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Storytelling, Slowed Down: On Writing Vertically

Today’s bit of inspiration comes from a piece on vertical writing by Nick Ripatrazone, a staff writer at The Millions.

Cropped notebook image by Daniel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a recent piece at The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone writes about the gestation of ideas and vertical writing, or the process of slowing down and digging deeper when writing a story. He describes the process of Andre Dubus, who writes an idea in a notebook, then leaves it alone for as long as it needs to ripen. Dubus doesn’t think about a story — “I will kill the story by controlling it,” he says.

But Dubus’ process wasn’t always this way: before, he planned his plots, forced his characters to do things, wrote a lot of words, and went through too many drafts. This is horizontal writing: a focus on the daily sessions, the revisions, and the amassment of pages and words. Ripatrazone talks about the difference between horizontal and vertical writing:

Vertical writing, in contrast, values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. Horizontal writing seeks to move across the page; vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. The folly of horizontal writing is that it convinces writers that fiction writing operates on a production model. If they simply sit at the desk and pound out page after page, the story will come.

Ripatrazone also talks about his own writing habits, and his attraction to moving down within the page, rather than across it:

I write vertically. I have never been a writer with a lot of time to write. I am thankful for that. I am not sure what would happen if I had hours to work. Not being able to write makes me want to write very badly. It makes me not want to squander the moments when I sit with a story. This is a necessary tension. I am not a writer first. I have a family, and without them I would have little reason to want to write — or to do anything else. My desire to create is held in silence during the day, so that my literary moments can be focused and absolute.

“Gestation of Ideas: On Vertical Writing and Living” is a lovely read, no matter if you’re a writer of fiction or nonfiction. Ripatrazone shares insights on the writing life, the benefits of slowing down and letting ideas unfold naturally, and the importance of time and perspective when telling the stories within us.

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  1. What an Eye-opener. I have always been a vertical writer until recently. A friend of mine told me creating plots and drafts makes the story more interesting, but I discovered I struggled through, it was much easier for me then than now. Wow, thank you for this post, am definitely going vertical again.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m with you, plots and drafts just kill the joy and adventure of “finding” your characters. But they do work for the more deliberate type writers. It’s a matter of figuring out what works for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I could really relate with what Nick Ripatrazone says about vertical writing. I too do not have much time to spare during the day. I write because I want to, because something wants to cone out and be expressed in words. And yes, stories are told when they are ready. They cannot be forced or manipulated.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. The Irish writer Dermot Bolger says writing needs to happen in your subconscious, first. He likens it to opening a hotel for characters, leaving the light on, and waiting to see who shows up.

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  3. Timely and much needed. Intuitively I know I fit the vertical writer niche. Finding validity through this essay is a huge support. It assuages my guilt for not succumbing to exhortations to write copiously when I’m better off using that time for inner gestation.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I am so glad i clicked on this website! Thank you so much for helping me to get started. I have a lot of hurt stored inside of me, that gives me “writers’ block”. I am retired and so Blessed to have been a three time survivor of cancer!! I feel GOD has led me here today!!Thank you all for your for
      your comments

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Copious writing works for me only when I have bubbling within me lots of bits and pieces of scenes to get down quickly, before the bubbles pop and I lose their contents. I’m glad you can let go of that guilt, now, and get back to gestating with joy!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I always wondered why the plotting, drafting, planning, and journaling techniques never worked for me. I began to think I wasn’t a true writer if I couldn’t follow this regimens like a religion along with everyone else. But I’ve always known my sporadic bursts of passion in my writing meant something more than normal. Now I see that maybe I’ve been a vertical writer all along.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Of course, you’re vertical. The horizontal methods are pushed on adult writers in the mistaken belief that the way children are taught about writing is how stories are created. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The horizontal approach is based on linear, after-the-fact analysis of a finished product that is consumed in chronological order, even though that’s not how Art is created. But enough writers push themselves to use horizontal technique. to keep the myth going.

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  5. I’m with the others on vertical writing. I didn’t know that there is a proper term for my kind of writing. What a revelation! I always have been vocal with my opposition for forced effort. I find that it hinders the flow of creativity. But if it works for others, who am I to say…
    To each his own and whatever floats ones boat, right?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Horizontal forced effort only “works” for others because they’ve been taught that it’s right, and that the extra effort that it takes (including anxiety and writer’s block) constitutes proof that “real work” is being done, in the mistaken belief that work cannot be fun. Yes, books get written horizontally, and many of them may be “good,” but that is probably only because a lot of editing and revision was needed to straighten out the first draft. When I go boating, I want to enjoy myself.

