Wednesday, February 22, 2012

ROW80 Update - Brainstorming and Writing

An interesting factoid about moi:

When I was in film school, my dreams all took place in 4 x 3 aspect ratio, and when the dream lost its narrative track, I'd wind it back on the Moviola and try again.

This is relevant to my thoughts on brainstorming and plotting, below the update.

ROW80 Update For The Day After Mardi Gras

Sunday Day 49 - 60 minutes. Had some great dim sum, went to see Arrietty, played with a desperately bored cat. Uh. Not much else. Got more brainstorming in.

Monday Day 50 - 141 minutes. A little short, but not bad. I did only brainstorming today. An hour on The Man Who Stepped Up, in which I got myself a killer motive, and then an hour and some on Devil in a Blue Bustle, where I have wrestled with the various clue and knowledge threads and have finally woven them together. Casey is unhappy with me because there's not enough shootin'. Not sure how I can please her. I guess I'll just have to work some major shoot outs into A Dark and Dusty Night (a graveyard should be a good place for that). And I may also combine Big Gun for a Little Lady with Girl Gunslinger (the series back story) to give her a shot at some real outlawing. That's a ways off, though.

I also did an hour or so of drawing, on a picture of Leslie Howard. So I may talk about The Scarlet Pimpernel (and possibly The Petrified Forest) for Friday Favorites this week.

Tuesday Day 51 - 62 minutes. I had a disrupted morning, and I have to get up very very early tomorrow (and stay really late at work) so I ended up mostly catching up with some blogging, and eating the wrong food. I did finally finish up the new outline that I started last night for Devil in a Blue Bustle. Lots of tasty morsels ready and waiting for me to get to them.

Brainstorming, Plotting, Pantsing and Writing

A lightbulb might have gone on over my head today. I think I'm using the wrong parts of my brain to do the wrong tasks. And as a result, I may (after 35 years of writing) have figured out something important about the writing/brainstorming mix, and how to manage it.

I'm using the term "brainstorming" loosely here. When you use that word, most people imagine a high-energy think-fest -- with lists and charts and post it notes, or maybe those kinds of exercises where you come up with 100 euphemisms for the word "mouse" before the clock runs out. And yes, I do some of that sometimes. (It can be fun, like a game.)

But the meat and potatoes (or fish and rice, depending on your culture) of my brainstorming is something else: I run the story in my head. As on the above mentioned Moviola, sprockets rattling, images flickering, sound wa-ing and row-ing as the speed changes.... Well, okay, the Moviola and 16mm has faded away, and I'm seeing, feeling and hearing things more in a 3-D VR dream universe. But there are jump cuts and things can go back and forth and repeat.

This happens very very fast. And no, the characters don't talk like chipmunks, because it is almost entirely pre-verbal. Dialog is made up of sounds and body language, not letters, or necessarily even words. In order to write it down, it has to be translated into a verbal realm. At a much higher speed than I can even talk, let alone type.

Trying to write as this is happening would be rather like trying to capture a huge fast-moving battle, as it happens, without warning... in French.

And I tell you frankly that my French is not that good.

The saving grace here is that my brain is wired like a camera/moviola combo, and I can capture and replay this with some reasonable control. I can send back the cast of thousands to their mark, un-part the Red Sea and cue the Egyptian army one more time, and have everybody take a slightly different route so the camera can see them better next time. Maybe focus in on a different part of the crowd. (Eat your heart out Cecil B.)

Even then, it's really hard to write while doing it. It requires a lot of processing power, and still goes fast, and the verbal part of my brain is only allowed sufficient processing power to take some notes. Maybe.

So, when I'm actually writing, I'm only doing a modified version of this, with a story that has to stop and wait for me. The result is that the prose becomes wooden (from trying to keep up with the ideas) and the story is uninspired (because of reining in the process). And I get bored.

At the same time....

Like everyone else, I can't always tell where the big sweep of things should really go, even what the characters should do next, until I've nailed some things down and tasted the prose (i.e. written something in final form).

That Moviola in my head is way too flexible, and the non-verbal story is too nebulous. So if I don't fix something in place, the story is more prone to wander and lose its purpose and form. The way dreams do. (You know, you're on a staircase and you're climbing and climbing and then all of a sudden you're just not? You're in a parking garage and you have no shoes and you can't find your car. And a second ago you were Sherlock Holmes but now you're a ballerina. It's like that.)

