The Hermeneutic Circle and My Writing Process

Snow day - Guenette photo

(View from my writing desk this morning – stunning!)

Definition: The hermeneutic circle (German: hermeneutischer Zirkel) describes the process of understanding a text hermeneutically. It refers to the idea that one’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole.

As I write furiously on the first draft of the 4th book in the Crater Lake Series – 43,000 words so far and going strong – I am struck by how appropriate the above definition of the hermeneutic circle is to my writing process.

I can list many of the parts: character and setting sketches, research notes, outlining, storyboarding, scene blocking, quiet time for visioning and listening to character voices, to name just a few.

A description of the whole is a more slippery. At some point in the process, the parts begin to coalesce. Waiting for that moment, a moment I have never been able to plan for or anticipate, is agonizing. Embarking on this journey for the fifth time doesn’t mean it’s any less agonizing. But I have learned this – when the moment comes there is no stopping the story from moving forward.

It’s the moving forward that fits the definition of the hermeneutic circle. All the parts are in my head and I work and work for hours on end; the words pile up; the page count rises and it all seems unstoppable. But it isn’t. I reach a saturation point. I jump from my chair, leave the computer and run out the door for a walk or a ride on the stationary bike.

When I return, I pick up at a different spot on the circle. It is time for the whole to feed back into the parts. I might write snippet setting descriptions, review character sketches, update my chapter-by-chapter outline, revisit my storyboard. Then I reread everything I have of the first draft. Only then am I ready to move forward with the parts all tuned up to inform the whole.

So it goes. I must say, I do love what I’m doing. Let me know if any of this resonates. Maybe you have a completely different take on nailing that all important first draft. Feel free to share. I’m always open to tweaking my process.

Snowy Feb Hellebore

Fiction Writing is not a Linear Process


Definition: A linear process is one that moves along a line from A to B to C in a straightforward fashion. Conversely, a nonlinear process may develop in different directions at the same time.

I can only speak for my own fiction writing process . . .

I do not follow anything that would even slightly resemble the linear definition above. I am currently writing the last five chapters of The Light Never Lies. Yesterday, I wrote the first draft of the final chapter. Then I roughed in parts of the third from the end and then the fifth from the end. I’m going to move from both ends of this last section to the middle so the climax will be written last.

Lest you think my entire process of writing is erratic, let me explain. I began the book with ideas, the lightest of brush strokes that allowed me to see a starting point, some vague, shadowy lines of action, a climax, and an resolution.

I blocked out three sections for the whole book. For each section, I created my sticky note chapter outlines with one page of blank paper for each chapter. The sticky notes started out containing mere hints about what could happen in a given chapter. They got rearranged, scrapped, and rewritten as I actually wrote.

Definition: A hermeneutic circle is a process by which individual parts inform the whole and in turn the whole informs individual parts.

What happens in my fiction writing is an example of a hermeneutic circle. I work and work on a part of the story – a setting, a chunk of dialogue, an action scene. Then I plug that part into the whole and let it wiggle into place. There it sits as pleased as punch and before I know it, that part has begun to inform the whole of the story. So now I might need to go and make changes to other parts. At the same time the whole is doing its work. I may need to go back and tweak that first part I was telling you about. The whole process keeps going back and forth.

Right now I can almost taste the end of the entire first draft of The Light Never Lies. I actually typed the words THE END the other day – a bit of a cheater since I wrote the last chapter before the lead up chapters or the climax, but the light (so to speak) at the end of the tunnel is there.

Definition: An iterative process is a process for arriving at a desired result by repeated cycles of operations. The objective is to bring the desired result closer to discovery with each repetition (iteration).

It is in subsequent drafts that the iterative process takes hold. The finished product is a journey of discovery. I have to actively seek what in many cases is already hidden within the text.

Do you believe that you can write a complete draft of a story or book and not be aware of the underlying themes or connections you created?

I believe this because I am still discovering things about Disappearing in Plain Sight that I didn’t know were there.

It happens all the time. Here’s another example. The last blog I wrote contained two pictures. I wanted people pictures, one of women and one of men. We have a massive file of high quality digital photographs that Bruce and I have taken over the years (his more high quality than mine – but that’s a story for another post). This has proven to be a phenomenal resource in blogging. I scrambled a bit through my memory and looked through the photos from a couple of trips and found what I was seeking. I didn’t realize, until the day after the post was up, that both photos featured photographers. If you look back at that post, you will ask yourself how that could be. But it’s true.

I am convinced that creativity is like the proverbial iceberg, a lot of it is under the surface of even the artist’s consciousness.

How does that relate to an iterative process? In each draft of a story I need to keep spiralling backwards and forwards through the entire text. A theme discovered on spiral number two, three four, or fifty-four, will be like a thread that I might decide to draw through the entire fabric of the story, enhancing here or there with more precise brush strokes. Or I might pull that thread right out, deciding that my subconscious was a bit off course the day that thread got wove into the whole.

Fiction writing, for me, is a spiral process, a feedback loop, a back and forth, here, there and everywhere mosaic of creating. The one thing it has never been is linear.

I’d love to hear some thoughts on how other people see their own fiction writing process. Do take the time to share.

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(The photo at the top of the post is street art mural in Montreal.)