How About Drawing Your Plot?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

When Carl Reiner died recently at the age of 98, I pondered again my theory about comedians and their brains. It’s not scientific or scholarly or anything other than my personal observation, but it seems to me that comedians who daily exercise their brains by being funny, often on the spot, resist dementia as they age. Ditto trial lawyers.

I’ve written about this before:

What got me noticing this was watching Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks being interviewed together, riffing off each other. Reiner was 92 at the time, and Brooks a sprightly 88. They were both sharp, fast, funny. Which made me think of George Burns, who was cracking people up right up until he died at 100. (When he was 90, Burns was asked by an interviewer what his doctor thought of his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”)

So why should this be? Obviously because comedians are constantly “on.” They’re calling upon their synapses to look for funny connections, word play, and so on. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx (who was only slowed down by a stroke), and many others fit this profile.

And I’ve known of several lawyers who were going to court in their 80s, still kicking the stuffing out of younger opponents. One of them was the legendary Louis Nizer, whom I got to watch try a case when he was 82. I knew about him because I’d read my dad’s copy of My Life in Court (which is better reading than many a legal thriller). Plus, Mr. Nizer had sent me a personal letter in response to one I sent him, asking him for advice on becoming a trial lawyer.

And there he was, coming to court each day with an assistant and boxes filled with exhibits and documents and other evidence. A trial lawyer has to keep a thousand things in mind—witness testimony, jury response, the Rules of Evidence (which have to be cited in a heartbeat when an objection is made), and so on. Might this explain the mental vitality of octogenarian barristers?

There also seems to be an oral component to my theory. Both comedians and trial lawyers have to be verbal and cogent on the spot. Maybe in addition to creativity time, you ought to get yourself into a good, substantive, face-to-face conversation on occasion. At the very least this will be the opposite of Twitter, which may be reason enough to do it.

In that post I offered a few creativity exercises to help writers keep the brain primed and playful. Today I want to add something else to the list.

I recently came across a scholarly article published a couple of years ago which demonstrated the effect that drawing has on memory.

We propose that drawing improves memory by promoting the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes, facilitating creation of a context-rich representation. Importantly, the simplicity of this strategy means it can be used by people with cognitive impairments to enhance memory, with preliminary findings suggesting measurable gains in performance in both normally aging individuals and patients with dementia.

So how might drawing operate as an aid to plotting your novel or scene?

Most of you know about mind mapping. Early in my writing journey I read Writing the Natural Way, which teaches mind mapping as a practice for writers. I use it all the time. For example, I was trying to come up with a great big climax to one of my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law novels. I took a walk to Starbucks, got a double espresso, and sat for awhile. Then I took out some paper and starting jotting ideas as they came to me. Here is that paper (the numbers I added later to give me the order of the scenes):

And that’s the ending that’s in the book.

When pre-plotting, I’ll take a yellow legal pad and turn it lengthwise and start mapping. Now I’m thinking about adding drawing to the mix. I don’t have to be a skilled cartoonist (good thing, for that is not one of the gifts bestowed upon me). But I can doodle, have a little fun, and trigger another part of my brain.

If you’re writing a scene with a closed environment, I can see value in making a map of the place—office, city block, house—and drawing the characters (even stick figures will do) as they negotiate the action. It might stimulate new ideas for the scene you wouldn’t get any other way.

Your friend, the brain. It is quite versatile indeed.

What about you? Do you use any visual techniques for your writing or creativity? (I’m on the road today and will check in when I can. Until then, talk amongst yourselves!)

12+

Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

5+

Your Imagination Needs Regular Play Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Children are not meant to be cooped up. They need sunlight and play and jungle gyms and interaction with other kids. They need dirt and sticks (that are really swords, you see), so their bodies can begin to develop the immunities they need for a healthy life.

In the same way, a writer’s imagination needs to get out and play and mess around. It needs to occasionally skin a knee or fall out of a tree. Risk is part of life. It’s also integral to growing as a writer.

I was thinking about this the other day in yet another lockdown moment that usually begins with the thought When in the Sam Hill is this going to end? I pondered the many writers who have expressed, via blog or social media, that they are struggling with their WIPs, or with getting started on a new project, or even with the desire to type another sentence.

This creative ennui, if it goes on too long, can atrophy the imagination. Your imagination will, if allowed, kick back on an old sofa in your brain, eating Funyuns and watching episodes of Gilligan’s Island on an endless loop.

Then, when you finally do call on it to get to work, it may belch and tell you just what you can do with your WIP.

Don’t let that happen.

Especially when, due to circumstances beyond your control, you’ve lost the cheer and the joy of writing. You can overcome this by giving your imagination some daily play time. Just ten minutes a day will make all the difference.

So let me give you three exercises for your creativity muscles. In the comments, feel free to add suggestions of your own.

