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Posts tagged "lay it all out where you can look at it"

Jun 09, 2013
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Jan 17, 2013
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John McPhee on structure

You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.

There’s a (paywalled) piece by John McPhee in the January 14, 2013 New Yorker on how he has to find the structure of his feature stories before he can get down to writing them.

I had done all the research I was going to do…. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.

He likens the process to cooking:1

The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intent to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.

Pre-computer, McPhee started out by typing out all of his notes, leaving blank space after each one. After studying all of his notes, he’d write out elements of the story on index cards, each representing a component of the story.

All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece.

And then it was time for the scissors:

After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladder line on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

It’s interesting to note that McPhee usually has his beginning and ending in mind when he starts writing. How does he know when he’s done?

When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.

See also:

(Thx @twliterary)


  1. Funny to contrast McPhee’s cooking metaphor to David Rakoff’s: “Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.” 

Oct 06, 2012
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  yup that’s a book on the wall..or rather the sketch of an outline for a book…Scotch tape and 20 cent copies are the beginning of any book i do… if you want to see how i build this into a book…ha ha i have no idea how… yet


david alan harvey lays it all out where you can look at it

(via @twliterary)

yup that’s a book on the wall..or rather the sketch of an outline for a book…Scotch tape and 20 cent copies are the beginning of any book i do… if you want to see how i build this into a book…ha ha i have no idea how… yet

david alan harvey lays it all out where you can look at it

(via @twliterary)

Aug 26, 2011
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Apr 12, 2011
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Rebecca Skloot Talks About How Fried Green Tomatoes and The Hurricane Helped Her Find the Structure of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

@calebhannan sent me this video, and it’s got some of my favorite stuff in there: Skloot was trying to find a structure for her multi-narrative book, so she wrote the different plots out on color-coded index cards, laid them all out where she could look at them, and then went hunting for stories with multi-threaded narratives that she could borrow from. She ended up storyboarding the story lines from the film The Hurricane on the same color-coded index cards, and then laying out her book material over the movie’s structure. Fascinating!

Nov 30, 2010
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I had to have the pages up on a wall where I could see them. And there were a lot of pages so I had to create ‘walls’ to put the pages on in my studio—there isn’t enough wall space to do it—and it turns out the 4 x 8 sheets of blue styrofoam used for construction insulation worked perfectly. The sheets are long, lightweight, sturdy and really portable. So I could put about 40 pages on each sheet and drag the sheets all over the studio so I could move the pictures around until they started to interact with each other.

Oct 13, 2010
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Jul 31, 2010
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Charles Darwin on whether you should marry (via mlarson):

This is the Question, Charles Darwin writes at the top of the page. Each half of the page is a list brainstorming his two options with Emma Wedgewood:

To Marry…


Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved &  played with. —  —better than a dog anyhow. — Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. — Forced to visit & receive relations but terrible loss of time. —

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.


or Not Marry?


No children, (no second life), no one to care for one in old age.— What is the use of working without sympathy from near & dear friends—who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives

Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it.  — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)

Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —


The final result:

Marry — Marry — Marry.  Q.E.D.

He also goes on to wrestle with the question of marrying sooner vs. later. (via)

See also: lay it all out where you can look at it.

Charles Darwin on whether you should marry (via mlarson):

This is the Question, Charles Darwin writes at the top of the page. Each half of the page is a list brainstorming his two options with Emma Wedgewood:

To Marry…

Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — —better than a dog anyhow. — Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. — Forced to visit & receive relations but terrible loss of time. —

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

or Not Marry?

No children, (no second life), no one to care for one in old age.— What is the use of working without sympathy from near & dear friends—who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives

Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)

Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —

The final result:

Marry — Marry — Marry. Q.E.D.

He also goes on to wrestle with the question of marrying sooner vs. later. (via)

See also: lay it all out where you can look at it.

Jul 15, 2010
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The Sticky eBook Formula

Found this via Twitter  — a nice image of the best way I know to write a book, what I call: lay it all out where you can look at it. You get everything out of your head that you can.You organize those chunks into coherent piles.Smooth it all out out into some kind of flow, or narrative.Update: so, I guess I liked this for good reason: @stickyebooks says it was inspired by my “Lay It All Out" video, and illustrated by Steven Blumenthal.

The Sticky eBook Formula

Found this via Twitter — a nice image of the best way I know to write a book, what I call: lay it all out where you can look at it.

  1. You get everything out of your head that you can.
  2. You organize those chunks into coherent piles.
  3. Smooth it all out out into some kind of flow, or narrative.

Update: so, I guess I liked this for good reason: @stickyebooks says it was inspired by my “Lay It All Out" video, and illustrated by Steven Blumenthal.

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Porcellino Crafts A “Map of My Heart” - Comic Book Resources

Great interview with John P focused on process.

I was interested to hear how he worked on his Thoreau book (see: lay it all out where you can look at it):

For Thoreau, I was working with his writing directly, so what I did was create notecards with little anecdotes, quotes etc on them, and arranged them by theme - animals, weather, the pond, independence, etc. I knew I wanted to present the book as a passing of seasons, like the original Walden. Then it was just a matter of finding some kind of narrative thread, or progress, in terms of presenting his thinking in an evolutionary way.(This almost exactly how I made my book.)And how Zen shaped his work:When I discovered Zen, the things that attracted me to it were its humor, its simplicity and its emphasis on everyday life. These were all things that I was working with in my comics already, but Zen kind of gave a form to these somewhat amorphous ideas I’d been kicking around for a while. Zen practice is the practice of everyday life, so, as a cartoonist, my comics are an important part of that. Practice is finding out who you are and working out your place in the world. So to me, these two things go hand in hand.

Porcellino Crafts A “Map of My Heart” - Comic Book Resources

Great interview with John P focused on process.

I was interested to hear how he worked on his Thoreau book (see: lay it all out where you can look at it):

For Thoreau, I was working with his writing directly, so what I did was create notecards with little anecdotes, quotes etc on them, and arranged them by theme - animals, weather, the pond, independence, etc. I knew I wanted to present the book as a passing of seasons, like the original Walden. Then it was just a matter of finding some kind of narrative thread, or progress, in terms of presenting his thinking in an evolutionary way.

(This almost exactly how I made my book.)

And how Zen shaped his work:

When I discovered Zen, the things that attracted me to it were its humor, its simplicity and its emphasis on everyday life. These were all things that I was working with in my comics already, but Zen kind of gave a form to these somewhat amorphous ideas I’d been kicking around for a while. Zen practice is the practice of everyday life, so, as a cartoonist, my comics are an important part of that. Practice is finding out who you are and working out your place in the world. So to me, these two things go hand in hand.
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