Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Jumble Method

I love lyrical prose. The kind that's almost poetry, the kind that makes you want to stop and savor each word. Two of my favorite writers, Patricia McKillip and Joseph Conrad, have the gift of lyrical prose. Me? Well, I’m working on it, and on constructing prose that’s evocative but not bloated.

As many writers know, it’s easy to get overly attached to your words. But if you can’t get yourself to let go, your prose can become stale. I used to be especially bad about this. I’d shuffle around my favorite phrases, even tweaking the story so that I could still include them.

One method to combat this bad behavior was to create a Word document of unused phrases. I like to imagine it as a box of dusty costume jewelry. When I first encountered these phrases, they seemed to glitter like real jewels. But with time, the luster fades, and only some of those jewels turn out to be worth anything.

 Courtesy of user love Maegan on Flicker through Creative Commons license.

But they’re still pretty, and it takes emotional effort to dig those shiny phrases out of my text. I figured there had to be a better way, so I came up with what I call the jumble method.

The jumble method is pretty much a new thing for me. I think I talked about it a little in a previous post, but it’s turning out to be a great way for me not to get attached to words. Before, when I started a story, I’d always try to plan and plan and then finally write everything out perfectly the first time. But I’d never get it quite right, and problems would pop up in the plot that I hadn’t anticipated. I’d get hung up on those problems, become frustrated, and lose my flow.

The jumble method involves me writing out a scene with no regard for grammar, paragraph structure, sentence structure, or active voice. Bring on the passive voice and the weak verbs! They’ll go away later. I sometimes even give in to my love of description, and pile five or six into a sentence. It’s very freeing.

Here's an example of a jumbled paragraph from one of my WIPs. Viola is being rescued by her granddaughter (Ivy) from a woman possessed by a demon.

 A shouted phrase, and warm energy flows around Viola, temporarily disrupting the stale air and the putrid spell. Ada spasms, jerks forward, and Viola sees Ivy running down the hill toward them, magic growing in her hands as her lips moved. Viola is so stunned that she forgets the danger, maybe doesn't move in when spell hits again, and gray liquid splatters across her face. But then Ivy is there, swabbing at it, Viola says into the shield, Ivy drags her there as the liquid slides up her chest toward her face. Ivy yanks them through and the energy of the shield sweeps through Viola like a wave. Ivy continues to swab, Viola says no, it's okay, look, and they both stare at the outline of a black web as it dissolves on the shield. What is that? That's the shape of a curse, Viola says.

See? A jumble. It makes very little sense, the grammar is nonexistent, and it’s often unclear who’s doing what. But I have no attachment to it, so deleting any of that text won’t bother me in the least. Also, it helps me realize how ridiculous over-adjectivising (like objectivising, maybe? No?) And even though Curse Story is still a work in progress, practicing the jumble method has already helped me to get rid of unnecessary adjectives in my more complete stories.

What do you all think? Has anyone else tried anything like this?


  1. That's a little bit like what I do when I get to a part that I'm feeling too overwhelmed to write. Action, especially. It's good to get the framework down on paper and then I can put my brain to the task of cleaning it up. I like your name for it!

  2. This idea is great. It reminds me of what Dustin once said (on here, I think?), that, in the end, his rough drafts were really just glorified outlines. That advice, and this helps me tons, because I, too, want everything to come out perfect the first time. And it never does.

  3. Yeah, this does look like a great way to turn off that inner editor. I so struggle with turning her off. I'll have to give it a try.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. I've got notes written all over my journals and taped to my computer: "IT CAN BE FIXED...LATER."

    I just try to get through the rough draft, then give myself about six months before I try to edit it. I keep a notebook of thoughts and outline changes as I go along, so I can figure out where I changed a person's name, or when I made a huge plot shift. It makes it easier to fix the first few chapters before the change took place. I think it's probably a similar method. It helps me work faster because I know I really will get to it eventually.

  5. I like this too. Sometimes when I'm blocked I write a swear word into the text. Not everyone is a prude like me, I'm aware, but that allows me to forget everyone else, and write for me. Often it's not my inner editor that's blocking me, but my outer seven-year old/ bishop/ hatrack buddy who will shun the story or me if it stands as written.


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.