Investigative Draft 02/05/21

Years ago I picked up a “how to write” book by David Morrell, who is famous for creating Rambo. In the book, Morrell describes his “outlining” process, in which he opens up a document and begins to talk to himself. Through that therapy-style technique, he eventually figures out what he’s trying to write.

That’s how my first drafts tend to look, as well. There are instances where I don’t need to do this. If I’m working on Tomahawk, which is a Black Gum and A Minor Storm follow-up, I know the world well enough to hop right in. For Dying World, I needed to figure out what exactly I was trying to say, how the world would work.

I’ve been working on DW for about five years. You wouldn’t know it from the size of the draft. Basically, I would start writing it, hit a wall, stop, then start over again. It was a tedious process. I knew that if I was ever going to get the dozen or so books floating around in my head onto paper, I needed a new process.

Plot outlining didn’t really work for me. Maybe I get bored, or maybe I’m just not really a “plot” kind of guy. Character sheets don’t really work either, because figuring out who a character is tends to be an organic process.

I needed something similar to the Morrell method.

So here’s my process, cut down and simplified. I’ll expand on it more at some other time.

  1. I boil down the core idea of the book. In Dying World, it was about an older brother trying to save his younger brother from insanity. That warped into two friends rather than brothers.
  2. Once I have that concept, I do David Lynch’s “fishing” method, where I sit as still as I can, turn off my phone, and look for ideas. Snatches of conversations will come to me, in different places (diners and bars, usually), and I’ll write those down.
  3. Scenes will usually follow after that. I write them as fast as I can, using a lot of shorthand.
  4. After the scenes come, The Big Idea will finally surface. This is the thing that I’ve been trying to get at the whole time. Sometimes, as in the case of DW, it changes the whole book. But I continue on as though nothing has changed.
  5. Repeat the process until you reach an end.

What you end up with is an “Investigative Draft.” It’s not an outline, it’s not linear. It’s impressionistic and fragmented, but it has all the raw materials you’ll need.

The “investigative draft” is the psychic equivalent of turning a box upside down and dumping its contents onto the bed. You had a junk drawer, now you have all the junk in front of you. And look! There are some pencils. You can neatly arrange those on your desk. And…a sock? Better put that in the wash. Loose papers? Time to shred them!

Utilizing Jordan Harper’s “mood board” method, it might be good to include snippets of your own thoughts into this first draft. What tone are you going for? Maybe you want to feel the way you felt when you first watched Mulholland Drive. You’d include that.

Something like:

“The tone here needs to feel the way you felt when you saw them open the blue box. The tiny old people skittering at the feet of the dumpster monster. The way, when the movie was over, you felt like you’d really felt something. You couldn’t touch it and that made it something more. You participated in its creation. You weren’t a viewer, you were a co-creator. Leave that room. Get that feeling.”

This will be interspersed with capsule ideas for scenes, snippets of dialogue, and lines that come into your head.

You’ve got it, now. You’ve got your tools all splayed out in front of you. You’ve made the clay.

Now you go back and start to smooth it out.


  1. This passage here: “You couldn’t touch it and that made it something more. You participated in its creation. You weren’t a viewer, you were a co-creator.” That epitomizes why I was so drawn to Lynch’s work LONG before I really understood his work. It felt like I was part of the creative process. It was interactive, almost like a game.


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