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      1. Do you believe in writer’s block? I thought people write when they are inspired, and when one is inspired the words flow and everything fits. One can sits on the front of a computer and hammer at the key day and night. But if people are not inspired and cannot put something on paper, they call it writer’s block. I call it rest. Rest for the mind till it can be creative again. I believe no one can force creativity, it has to come by itself. Take a walk, look around, go dancing or singing if one cannot write but don’t force it. Ideas will come when one is ready. But like I said before, whatever works for someone is good.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Re: writer’s block, I believe something like what you said about it (see my comment to writenlive, above). I never experienced it when I was writing my first novel, because I wrote what I wanted to write, when I wanted to write it, wherever it might happen in the story: beginnings, middles, or ends of scenes. That meant there was always some hole ready to get written shut, or research to do, to feed my subconscious, or revisions needed, to smooth the transitions as the characters changed. People who believe they’re supposed to follow a plan get wrapped around the axle about their being “blocked,” when the next scene or chapter won’t come to them. All they need to do is write something else, or, as you said, to go do something else to rest and refresh their creativity.

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      1. Yes, I believe in channeling creativity in so many ways. I think blogging helps as well when one get temporarily stuck with continuing a novel or so. Writing about different topics that have nothing to do with each other is a good exercise for the brain. It is like change of scenery, good for the mind and soul. That’s why travelling (far or near could even be just cycling or driving around) is a good form of therapy for creativity. You never know what inspiration you might come across. Talking to people (especially strangers because they are mostly unbiased) does wonders as well.

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  6. Thanks for posting this. I don’t follow “The Millions” yet, so I never would have read that article without your article. These articles give me a sense of validation because I don’t write every day. And you know how driven we are to “produce”. I always say that I let thing percolate in my head, and once they come to the top, once I have a scene, complete in my head, I vomit it onto the page. The gestation image is far more beautiful.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I like the gestation concept, too, especially because I was fortunate to enjoy four good pregnancies, despite my having other health problems. Labor was hard, but there’s a difference between pain and suffering, and the same applied to the writing of my first novel. It felt just as natural to me to bear a book as it did to birth a baby, and that’s because in both cases, it’s best to conduct the process vertically, instead of horizontally. Why fight gravity?

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  7. I’m not even a “writer” until a few months ago. Never wrote anything but an occasional letter. Now I find myself writing poetry. Never read a poem that I can remember except Trees by Kilmer. Now I worry about running out of ideas! What a strange situation!

    Liked by 6 people

  8. I don’t like structure and preplanning at all because spontaneity comes more often without it. But I can say that I like the idea of having a set number of words happen in a day ideally, and I like the idea of that discipline but I find it rough to write except on my days off.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Discipline” is something that has been taught as a virtue, and it’s natural to want to see some objective measurement of “progress” in our work, but what we’re producing is Art, not a craft, and spontaneity is a characteristic of Art. In that sense, your instinct to avoid “structure and preplanning” is sound.

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  9. Awesome! I actually just blogged about how I can’t force myself to write stories, otherwise I no longer enjoy the story. I wait for ideas to fall into my head, and then I let the story develop naturally. 🙂 I cannot set any sort of routine for myself, because my brain does not work that way.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. I love this! And what divine timing. I’m writing my first novel, VERY slowly, and have found myself focusing on and enjoying character building. just letting the action and plot come to me at its own speed rather than forcing it. Thanks so much for this post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It took me three weeks short of three years to write my first novel, and it was done entirely by the seat of my pants: organically, as described by Stephen King, or vertically, as described by Andre Dubus, although I like to express my own feeling for the process with the terms “non-linear writing” or “epicyclic thought” (see my blog post at http://wp.me/p30cCH-p1). It was a joyful artistic experience, with none of the angst and writer’s block, which so many others report, despite all their planning, plotting, and outlining.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Nearly every time I have tried to just pump out a story it ends up just words on a page with some useable sentences but nothing gripping. It’s great to find that there is another way of doing it out there.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There may be about as many “right” ways of writing as there are writers, but strict adherence to the horizontal method is probably not one of them, at least not during the creative phase. Creativity is a pump that needs to be primed before it can lift enough ideas to flow freely into a story. Vertical writing seems to do a better job of priming that pump.

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  12. Fascinating. I tend to launch into writing without much forethought and try not to edit too much before publishing (as a conscious effort to thwart my perfectionism). I always figured it was a bit amateurish. Nice to know professionals like to seize the thought and run with it to see where it goes too!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like “perfect” too, but it’s like fractal geometry: it tends to go on forever, into increasingly minute detail. And being an amateur is not a bad thing, when you consider that the root of the word is the Latin word for love. Why shouldn’t writers love their work?

