Writing or practice of any art form—or, for that matter, any kind of problem-solving—relies heavily on one intermediate skill: Greasing the Elements.
I realized this while doing the Word Jumbles in my local News & Observer. As you probably know, these puzzles are scrambled letters that must be unscrambled to make a word.
The hardest way to do a Word Jumble is to sit and think hard in a methodical way. That is finally effective and so it’s my fallback strategy, but it’s the slow laborious route: the number 3 way.
The quickest method (number 1) is when the word magically leaps out of the jumble at first glance. That works with both art and word puzzles. The answer simply appears. With fiction, these pop-up ideas usually pop out of prepared ground: I’ve worked on the scene, then put it aside and done something physical like driving or gardening, organizing objects or taking a shower. Then the ideas burst forth.
But of course that doesn’t always happen. So there’s number 2, the middle way, the Greasy Elements method, halfway between magic and hard labor. Using this technique with a Word Jumble, I view the five or six letters as big detached forms, each about six feet high. Pale green and translucent, as it happens, but that’s not so important. What’s important is that they’re slippery and wobbly. They slip and slide all over each other until they come to rest in the right order. Takes a minute longer than magic but is faster and more effective than say trying out each letter as Letter One and so on….
So in writing fiction, it works the same way. Let the elements of a scene—the people and place and circumstances slip and slide all over each other until they click into place on the page.
Remember the movie Apollo 13? Tom Hanks and crew were up in the spacecraft and something went wrong, and he radioed in an unforgettable tone of totally-controlled emotion: “Houston, we have a problem.”
What happened then on the ground was that the head guy threw together in a pile all the physical elements that the astronauts had available to them in their cabin. Engineers gathered around that pile of stuff and started fitting pieces together in different combos. They pulled together the gizmo that was needed and just in the nick of time, and were able to tell the characters in the air what to do.
That’s how it works with objects. With words and ideas, it’s the same: you throw the elements in a heap and see how things act on each other and combine and recombine. It's amazing what energy they carry.