This has been an old post on the Zettelkasten, Linking Your Thinking forums and my own website, but since this was met with some interest (thank you), I thought this could be of use as well since MPU, productivity and knowledge work intersect a lot. Reposting it here in the hope it might be useful, it comes from my personal experience writing hopefully enjoyable lies (read: fiction). I mostly write, but I also code and do electronic music, and I’ve seen the same patterns in all disciplines. Writing, however, relied the most heavily on this since writing is by nature a discipline inscribed in time (we read, and write, word after word).
So: I write SF&F, so about worlds other than our own, but at its core, fiction is always about a world other than our own (if only because fictional characters are depicted). After years of writing novels and trying to negotiate a workflow than could give some form to the inevitable chaos that represents, I have come to a cycle of information (which takes some inspiration from the GTD model).
The problem or joy with art (depending how you look at it and how close your deadline is…) is that everything is always in flux until the very last moment. It’s also the case with academia, but in creative writing, it’s often the case that you find, in your material itself , a tiny detail at the very last moment that sheds an entirely different light on all your work and that explains to you what it has been about all along. For that reason, a novel, theoretically, can always fundamentally change until the very last moment. Therefore, I think the facts of creative writing establish themselves on a scale of certainty as you build the whole thing. (That can translate quite well to any kind of creative work, I believe.) It’s not governed by a succession of tasks (or, rather, they shift so rapidly that’s it’s not really worth tracking them), which is why, if you go deeper than the surface, the GTD model (with its sacrosanct actionable items) starts to crumble. At its core, creativity is about emergence, not about ticking the task “write 10 pages”. (Wish it was that simple.)
At first, you have ideas . Random thoughts, images, scenes, possibilities that come through your head – “wouldn’t it be cool if…” They can be huge (an idea underpinning a whole saga) or small (a cool line of dialogue). The need to be captured, in the GTD way, to make sense of later.
Then you organise (process, in GTD terms) those ideas to make sense of them, realise where they fit (and if they fit). People with Zettelkästen have a lead here, because they can already lay the relevant zettels out. That organisation becomes plot threads, characters, lines of thought that you have chosen or discarded. At this stage, you realise where the holes are (where you haven’t explored to get the whole story in plain sight). You will explore those holes based on what you already have, which becomes, in effect, hypotheses . You can alter them as along as you want, but they’re the firmer material on which you start building new material.
Now the fun begins. Hypotheses and new ideas start to represent a world from where laws and rules emerge. If you envision a character with a given past, then it will probably influence how they see the world. Ideas and hypotheses therefore draft necessities . “If things work that way, that means that…” Necessities will orient your exploration, and give new ideas and hypotheses.
Once you have enough material (depending what kind of writer you are), you start writing. What is written tends to take a life of itself, creating more and more necessities as the story unfolds.
Then – to steal a term from Star Trek and Star Wars fandoms – what is published becomes canon . If you want to write a sequel or another story in the same world, you cannot go back onto what has been said. Canon creates its own kind of necessities and ideas.
So it’s a cycle –
(pardon my French… it’s taken from my blog / website)
Bonus emoji: I found that using emoji in documents, mind maps, outlines, tags even works extremely well to separate the degrees of certainty associated to each kind of material:
- for Ideas (I know there’s fun there, I can look for that when looking for inspiration, I’m also free to capture but also disregard whatever I want)
- for Hypotheses (reminds the implication mathematical arrow: “this is what there seems to be, pursue that line of thought”)
- for to-dos (these are fundamental story questions I need to study to move further in order to build safely)
- for Necessities (things I cannot evade, or that I have to mention, or that I have to remember not to contradict)
Canon cannot (or at least should not) be contradicted. Or at least, it’s very firm ground. Maybe, in the context of a PKM, that could map itself to evergreen notes.
In the specific context of fiction writing, I found that using emoji as signallers (especially in a PKM) is tremendously useful (works visually, and in search: combine that with embedded queries in Obsidian and you are building yourself a killer dashboard for creative work). I have adopted a whole slew of them beyond those four, which I can post if you think that’s relevant (and that I have not been rambling too much already… )