  1. Morning Bites

In the introduction to his collection of short stories, Ray Bradbury writes, “But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg — I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

In the first groggy moments of wakefulness, pay attention to what’s going on in your mind. It will most likely have no discernable pattern. That’s okay. Get your first cup of coffee and before you do anything else (e.g., email, Facebook) take a couple of minutes to write down whatever it is you see happening in your mind. Just the act of writing and following those bites gets the imagination chugging away.

It’s very close to what Julia Cameron describes as “morning pages” in her book, The Artist’s Way.

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages–they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

As a fiction writer, keep watching your morning words for story ideas or suggestions for your WIP. Ask your imagination to be intentional about it.

  1. Flash Fiction

One step up from Morning Bites is Flash Fiction. That’s a story under 1,000 words. It is the ultimate pantser’s paradise, for you get an idea and start writing and go wherever you please. Will you end up with a story that works? Probably not. You’ll most likely be painted into a corner or lost in a dark forest.

But that’s okay! The benefit of flash fiction is that it’s a workout for your story muscles, and they’ll grow stronger even if the story itself doesn’t pan out.

Every now and then, of course, you will come up with something solid, and that will bring you tremendous joy.

Heck, there are even places you can submit your flash fiction. You could publish it yourself on your blog. Or you could make it part of an alternative market for your work, as I’ve done with my Patreon page.

Where do you get flash fiction ideas? If your sodden imagination doesn’t have one (it’s been on the sofa, remember?) hop over to the Writer Igniter and get one.

  1. Creative Lifting

You lift weights to strengthen your body. To do it right, you alternate the exercises—curls for the biceps, bench press for the chest and shoulders, squats for the glutes and hamstrings, and so on.

So how about strengthening your style by lifting fiction from great writers? And by lifting I mean copying. The idea is not to try to imitate these masters, but to “feel” what they do, ingest their palette of literary colors so you can expand your own.

One of the great stylists of all time was Ray Bradbury. You simply can’t go wrong copying a page from his work. Here’s a clip from Dandelion Wine that I typed out:

Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .

“Boy,” whispered Douglas.

A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.

Love it.

Don’t limit yourself to one author or genre, or even to fiction. Indeed, the finest opening of any book I’ve ever read is in William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Here it is as I copied it:

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a little fishing village whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis the XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern region is indefensible against disciplined troops. . . .

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around like souls in purgatory, awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.”

Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters, the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s cup challenger Endeavor; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw–all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons.

Even today what followed seems miraculous. Not only were Britain’s soldiers delivered; so were French support troops: a total of 338,000 men.

But wars are not won by fleeing from the enemy. And British morale was still unequal to the imminent challenge. These were the same people who, less than a year earlier, had rejoiced in the fake peace brought by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Most of their leaders and most of the press remained afraid. It had been over a thousand years since Alfred the Great had made himself and his countrymen one and sent them into battle transformed. Now in this new crisis, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mold which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s civilized Establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and political forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was, therefore, wicked.

An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty and the supreme virtue of action. One who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and what they might become….He would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a believer in the supremacy of his people and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and refract it to his ends, a man of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a believer in military glory was required, one who could rally a nation to brave the coming German fury.

Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

Now…go play.

10+

What’s the Best Way to Discover Your Story?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not many people know that the decades-long feud between the Hatfields and McCoys started at a writers conference. The head of the Hatfield clan was an outliner. McCoy was a pantser. They were on a panel together and things got heated. Then the shooting started.

In those days, several McCoys were heard to say that they had to write the book in order to “discover” what the book was really about. If they got tied down to an outline, that’d take all the originality and “fun” out of the writing. They’d chew tobacco when they said such things, and every now and then they’d spit and say something about how an outline removes spontaneity (although they didn’t know words like spontaneity). A McCoy once remarked, “Them ’liners don’t never have no surprises. They don’t discover nuthin’. Got no use for ’em.”

Well, the guns are put away now, but the outliner (plotter) v. pantser divide is still grist for the panel mill. What I want to home in on today is this notion that the best method for “discovering” your story is by not knowing what you’re going to write until you write it. That way the whole thing is organic and surprising. And if the author is surprised (so goes the reasoning) the reader surely will be surprised as well.

Implied in this is the idea that plotters are stuck with their outline and are thus discovery challenged.

I’m going to blow that notion up.

First, let’s follow a typical pantser. She begins writing about a character…that’s the “fun” part. The character has some sort of issue or problem, but we don’t know what it is yet, or how it will manifest itself. At the 15k word mark, our pantser wakes up one morning with a mind-blowing idea—the abusive antagonist actually turns out to be the brooding boy from the MC’s past. Wowsers! That’s not what she expected! But that’s what she loves about pantsing!

