When Your Brainstorming Hits a Drought

gobi-692640_1280A writing friend recently shared with a bunch of fellow scribes that she was seriously stuck on the brainstorming aspect of a new project. She gave me permission to blog about it. This author needs to solidify her idea and start writing because she has a thing called a deadline. But, she says, “the story and the characters are seriously playing hard to get.”

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high level merger negotiations between computer companies. 

When Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.  

Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology for mass destruction.  

Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

A good pitch guarantees a solid foundation. Now what?

Well, the next phase depends on how you like to approach things: plotter or pantser or something in between?

My own practice is to go immediately to the mirror moment, for it influences everything else. This is a concept I explain in detail in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle.

Now, I know there are some dedicated pantsers out there for whom any kind of pre-planning brings out a case of hives. They just want to start writing, and that’s okay … so long as you realize that you’re basically brainstorming the long way round. Some contend that this is the best way to find original story material. I would say it is only one way. There is still going to be a lot of editing and a ton of rewriting. The process I’ve described here is a faster and, to my mind, a more efficient way of getting to an original story line that you will be excited to write.

And so ended my advice, which I hope bursts the clouds for a fellow writer.

When things go dry in your writer’s mind, what are some of the things you do?

 

 

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I Am a Recovering Plot Pantser–There, I Said it

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


book-woman-reading-free-ms



On Monday, guest Steven James had an excellent post on “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” I loved reading his thoughts on trusting the fluidity of the process and chasing after rabbit trails. I can relate to this as a writer. On Tues, our esteemed TKZ contributor, P. J. Parrish, expressed an argument in favor of more structure in her subtle post, “Sometimes You Gotta Suck It Up & Write The Darn Outline” in which she wrote about her love/hate relationship with outlining. These arguments got me thinking about my own process that has evolved over the years.


I started out as a total “pantser,” meaning I came up with a vague notion of characters or a story idea, then started writing to see where it would go. In general, I found this to be liberating and it unleashed my inner story teller, but I found (over time) that I ran out of gas about half way through and hit a wall. I always finished the project. I believe it’s important to finish what you start, if for no other reason than to learn how to get out of tight corners. There’s a true feeling of accomplishment to salvage a story that seemed to be headed for a dead end, and through practice, I learned what pitfalls to avoid. But as a writer under contract, I realized it would be a better use of my time to do some advance thinking on structure, rather than hoisting a shovel to shore up plot holes.


So I found a hybrid method that satisfied my “pantser” free spirit yet provided enough structure to serve as a guidepost – my lighthouse in the fog. I posted a more detailed presentation on TKZ HERE, but I wanted to highlight what this method does for me now.


SAWG YA Presentation - 3-Act Screenplay Structure Diagram 091612


NOTE: A word of caution on any detailed plotting method: A plot structure can become rigid and restrictive if it inhibits the author’s exploration into a new plot twist or character motivation. As Steven James said, some rabbit trails should be explored. For me, this is the fun of storytelling – to uncover a hidden gem of creativity.


When I’m first developing an idea, I break it down into turning points (the 3-Act Screenplay Structure “W”) to get a general notion on structure. It helps me simplify the plotting/outline method into 5 turning points (the W). I can handle 5 things. I use this to write proposals and brainstorm with my crit group for their plots or mine. Rather than getting bogged down by character backstory or other details, I focus on “big ticket” plot movements to provide some substance.


The transition scenes between the turning points are still a mystery that can be explored, but in a synopsis, I can provide enough “meat to the bone” for an editor to get the idea and pair it up with a multi-chapter writing sample. Once I start writing the rest of the book, I can still explore rabbit holes and surprise character motivation twists to embellish the framework I’ve started with. I get my proposal out to my agent (with writing sample, synopsis and pitch) and keep working on current material. While I’m waiting to hear on a sale, I can set the material aside because I have a synopsis to act as a guidepost when I can get back to it. This method has also helped me plot out a whole series, to build onto the storylines (over a series of novels) and ramp up the stakes.


Focusing on turning points from the beginning (before I commit to the writing) has inspired me to spin major plot twists and “play with” the options I should consider. I can reach for complete 180 spins in a “what if” way. As an example of 180 degree turns, I’ve been inspired by the TV show CSI Vegas this season. Many of the episodes are so well written, they make a 180 turn at every commercial break and hit their marks with great twists. I’ve enjoyed this season so much that I record and go back over the plot by taking notes, to see how the writers developed the story. That’s what really good turning points can do for a book/TV show. They pull the reader/viewer into the story and challenge them to figure out where the plot is going. Who dunnit?


So I’m a reformed pantser who has found a way to keep a sense of free spirit, yet write with a framework when I’m ready to go. I feel more efficient, but I still have the flexibility to explore rabbit trails and trust my natural story telling ability.


I’d like to hear from you: How do you handle rabbit trails? Do you put all the work up front in the form of a detailed outline, or do you prefer a lighter touch to “discover” something as you write? Are you a hybrid plotter/outliner too?

