03 April 2013

The Rising Island Method

by Robert Lopresti

I have chatted here before about the novel I am writing.  I am most of the way through draft 2 with many more in front of me, and I just got to the first sticky point. And to explain my problem it might help to explain how I go about writing a long piece - including the novella I expect to be talking about two weeks from now.

I use what I call the Rising Island Method.  You could call it the Sinking Ocean Method, but that sounds gloomier somehow.

So: picture a long mountain range stretching for many miles, but all of it underwater.  Got it?  Now the mountains start to rise or the ocean starts to sink, as you choose.  A few mountain peaks start breaking the surface, forming a few isolated islands.  As time goes by more islands appear, and they start to link together, until finally, the entire mountain range is visible.

This is what we in the lit biz call a metaphor.  The mountain range is the novel.  The highest peaks are the parts I know the most about.  Rather than starting at one end and writing straight through I start with the high points (ha ha), because they are the parts I know best (and usually the parts that inspired me to write the darned thing in the first place).

I usually know the first and last chapters very well, but I have no idea how many will fit between them so when I write them I label them Chapters 1 and 1000.  That gives me plenty of room to maneuver.  Now I know what happens close to midpoint so I write that up and call it Chapter 500.   But writing that part teaches me that my hero needs to know something before that point, so I scribble down Chapter 400: Sal finds out X.  I'll fill it in later.

And so it goes.  Each chapter I write teaches me about other sections I need to write.  The islands slowly start to show their shapes.

So why do I find myself in trouble now?  Because I have my characters at Point P, and then at Point R, with no explanation of how they got through or around Point Q.

It's not a structural flaw, thank heavens.  Just a few chapters that need to be written, and maybe some rearranging.  You might call it building a bridge between islands.  Or terraforming, if you prefer.

Not to worry.  No one will drown in the process.  Although a few of the characters do suffer tragic -- well, some other time.


  1. Nice metaphor, Rob. I also write the last chapter first. It tells me where I'm going, and, as you said, is the original idea for the book anyway. Then, the next to last chapter which is where the climax and action are. In my books, the last chapter is the wrap. Third is the opening chapter (which will be rewritten many times, looking for the best first sentence). Fill in the blanks, and it's done. I also find myself inserting notes such as "fill in description" to myself as I write.
    Good luck with connecting all your islands!

  2. I enjoyed reading about the rising island method. It would be a scary approach for an old outliner like me. I'm always afraid that writing the high points first will end up being like the eat-dessert-first method of dining, that I'll end up with a plateful of brussels sprouts and no appetite. But I might have to try it. Good luck with your bridges.

  3. "Sinking Ocean Method" LOL That's great, Rob.

    I, too, sometimes practice the Rising Island (great metaphor, by the way, even if it does make me long for desert), because otherwise I forget parts I want to use. Not the whole part, of course -- more like the wording I like best. If I don’t write it down when it first comes to me, it’ll slip away within a half-hour or hour. Sometimes within just a few minutes, it seems.

  4. Terry, I understand your concern but i find when I try to write a book straight through I get stuck at those brussel sprout spots. But when I cherry pick the good scenes and write them first the other scenes become more interesting because I know what they are tying together. So we could call this the Cherries and Brussel Sprouts Method, but then I would need to find different illustrations.

  5. As always, I'm amazed at the things that I never think of... I'm going to have to try this. Thanks for the post, Rob!

  6. I like the Rising Island idea, Rob, and the idea that the story is there to be found, we just can't see it all yet. It's similar to how I wrote my first novel, except I used index cards. I have thousands of them, and slowly cut them down until I only had a few hundred, and even then it was hard to keep up with all the "rising" bits. That's one reason why I love writing short stories. LOL. I'll have to try your method on my new novella.

  7. What an amazing idea. I don't think I could ever pull it off because I don't know what the story is even about until I've finished writing it. I never know the ending until I write that last scene. But I love to hear how other writers approach their projects. I have to say, this is one the of most unique ideas I've ever heard about.


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