Monday, June 4, 2012

Composting with Discovery Writing

compostLast week I listened to the audiobook of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. In it she discusses several writing techniques useful to beginning writers. The one that surprised me the most, was one called composting.

"Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil." Writing Down the Bones (p. 18-19).

She goes on to discuss how the composting of ideas (or stories), and letting them sit over time allows them to compost into better stories (poems, etc.). Several other authors, including Stephen King, talk about finishing your rough draft and then leaving it alone for two to three months, and I think this is their 'compost phase.' But I thought I was broken for doing it the way I do. After all, everything everybody else writes is flawless on day one, right? Well, okay, yours maybe, just not mine.

My Compost Pile
I've had several experiences when composting was invaluable. And when I think about it, most of my work composts because I like to let it set for a spell and see how it looks in a day or two. For instance, I wrote a simulated combat scene. Ten pages later, I realized I was sitting on the biggest pile of crap in the English lexicon. Gee, I thought. Someone could sell this as weapons-grade fertilizer.

Fresh with my humiliation, I went to my day job. For two days I thought about the chapter that had to be fixed. I tinkered with other chapters, but I knew I still had to go back and redo the entire simulated combat chapter. *Sigh*

So I got thinking about what exactly didn't work. What parts I didn't like and what could I do to really make it pop. I turned the chapter over and over. Two days later, I got an idea. I got a wonderful awful idea (boy, were my characters in trouble). I turned the chapter over and it bloomed.

Recently, I had my big emotional climax fall flat on it's face. It just wasn't singing. So I let it set for a few days (almost a week), and thought about what I could do to improve what wasn't working. I turned it and turned it. It took almost a full week before my brain realize that my subconscious was passing me the ball for an awesome slam dunk. Little clues had been cascading for several chapters and it was payoff time.

Composting in the Writing Community
Part of me wonders if this technique is exclusive to discovery writers. Do plot outliners organically grow their story, or do they use the same tool in a different way? Does everyone get those 'ah-ha!' moments that seem to be so prevalent with discovery writing?

TheBackyardGardeninMay.JPGSince I'm 'fairly' new to writing craft, I think this is probably something that everyone does, to one degree or another. We lay down some crap. We write a practice chapter or two. And then we let it sit in the heat of our minds and compost. Sometimes it may take longer than others, but when we finally have the rich black soil that we can plant our words in... nothing else can compare.

Do you compost or have you had success with this technique?


  1. My mind has to basically wait until just before everything starts rotting before I can spew out a good idea. It takes me years for a story to come together. Luckily, I'm a slow writer, so I never use up all the stuff piling up. :)

  2. *love* this.

    I compost like you... I write a chapter or two... let it sit... tweak... let it sit... tweak... But I've never been able to write a whole book and put it away for months! Man, maybe I need to... I guess I get itchy to query and dive into a new project. Must think about this. Great post! :D

  3. I compost ideas for books and stories a lot--the magic system in my current MS is one I thought of two years ago, and it's just been marinating in the back of my mind since. (Maybe I marinate more than I compost?)

    Orson Scott Card recommends letting ideas sit and "compost" in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy book, too.

    Good post :)

  4. I think I need to let things compost more. I tend to spew before it's, er, ready.

    Does this mean we all have dirty minds? Just asking...


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