Most of my toughest problems writing fiction come from hitting a wall midway through the first draft when I realize I must alter the narrative in some dramatic way, requiring massive rewrites of what I’d written so far. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it is demoralizing—especially for longer projects like novels. I dread going back to do that rewriting work because it is difficult, tedious, and time-consuming. Fixing what I wrote before often takes longer than it took to write in the first place.
One way to avoid that potential problem is by outlining and plotting the story in advance. Many writers find outlining boring, tedious, and time-consuming as well—and it can be, especially if you’re writing the outline in detail. Then your outline can become a massive mess of a text document, in which case you might as well be writing your first draft.
Personally, I don’t write my outlines chronologically or in detail. Pieces of the story come to me out of order, ideas for scenes and characters, and I jot them down when they arise. So I end up with a text document composed of random story notes, all out of order. To assemble that into a coherent chronological outline would be difficult, tedious, and time-consuming. It may be worth it to save time later by avoiding mistakes that will result in rewrites, as stated above, but I don’t think it’s necessary to actually write an outline (unless it’s for someone else). I know screenwriters often have to write outlines for producers, but if you’re simply writing for yourself, you don’t need a physical outline. You can do it all in your head. In fact, it’s probably better to do it that way—if you have a good enough working-memory.
It was while recently reading Nikola Tesla’s autobiography, My Inventions, that I discovered a better way to plan and write fiction projects that could help avoid writing myself into corners—by using his practice of visualization. As a child, Tesla would see vivid flashes of images in his mind of things he’d seen in the real world. For instance, after going to a funeral, he’d have disturbing images of the corpse and be unable to erase them from his mind. Only by imaging other images was he able to get rid of them. He claimed that his development of that imaginative ability led to his later success as an inventor.
“During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied by strong flashes of light. When a word was spoken, the image of the object designated would present itself so vividly to my vision that I could not tell whether what I saw was real or not. . . Even though I reached out and passed my hand through it, the image would remain fixed in space.
“In trying to free myself from these tormenting appearances, I tried to concentrate my thoughts on some peaceful, quieting scene I had witnessed. This would give me momentary relief; but when I had done it two or three times the remedy would begin to lose its force. Then I began to take mental excursions beyond the small world of my actual knowledge. Day and night, in imagination, I went on journeys — saw new places, cities, countries, and all the time I tried hard to make these imaginary things very sharp and clear in my mind. I imagined myself living in countries I had never seen, and I made imaginary friends, who were very dear to me and really seemed alive.
“This I did constantly until I was seventeen, when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is radically opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient. The moment one constructs a device to carry into practise a crude idea he finds himself unavoidably engrost with the details and defects of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. Results may be obtained but always at the sacrifice of quality.
“My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception. Why should it be otherwise? Engineering, electrical and mechanical, is positive in results. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practise of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.”
Tesla was an engineer and inventor, not a fiction writer, so you may be wondering what one has to do with the other. While different, both fiction writing and engineering require creativity and imagination—planning and creating something new from nothing—or recombining existing things in novel ways. Tesla had a specific method in which he would visualize his inventions entirely in his mind before picking up a single tool. He would not even begin to start building an invention physically until he visualized the finish product in his mind.
Fiction writers can do the same thing as Tesla. Use your imagination to visualize your entire story, from beginning to end without writing anything down—because once you have something written down it becomes more difficult to change. If the story is located entirely in your mind, the story is fluid and malleable. You can easily change and edit things in your mind. Once you’ve visualized the story in full (not in full detail, but the gist of the entire story arc) then begin to write it out.
I think most writers, myself included, feel a need to write our ideas down as soon as we get them and begin the first draft as soon as possible—strike while the iron is hot. But (like my example from the beginning) that can lead to mistakes, and ultimately more work. Tesla’s visualization method may be a more efficient way to create fiction.
I still use my original method of jotting notes and ideas in a text file, accumulating data for a story. I do this all the time, usually for dozens of different stories simultaneously. In the past, when I felt I had enough data, I’d review the notes and try to assemble them into chronological order to serve as a sort of outline, then I’d begin to write the first draft. Now, I will do the same thing, but then visualize the full story before writing the first draft.
I’ve always visualized scenes—before and while writing—but never deliberately and never to the extent of Tesla. That’s why plot problems would often arise later. I would skip over parts of the narrative in my mind, not connecting all the dots, then midway through I’d discover there were plot holes that didn’t quite connect. I needed to change much of what I’d already written to make the plot connect properly, which takes a lot of time I could have saved if I simply visualized the story in full beforehand.
That is why I will now use Tesla’s visualization method as the final step before beginning to write a long fiction project. Take an hour or two (or however long required) to visualize the entire story from beginning to end. You don’t need to act it all out and recite every line of dialogue (that’s best saved for when actually writing), but you should visualize the gist of each scene—flesh out how you get from A to B to C to Z. Once you have that mapped out in your mind, you’ll be ready to write your first draft and will be better prepared to avoid potential setbacks and pit falls.
Visualization is powerful. If it worked for an engineer like Tesla, it may work for a fictioneer like you. Here is how, in his own words, Tesla explains his visualization technique:
“By that faculty of visualizing, which I learned in my boyish efforts to rid myself of annoying images, I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, businessman or artist.
“Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.
“Here in brief, is my own method: after experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.
“Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.
“The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.
“The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.”