The Chaos Theory of Writing

In a post on Telling the Truth–Mainly, I defined my writing process as chaos.

In the beginning, it wasn’t chaos. When I was in elementary school and junior high, writing was easy. I started at the beginning and stopped at the end.

My early writing process

When I entered the eighth grade, trouble began. I thought about the assignment for about ten seconds; then my brain vaporized and was replaced by a vacuum.

I realize now that things got all balled up because assignments became more complicated: a certain form, a certain length, a topic more abstract than I’d ever wrestled* with.

About thirty minutes before deadline, my brain started up again, but in fits and starts, like it had the hiccups. I always produced the essay, but writing was a harrowing experience. Chaotic. It still works that way.

My current writing process


I like to think of it as the Chaos Theory. Through the years, I’ve gathered a body of supporting evidence. In this post, I’ll share observations.

One caveat: I know nothing about the writing process. The Theory isn’t finished yet.  When I’ve completed my research and fleshed it out to the nth degree, I’ll put it all in a book.


There is no one way to write a book or a story or anything else. With all due respect to Robert Olen Butler, you do not have to write every scene on a note card and arrange them in sequence; and if you decide to change sequence while you write, you do not have to rearrange cards (because you were smart and didn’t buy any cards); and you do not have to refrain from writing scenes that will occur later in the book because you cannot imagine the characters’ emotional states until you’ve written what comes before.

I spent a zillion dollars on note cards, trying time after time to make it work, and time after time discarding note cards after about five scenes because I didn’t know what happened after that, except for some scenes here and there, and at the very end, which I could write, thank you very much.

2. You don’t have to know the end before you start. You don’t have to outline. If you don’t believe me, read Tony Hillerman on the subject. I read his essay about planning in a book, but I’ve forgotten the title, so I googled and found the following passages from a different source:

‘He wanted to know how Tony outlined his books. Tony said, “I don’t do that.” Then how do you know when to end? “I just get to the end.”’ ,’When I got a two-book deal with HarperCollins, the contract said that for the second book, they would pay half the advance upon approval of an outline. I said to Tony, “I can’t outline a book in advance.” He said, “Neither can I. Don’t worry about it, just write up anything for the outline, and then turn in the book you want to do.” . . .

‘Hillerman said he outlined one book and it turned out not so good. So he just started. He needed to know four or five things at the outset, but that was enough for him to write a novel. ~ New Mexico Magazine

3. When you write fiction, you can break a lot of rules you learned in school. I often divide a compound predicate with a comma. In fact, I sprinkle commas all over the place, but I leave a lot out, too. I use incomplete sentences. (Frags) Apostrophes, however, are best used in the traditional manner. It’s not good to experiment with them.

4. Number 4 is True, the Truest statement about writing that I can give. It isn’t just a Truth; it is a Rule.

When you run out of words and are in such a miserable state that the brownies in the kitchen aren’t just calling your name, but popping the lid off the Tupperware, flying into your office, and landing in your lap, then it’s okay to play a game of Candy Crush. Sometimes it’s okay to play a full round of Candy Crush, when it tries to get money out of you for another life.

At that point, you must stop. You may not buy, or ask friends for, extra lives. You may not spend any money. You may play only one version of Candy Crush. I recommend Candy Crush Saga, but whichever you choose, you must restrict yourself to that.

If a game ends in fifteen seconds because a bomb went off, and Candy Crush says you have no more lives and kicks you out for thirty minutes, that’s it. You’re finished. Sentence; period; paragiraffe, as my mother used to say.

When you complete the game, or the round, you must go back to your manuscript and find more words. After thirty minutes, when you get another life, if you’re desperate, it’s okay to go back.

5. Another Rule: Don’t open Facebook for any reason, except to get to Candy Crush, and then be darned careful. Don’t read posts, don’t post comments, don’t click on goat or cat videos. Stay away from everything that looks cute.

There’s a reason this blog is titled Writing Wranglers and Warriors.  I didn’t come up with the name, and that’s evidence that at least one other writer wrangles. It’s more evidence that the Chaos Theory is sound.

I repeat: there is no one way to write. I have shared shards of my experience. Yours may be different. I hope it is.

Numbers 4 and 5, however, are fact. Disregard them at your peril.

I wish I could.


chaos – utter confusion ~

The comment about Robert Olen Butler applies to a book, not to Mr. Butler himself, and represents my experience, but I could be wrong.

Wrestle is a synonym for wrangle.
wrangle – late 14c., from Low German wrangeln “to dispute, to wrestle,” related to Middle Low German wringen, from Proto-Germanic *wrang-, from PIE *wrengh-, nasalized variant of *wergh- “to turn” (see wring). Related: Wrangledwrangling. The noun is recorded from 1540s. ~


8 thoughts on “The Chaos Theory of Writing

  1. This is the best commentary on writing that I have EVER read! The Chaos theory of writing – Thank you for sharing this experience because it is exactly what happens to me! I begin to write and then, my hands move to click the Facebook tab, the Netflix tab, the Amazon Prime tab and poof! I am gone! Currently, I am experiencing Facebook withdrawal attempt No 45. It is Interesting how a political post with a complete stranger can take up a whole day! Distracting and Exhausting! Who are these Facebook people anyway? Candy Crush sounds like more fun, although responding to political commentary from the ether is a little like going to another world. We are the Chaos and it is us!


  2. Thank you. I’m glad to hear from a Kindred Spirit. Candy Crush allows for hours of mindless fun, or whatever. It causes players to produce little bursts of dopamine every time little colored thingies explode, and they explode a lot. I like dopamine–whoopee!


  3. I might be wrong about this, but I think Writing Wranglers and Warriors may have been formed by someone living in a western state where “wrangler” is just another word for “cowboy.” In this case, we’re wrangling words not cattle.


    1. In our case, we’re definitely wrangling words. Or I am. When I think of the word, I imagine a cowboy bulldogging a steer.That’s what writing sometimes feels like. The dictionary defines bulldogging as two cowboys on horses catching a steer, but in rodeos, I’ve seen it done by only one. There are also Wrangler bluejeans. I wonder how many guys who wear them have ever been around a steer.


  4. I’m just the opposite. Through trial and error I came to the conclusion that ‘for me’ the best course is to formulate a roadmap that shows me the best way to get to the ending of a novel. I don’t want to stumble to an ending… I’ve for me that it wastes a lot of time. So I outline, and I outline, and I outline. In truth, my outline is virtually a first draft with instructions on how to proceed with dialogue and description. Of course, it isn’t for everyone.


    1. I always wrestled with outlines in high school, managed to do them but sometimes after writing (because I didn’t know what I was going to say). In late ’70s and early ’80s, when a lot of research was done, the prevailing idea was that if you can write an outline, you’ve already written the piece mentally. I always have an idea where I’m going but am frequently surprised at the turn it takes and the ending that emerges. It’s a harrowing experience. I admire you journalists, who can produce news copy quickly. One of my favorite TV scenes is the one in which Mary (Tyler Moore) Richards says writing isn’t hard, and shows she can get a story out fast–she types one line, erases, thinks, types another (first) line, rips the paper from the typewriter, inserts another sheet of paper, etc., while everyone in the newsroom watches, until she gives up. With certain types of work, that’s the way I feel. Except now I don’t have a typewriter or an eraser. Thank goodness.


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