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Your Brain when Writing

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A recent article in the New York Times describing a study on the neuroscience of creative writing (‘This is Your Brain on Writing‘) provides an intriguing glimpse of what happens to your brain when writing fiction. I guess it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about in scientific terms at least – but, if this study is correct, there appears to be a number of similarities (in terms of brain function) between writers and people who are skilled at other actions such as sports or music. The study also found  differences in brain activity between professionally trained writers and novice writers who were asked to continue a short piece of fiction after a few minutes of brainstorming. What were these differences? 

Well, for starters they found that during the brainstorming section of the study, novice writers activated their visual centres of the brain, while the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions of the brain involved with speech. The researchers concluded that novices ‘watched’ their stories like a film inside their heads while the ‘experts’ were narrating their stories with an inner voice.

Secondly, when the writers started to actually write their stories, areas of the brain crucial for retrieving factual information and holding multiple pieces of information (possibly characters and plot lines) became active.

Finally, they also found that in the expert writers the caudate nucleus (the region of the brain that plays a vital role in how the brain learns and which activates as a skill becomes more automatic with practice) ‘lit up’ in a similar way to that observed in people who were experts in music or sports.


Now, creative writing is a notoriously difficult thing to study in the brain – for a start, you don’t usually perform the creative process while lying still inside an MRI machine – and it also sounds from this article like some experts believe the results of the study are too crude to be all that meaningful. Others however feel the study provides some real insight into the regions of the brain that ‘light up’ when a person is involved in the writing process. 

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this study was that a researcher even attempted to look at what the brain does when a person is being ‘creative’ – although I so wonder whether we can ever really understand how creativity works in terms of the brain (for a start it seems to me that many writers access their creative process in very different ways). To be honest, I was also a little depressed by the novice versus expert results. I tend to be a very visual person and so I fear, had I been included in the study, my brain would have acted like the ‘novice’ during the brainstorming sessions at least (after my years of writing practice that seems depressing!)

Who knows, maybe one day neuroscientists will be able to use their studies to create a designer drug that will make us all awesome creative writers…or maybe they’ll identify the crucial area of the brain that needs to activate in order to become a bestselling author…Then again, perhaps delving too deep into the brain of a writer isn’t exactly a good idea (we can invent just too many ways for this research to be used for evil…)

So what research would you like to see in the science of creativity? I think it would be cool to see whether the brains of brilliant writers work differently to mere mortal folks like me and (as brilliance so often comes with madness) whether mental illness has an impact on the creative process.

What about you? If you could be included in a study on the neuroscience of writing, what kind of study would it be?

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Your Brain when Writing

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A recent article in the New York Times describing a study on the neuroscience of creative writing (‘This is Your Brain on Writing‘) provides an intriguing glimpse of what happens to your brain when writing fiction. I guess it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about in scientific terms at least – but, if this study is correct, there appears to be a number of similarities (in terms of brain function) between writers and people who are skilled at other actions such as sports or music. The study also found  differences in brain activity between professionally trained writers and novice writers who were asked to continue a short piece of fiction after a few minutes of brainstorming. What were these differences? 

Well, for starters they found that during the brainstorming section of the study, novice writers activated their visual centres of the brain, while the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions of the brain involved with speech. The researchers concluded that novices ‘watched’ their stories like a film inside their heads while the ‘experts’ were narrating their stories with an inner voice.

Secondly, when the writers started to actually write their stories, areas of the brain crucial for retrieving factual information and holding multiple pieces of information (possibly characters and plot lines) became active.

Finally, they also found that in the expert writers the caudate nucleus (the region of the brain that plays a vital role in how the brain learns and which activates as a skill becomes more automatic with practice) ‘lit up’ in a similar way to that observed in people who were experts in music or sports.


Now, creative writing is a notoriously difficult thing to study in the brain – for a start, you don’t usually perform the creative process while lying still inside an MRI machine – and it also sounds from this article like some experts believe the results of the study are too crude to be all that meaningful. Others however feel the study provides some real insight into the regions of the brain that ‘light up’ when a person is involved in the writing process. 

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this study was that a researcher even attempted to look at what the brain does when a person is being ‘creative’ – although I so wonder whether we can ever really understand how creativity works in terms of the brain (for a start it seems to me that many writers access their creative process in very different ways). To be honest, I was also a little depressed by the novice versus expert results. I tend to be a very visual person and so I fear, had I been included in the study, my brain would have acted like the ‘novice’ during the brainstorming sessions at least (after my years of writing practice that seems depressing!)

Who knows, maybe one day neuroscientists will be able to use their studies to create a designer drug that will make us all awesome creative writers…or maybe they’ll identify the crucial area of the brain that needs to activate in order to become a bestselling author…Then again, perhaps delving too deep into the brain of a writer isn’t exactly a good idea (we can invent just too many ways for this research to be used for evil…)

So what research would you like to see in the science of creativity? I think it would be cool to see whether the brains of brilliant writers work differently to mere mortal folks like me and (as brilliance so often comes with madness) whether mental illness has an impact on the creative process.