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  13. Plot driven vs character driven. I’ve struggled with this myself. Sometimes I’m drawn into a concept that has a specific beginning and end, like a Shyamalan movie, but when you love a character enough to know them so thoroughly that they take you on THEIR journey…there’s magic.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Remember what Stephen King said about plotting? That it’s like trying to dig up a fossil with a jackhammer. He’s also a self-confessed organic writer. The horizontal-writing gurus prefer to ignore those parts of his book, and they point to his word-count suggestions, instead.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. That’s an interesting take, but I’m not sure what I think of it. While I could be misunderstanding, it seems like Ripatrazone might be creating a false dilemma. Can’t one do both horizontal and vertical writing?

    For example, people, even writers, tend to procrastinate about writing. Events like NaNoWriMo, for example, force people to write. However, if people are willing to let their story go wherever it goes, and not force it to go where they want it to go, it seems like they can still achieve vertical writing.

    It seems like this might be a false dilemma. Am I completely off on this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. NaNoWriMo doesn’t require horizontal writing. It doesn’t matter in what order the scenes come, nor even if the book needs more than 50K words to tell the whole story. NNWM is meant to get the quick-and-dirty stuff done. Horizontal writing happens later, during editing, when continuity becomes important.

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  15. This makes me feel so much better about my writing process. I’m a senior in college, and essays, projects, and late-night study sessions have consumed my last three and a half years of time. The little bit of time I do have after a long day at school is mostly spent working on one of my many hobbies: painting, photography, writing, dates with my significant other, and odds and ends anywhere from board games to movie marathons. Needless to say, my time is spread a bit thin to focus on solely writing and while I’d love to just sit down and write I also struggle with coming up with material on the spot. I tend to require spontaneous inspiration to write, otherwise I feel like I’m scrawling garbage on the page instead of moving closer to publishing my ideas. I’m glad to know that there are others who can’t sit and write for hours on end, but still get it done regardless.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. I never knew what horizontal and vertical writing is. As an immature writer, I have done both.
    There have been times when I have written horizontally for hours and then noticed that it didn’t make a good read. Then I let the piece sit for a bit and ideas came so naturally.
    Thanks to you, I won’t be doing that kind of donkey work again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We’re creating Art, not manufacturing a craft. I’ve been a craft worker, and while crafts can be beautiful, they’re meant to serve a particular tangible function. Art serves an intangible purpose: to communicate. Written Art is the most powerful way to communicate (your “good read”). Writing books, short stories or poems is not like weaving baskets or blankets.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d like to think that I’m creating music which is a form of art and I approach writing the same way. I keep fiddling with the guitar until I come across a good riff, which is analogous to horizontal writing. But sometimes a great sounding lick comes to mind when I’m busy doing other stuff, which is just like vertical writing.
        To come to think of it, I always write my lyrics vertically. I just didn’t know that I was approaching another aspect of art in a different way. Now that the terminologies are distinctly registered in my mind, I know where I was faltering.
        Thank you so much for your insight.

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  17. The process of vertical writing intrigues me. My training in writing has always stressed the habit and practice above all else. Creativity comes when pen it put to paper (or the modern day equivalent) not when you just think about it, they said.

    I like the rumination that vertical writing allows, but after reading Jumpstart Your Brain by Doug Hall it is difficult to think I cannot make myself write well when I want to. The “off” day aside.

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  18. I enjoyed reading this. When I started my first novel, I mistakenly believed I had to have the whole thing planned out before I actually started writing it. So I spent the first few months trying to force out a detailed outline of the entire book, and complete background on each important character and place and event. While I love stories with plenty of background, I found that forcing it all to reveal itself immediately only left me tired and discouraged, and stuck regularly. Finally, one day I couldn’t take it anymore and I gave in to the overwhelming urge to just write. That’s when the story really started to come together. Since then, I have had the incredible pleasure of writing the words “the end!” and now I can focus on the editing, etc. Thanks for this post!

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  19. Very interesting read. Tried horizontal but similar to others once read back it is just facts without my own personality. Not suggesting my idea of humour improves it but on a personal level I find rushing any any article (remove one of those any’s please) dilutes the story ten fold.

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  20. My most successful blog posts have always been the ones that just erupt out of me. They also are quite narrow in subject and narrative. Not the ones I tinker with and draft and re draft, they never do as well. Now I can use a fancy term for it! And also it makes me feel like it’s okay to work in this way, everything else I’ve read on technique says basically how I write is rubbish and won’t last. Well it’s lasted quite a while now! Thank you!

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