Novel writing: Untangling a slinky

Slinkies, fun to play with but easily tangled

I’ve just spent a long time untangling my daughter’s slinky, which, as you’ll see from the picture is one of those springy coils that are really fun to play with. This slinky has been tangled up for a couple of weeks and all the members of the family have had a go trying to untangle it and until now, none of us could figure out how to sort it out.

At the moment I am in the middle of a novel (this is one of the reasons, along with school hols that I’ve been off the blog for a bit).  I wrote the first 50,000 words of the novel during last years #nanowrimo although a lot of it was not chronological but consisted of various scenes. I’m most a pantser writer, making it up as I go along with not too much of a structure. It’s here that people will wag their fingers and say, ‘well you only have yourself to blame’ when I say that much of my novel writing time lately has been concerned with untangling the mass of storylines in the book, and trying to discover the main thrust of the book and making everything fit in with that. I still haven’t got to the bottom of it, there’s a whole element that may or may not stay in at all. I don’t yet have the confidence or clarity of vision to see whether it can fit or not.

In our attempts to untangle the slinky we used (what we thought was) rational deduction. We first asked ourselves ‘how did we get here, what happened to tangle it up in the first place?’ We attempted all sorts of contortions, feeding whole chunks of the coil ‘back the other way’ which, in hindsight was actually making the problem worse. Like writing can be, working on the problem was compelling and my husband found it difficult to give up on the endeavour to go out to work. He was firmly convinced that it could not be done.

I am fully aware that I have much to learn as a novel writer. A lot of the flailing and uncertainty is because I have never solved the particular problems before or because I have walked myself into a novel with a plethora of ideas, when one would have done. At times it seems that I will not be able to figure out the way ahead or that I may have to give up altogether. But with the slinky and similarly with the novel, I knew that there must be a method that could be used, that, with a different mindset the problem could be solved.

There were two qualities that helped me unravel the mysteries of the slinky: instinct and determination. I didn’t give up on the problem and in the end the solution was to follow the coil along with my fingers and to keep ‘unspinning’ the thing (hundreds of times) until it found it’s proper trajectory. This was a more intuitive process that our earlier rough attempts. And now I have the solution to take forward with me, the next time that the children arrive to ask me to untangle the slinkies.

With my novel I have written mind maps and lists, I have physically printed it out and sellotaped it together again. All these were usefully done to acquaint myself with the problem but in my experience analysis rarely solves my writing problems (not to say that techniques can’t be taught – if someone knew how to untangle a slinky and told me, it would have saved hours of work. If someone knows how to tell if your novel has too many elements then please write in!).

Having done the rational analysis with my novel, I am now intuitively following the coil of it, giving it that quiet but open-minded attention, writing my way toward what feels right and noting what elements become less necessary. Will this work and will I be able to explain one day to others how to solve the tangled slinky of their novels, I’m not quite sure yet, but I hope so.

To come on the blog in September: Interviews and hopefully some readings from my short stories as well as some more #fridayflash. There are also some very interesting interviews lined up on my guest blog on, so keep an eye out!

7 thoughts on “Novel writing: Untangling a slinky

  1. I write scenes and arrange them later – on 3rd in a series doing this way – a lot of time at end and some extras needed to link them smoothly but it works for me – i just dont think in straight lines!!! – there is no correct way – is it a waste? i’m not sure maybe feels like it but I cannot correct and plan as i write – this last one i did mind map because as a series i needed to be sure of past events and the growing number of people!!!
    when i unravel yarn i use the same method as you – there is little that is rational about tangled yarn and a lot that is instinct and just plain time!!! – I’m with you all the way

  2. I know how to unravel a slinky — my brother taught me. He’s one of those people who sits on the floor and falls off, bless him, but somehow he knew the slinky pinch-n-slide technique. Pinch the end, slide it through — it untangles itself.
    I have no idea how to unravel a novel. Pinch it? Throw it down the stairs? Just keep sliding through? Do let us know! And please keep us posted on progress. I’m looking forward to buying your book.

  3. clarekirkpatrick

    Great metaphor and description of the process – something I have been struggling with with my own novel and it is only now beginning to feel like I’m getting close to it looking more like a novel and less like a tangled mess! 😀

  4. I love the way you take something from everyday life and compare it to writing. There are so many comparisons to be made aren’t there.

    I write in the same way – I just sit and write whatever is in my head. It may seem like hard work unravelling everything afterwards, but it will be well worth it; I am certain of that. Good luck!

  5. Just don’t buy one of those multi-coloured, plastic slinkies, that all I can say. Talk about trouble. Like you, I tend to pantster a lot, but what I do which helps me, is write down each scene in order after I’ve written it. Then when the first draft is done, I can quickly look through, decide which scenes are in the wrong place (or even worse, don’t push the story along) and work on it. It’s hard work, but very satisfying – seeing the order of threads that are there, and working out where to add, delete or fix….

  6. Thats a really interesting analogy, I write in scenes too and spend a lot of time trying to track back through plot lines (not always successfully). Another blogger/writer wrote recently about the ‘scrivener’ programme for writers, it may be the answer for a lot of us.

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