What about you? If you could be included in a study on the neuroscience of writing, what kind of study would it be?

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Storms of the Brain

It only occurred to me recently how apt the word brainstorm truly is. Perhaps it was prompted by watching the terrible effects of Hurricane Sandy, but I’m sure it was also related to my own story problems lately.
I’m working on my fourth Tyler Locke book right now, and I’ve been having a hell of a time wrapping my head around why the plot just wasn’t working. I had a synopsis and basic outline, but the elements weren’t gelling into a cohesive story. No matter what I did with the plot I had, it wouldn’t work. It was as if I were trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from three different boxes. The individual elements were all great, but for some reason they didn’t fit together.
It was the dreaded writer’s block. But I’ve written five novels already, so how could that be possible? Shouldn’t I have the process figured out by now? If I were a golfer, I’d curse my case of the yips. The stuff that should be an easy putt by now was suddenly impossible. The mojo was gone, and I didn’t know if it was a permanent condition or more specific to this story.
Then my wife reminded me that this happens with every book. I always reach a point where I want to chuck the whole thing and move on to something else because I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the story. She recited my familiar lamentations back to me: “This is never going to work.” “I’ll never finish the book.” “Why did I start writing this stupid thing in the first place?”
As Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, I had reached the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave to face the Ordeal. And the defining element of the Ordeal is the hero’s death and rebirth.
So I had to throw out all the assumptions I had about the story up to that point. I had to look at each and every part of it and decide whether to keep it, toss it, change it, or put it somewhere else. It was time to brainstorm.
As with the most violent storms, like hurricanes and tornadoes, everything in the story was at risk: characters, scenes, settings, action, even premise. Then I unleashed the gale. Some parts were ripped away, while others right next to them remained virtually untouched. Whole swaths of the story were decimated, while others were picked up gently and set down intact in an entirely different place.
When the storm was over, many of the individual pieces were still identifiable, but the overall rearrangement gave the story a completely new life. While real storms bring tragedy, my brainstorming was as beneficial as it was difficult. Yes, there’s a lot of cleanup still to do, but I can build something long-lasting from the wreckage.
So my question for the writers out there is, how do you get out of writer’s block? Do you unleash the brainstorm, or is there a less turbulent method to dislodge the block?
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‘Splain It to me, Lucy!

By Jordan Dane

I’m teaching an online writing class from Feb 20 – Mar 2, hosted by YARWA, the online chapter for Young Adult Romance Writers of America. We’ve chatted about how to get over the hump and finish a book once you’ve stalled out for various reasons. Some people might call this writer’s block, but for me, I refuse to acknowledge anything like that exists. It’s too easy to blame an affliction we seemingly have no control over. I prefer to think my brain is secretly trying to tell me something that I’m not hearing, even though we are close neighbors.

When I can’t hear my brain SCREAMING at me to stop writing, apparently my body can hear that pesky 3-pounds of mush. My fingers boycott me and quit hitting the keyboard or I find many excuses to distract myself—even doing laundry, for cryin’ out loud. Now that’s desperate.



I’ve learned to listen to my body when this happens. It’s my interpreter when it comes to “brain speak.” One way to get me back on track is first understand and accept that my brain is trying to tell me something about the plot, character revelation/motivation, or certain scenes aren’t working and could be better. Usually this part only lasts hours or a day or two, or a good night’s sleep. I’ve found answers for my dilemma in commercials, the NOVA channel, and even have found the complete ending of a book from watching an old skateboard flick, starring Christian Slater, called “Gleaming the Cube.”


But when I can’t find the answer alone, I’ve found a tried and true method for me is cornering ANYONE to listen to me ‘splain it. Usually this poor person is my husband, John. We can chat over breakfast, spending quality time talking about how to kill people and get away with it, or he listens to my ramblings as we drive. (Your gas mileage may vary.) One thing amazes me about this process. It doesn’t seem to matter who I corner or how I ‘splain it, I invariably come up with the answer on my own as I talk it out. It seems the brain needs the mouth to communicate back to my brain. What a weird Détente!


If you haven’t tried this, do it. It will blow your mind. Literally! I’ve concluded that since I spend most of my day in my own head—without speaking—that when I finally DO speak, my brain is listening and finally sends messages that result in solutions. Things I wouldn’t have explored purely thinking about them. Apparently explaining things to someone outside my “brain trust”—whether they ultimately contribute to the process or not is irrelevant—forces me to work things out in a way I can’t do on my own. The act of being more thorough in my explanation seems to be a critical element to my process.


But given the old adage about a tree in the forest, does it take someone else listening to get results to my dilemma? Or is this the first stages of schizophrenia and my way of justifying it? I haven’t ranted to me, myself, and I on this yet. That day might come on its own—along with a nice helping of meds.


Please share with us:


1.) How do YOU jumpstart your writing process?


2.) What have been your strangest diversions when you should have been writing?


Below is a video on how the publishing industry works from author to store:


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