Full of delight, our pantser writes another 20k words along this new trajectory, until the plot begins to stall because there’s not enough conflict, or the love part isn’t working, or things have moved too quickly and the book is close to being over … or any of an infinite number of plot problems that pantsers have to figure out how to solve—now, or in the messy future when they take a tangled, unkempt first draft and try to make it something readable.

But the big discovery—that the antagonist is really the boy from the past—remains. To change it now would mean starting at ground zero again, and that’s not a happy thought.

So what’s happened? The pantser got to a major plot path, one that sprang up one day and said Take me! and she took it. One path. And maybe it works out.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Still, the pantser contends that this discovery method is “purer” storytelling than some stodgy old outline.

To which the plotter says, “Hold on there, Lightning. You need to understand something. We enjoy even more discovery than you, and faster, too! It happens before we outline. We look at many paths and follow them as long as we like. Each one is a surprise; we’re not limited to one or two. We can then pick the most exciting one and start to outline. If something better occurs to us along the way, easy…we tweak the outline. Discovery after discovery!

Which is a little more freeing that finding one discovery after thousands of words of writing.

Let me give you look at my own process. I always start with a “white-hot document.”

I got this idea from one of my first, and most beloved, craft books, Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. He advocated writing a stream-of-consciousness document, where you just let your imagination run wild. No editing. Jot whatever plot, character, scene, big picture ideas hit you. Follow tangents wherever they lead. The next day you come back to this document and annotate. Highlight the best parts, then start writing again, following your imagination wherever it goes. Annotate the next day. Repeat this process several days.

David Morrell has a similar practice as explained in his book The Successful Novelist. He advocates asking yourself question after question, getting yourself deeper into the reasons you like this idea.

What’s happening is I’m letting the imagination and subconscious play, bringing me surprise after surprise. But I’m not yet wedded to any!

Next, I get a bunch of 3 x 5 cards and go to a coffee house and grab a large brew. I find a chair and start writing down scene ideas. Randomly. Without thought as to where they go. It’s enough just to jot this much:

Sister J has to fight a knife-wielding dental hygienist.

Later, I shuffle the cards and take out two at a time to see what plot ideas they suggest. In effect, I’m taking dozens of paths, checking out the scenery, and choosing the best one to follow.

I’m also fleshing out the members of my cast, remembering the principle of “orchestration.” That is, each character ought to be different from the others so there’s a possibility of conflict with everybody else.

Finally, I start laying out my Super Structure signposts, setting up the major movements of the plot. I have plenty of scene ideas to go in between. (I use Scrivener for this.)

Then I write.

Now, I fully realize dedicated pantsers are to outlines as mosquitoes are to Off. And that’s fine. You’ve got to go with what works for you, what brings you the most creative joy. The point of my post today is to emphasize that there’s joy and creativity and spontaneity in plotting, too…and in buckets!

So put down your muskets and tell us: how do you do most of your discovering? 

14+

Permission To Make A Mess

 

CreativeFire1

I write a lot about creative permission because permission is a big deal. As kids we have to obtain permission to do things. As adults, the permission must come from inside of us.

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, I heard a woman tell a story in a counseling group. It moved me deeply, and I’ve never forgotten it because it feels elemental to the notion of creativity and giving oneself permission to be creative. Let’s call the woman Eleanor (after one of my favorite, very inhibited characters from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).

Eleanor had a much younger brother named Joshua. Like many oldest children, Eleanor was a rule-follower, cautious about interacting with the world because she wanted to do everything just right. Joshua, she said, was a free spirit and into everything. She loved him, but she didn’t understand why he seemed to be allowed to get away with doing things that she wasn’t allowed to do. One thing that truly tormented her was Joshua’s habit of building pretend “fires” that he set up around the house. The “fires” were heaps of toys and shoes and pillows that he gathered into great, unwieldy piles. I imagine what it must have been like, gathering all those things, pretending that they were a giant blaze, right in the middle of the living room. It kind of sounds like a lot of fun to me. Kind of is an important qualification here. While I am no neatnik, the idea of making a mess on purpose stresses me out.

Because Eleanor was older, she was required to help Joshua put out his fires. Read: clean up the mess. From a parenting perspective, this is problematic. While it’s a great idea to let kids have free reign with their creativity, it’s not fair (maybe not quite the word I’m looking for) to make your other kids pay for it. Eleanor was not invited in on the fun of building the fires. Ever. They were her brother’s privilege, and she felt like–indeed she was–the clean up crew. As the adult Eleanor talked about the fires, her anger, frustration, and sadness were in her voice and written on her face. Inside, her little kid was obviously heartbroken.

The leader of the session suggested that Eleanor build a fire in the middle of our meeting room. She was reluctant, but we cheered her on and contributed our shoes, neckties, purses, notebooks, coats…anything we had on hand. It was fun and silly and interesting to watch another adult playing that way. Her tears disappeared as she built the fire. They were back after it was all over, but they were happy tears.