So, because of that, it doesn't work so well to do all the plotting and dreaming first, and then do the writing. And it doesn't work at all to try to do them both at the same time, because of what I mentioned above. But when I look back at what I actually do, I wonder if what I have considered to be a lack of self-discipline is really the answer to everything.

Binge and Purge

When I get ready to write a new story, I let it simmer in the back of my head. I do the moviola thing, I also do exercises where I come up with 100 euphemisms for "mouse" - and there comes this point where the idea is ripe. It's not finished, but it is very well developed and there is energy behind it, and then I can start writing.

I know this works well to launch a story, but it never occurred to me to cycle through this repeatedly. To not just build time for brainstorming at the beginning of writing, and maybe do it again after a layoff, but to build it right into the schedule itself. Don't just take a few days off to get back on track, jump right in there and BINGE on it.

This current non-verbal binge is lasting longer than I expected. I'm going to take a gamble and let it run this time. When I fell the need to nail something down, I'll switch into writing mode. I have a feeling that I will soon see a tipping point in this process, and then I'll be writing like a demon. (And then, when I've purged all the story out of my brain, I'll go back to plotting.)

So here's the big epiphany:

Because everybody claims that plotting and planning is so logical and orderly, I'm always doing it when I'm in a verbal/rational state of mind. And because actual writing is supposed to be so "creative" I try to do it when I'm in my mad artistic mode. Silly me. Plotting is irrational, and writing (working with words and grammar) is rational. D'oh!

So from now on (or until I change my mind) I'm going to work on doing the right thing at the right time. Let Og the Artist do the planning and plotting, and Miss Smartypants do the writing.

See you in the funny papers.


a said...

When you put it that way, it makes perfect sense.

If you're extremely analytical, it must be relatively easy to plot with charts and flowcharts and post-its, etc. From what I've read, I do believe many writers do it that way.

As someone who's trained in thinking visually, as a visual artist (drawing, film, whatever), it makes more sense for you to plot visually.

The Daring Novelist said...

In spite of all the Moviola stuff, the truth is my story sense really comes from playing make believe, more than any visual arts thing.

It's more "experiential" and visual than visual. That is, all the senses are involved, but feel is probably strongest.

Heather Kelly said...

Love this realization, and the part when you talk about binging. So much of my writing goes in fits and starts. That really echoed for me!

Good luck with your awesome new technique!!

Stacy Green said...

Thanks for sharing your process with us. I'm always fine tuning my own, and I love hearing about how others write.

And great week!

Liana Mir said...

Wow. I just had to say: I JUST figured this out for myself!

I do the same thing: the stories I play out over and over and then pin down come out a million times better than the ones where I try to merge the processes or flip them. Love this piece.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

A lot of this sounds familiar. I like picturing scenes playing out like a movie - I can "see" characters' facial expressions, hear the inflection in their voices, know where they're standing and how they move. The hard part is getting that to the page. I want the reader to see what I see, but finding just the right words is really tricky sometimes.

I usually do a lot of thinking about a story before I ever try to write it. If I've got a beginning and end but no middle, or if I've only got a hazy idea of an important scene, I know I'm going to get stuck! So I think about it and replay it until I have a general idea where the plot is going. Trouble is, by the time I actually get around to writing it, some of the most important scenes - which I usually imagine first - have gone a bit stale or I've forgotten some of how I initially meant to write it.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Heather and Tracy!

Liana: Great minds think a like, right?

Elisabeth: It's like rehearsal, and developing a show on the road before hitting Broadway, isn't it?

As for the scenes that ripen first: write them when they ripen. Don't wait. Don't put them in order. If something changes, you can change the scene, but you don't want to lose the fire.

Lee said...

I like your insight here about the creative versus the rational - and I agree, plotting is when the blue-sky thinking comes to the forefront and we make things up. It's the What-If Scenario, the Wild Crazy Idea space, the daydream. Rattling through the wordcount comes later.
Here's a spiffy on-topic link too, to Danielle LaPorte on Creativity.
Anyway, when I'm ready to write, I storyboard. Then if I'm stuck on one scene I write another scene out of sequence and fit the story back together later.
Strange how it works out in practice, though. My current work-in-progress protagonist was always a mature European - then I started to write him and he dropped thirty years and changed race.

The Daring Novelist said...

Lee, the creative mind is a wonderful thing. It is a lot like dreaming when the characters or landscape shifts on you, and you see what it really should be.

Although sometimes when that happens, I split off a new character. (Unless the old was just not working.)

The Daring Novelist said...

BTW David posted a neat description of his own creative process over on his blog at Guns and Magic.