Those of us who often feel inhibited creatively can come up with a million reasons why we feel that way. I’m a big fan of psychological therapy because it helps answer the why questions. It feeds the part of my brain that wants answers and loves to build a narrative. But what happens after you recognize the whys? Recognizing them doesn’t make them go away. We’re still Eleanor, angry at ourselves and often others because we can’t seem to give ourselves permission to build fires, write books, paint pictures, dance…dream.

Eleanor received permission from the counselor to make a mess. But she didn’t have to do what he said. She made the choice to gather up our things and put them in a pile in the middle of the room. How easy it would be if we all had a counselor, a therapist, a BFF, a coach, a PARENT there every moment to tell us it was okay to go ahead and DO THE SCARYFUNWILDINTERESTINGCHALLENGINGPROFITABLERISKY THING. But, no. It’s not healthy for adults to have someone tell them what to do every moment. It has to come from inside us.

Where’s the self-trust to do risky, creative things if it didn’t come boxed with our Adult Operating System? That’s a toughie. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.

Sometimes we have to play a role. Fool ourselves. Pretend that we don’t think that what we’re going to do will be an utter and absolute failure and that someone is going to yell at us if we leave a big, flaming, awesome MESS right out there where everyone can see it. That we don’t care if someone else has to help clean it up. (Writer Protip: professional editors!)

We have to be Joshua. Joshua unleashed. Joshua at play.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent an awful lot of time being Eleanor. Afraid. Worried. Even angry. As much as I write, I’ve never quite been able to be Joshua. Joshua never holds back. Joshua has a great time, and his only concern is the height of his fire. I’ve held back, even when I thought I was being my most creative and pushing at the limits. They were limits, yes, but they were limits set by the Eleanor inside me. Safety limits. Comfort limits.

Here’s the thing: If you’re Eleanor, and you decide one day you’re going to take a chance and let your inner Joshua out to play, don’t worry that you’ll go too far. Eleanor will still be there, watching, setting limits, not letting you run out into traffic (even if sometimes she secretly wants to throw you into it). You have nothing to lose. I promise.

As writers, we need to play, play, play. That’s what we’re here for–to entertain. To have fun so our readers can have fun with it too.

Are you Joshua? Are you Eleanor? Both? Do you have to reign yourself in, or give yourself a big kick in the permission pants to get those words on the page?

 

Happening now over at Goodreads: To get ready for the October 11 release of my latest gothic suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, enter to win all three standalone books in the Bliss House series.

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Real Life Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

She looked like a witch straight out of the Harry Potter series. Wild curly blond hair. All black outfit including a jacket with unusual cuffs and an odd pendant necklace. Black boots. I did a double take when I saw her. Had a Harry Potter store opened in the Mall at Millenia where I was shopping? Or had she come from work at Universal Studios, still in her costume?

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This strange apparition strolled through the mall to the apparent indifference of anyone except myself. And this reaction brought home the claim I’d made in Warrior Prince, my first Drift Lords adventure that takes place in Orlando. People are so used to seeing themed characters in this city that they don’t think twice about someone striding around in costume. Thus when my space-faring warriors show up in their uniforms and bearing arms in this story, no one reacts to their unusual attire.

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I am still curious about this person I saw in the mall. Was this the way she normally dressed? Did she believe herself to be a witch like in the Potter saga? Or was she an employee who needed to stop off at the mall before going home to change? That mass of blond hair could easily be a wig. The only thing missing was a magic wand. Or is this my imagination taking flight?

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It’s not the first time I’ve been inspired by a random character. This happened to me once before on a cruise. I noticed a beautifully dressed older woman with a head of white hair and designer duds. I turned her into a countess in my cruise ship mystery, Killer Knots. It’s just so exciting to see someone who can inspire one’s creativity. Our writer’s voice whispers in our ear: “What if…?” What if this costumed character is an evil superhero from another universe? Or a nutty theme park employee who believes herself to be her fictional character? Or…the possibilities dazzle me.

When have you been inspired by a real life character you’ve encountered?

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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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Moving from Idea to Novel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was presenting at my sons’ school on Friday, and one of the questions I was asked was how I turned my ideas into novels. Part of my answer was that, although I have heaps of ‘ideas’ jotted down in various journals, only about a handful of these have (so far ) developed into complete stories. This is because the majority of my ideas aren’t ‘story ready’. They’re either too flimsy or under-baked at the moment or, as I tinker with the plot options for them, turn out to be incapable of sustaining an entire story. 

There are many reasons an idea fails but one question that keeps coming up is – how do you know when an idea is sufficient to carry a great story? I think the easiest way to answer this is to ask the reverse – when is it not a good idea for a story?
Like when…

  • You think it’s a good idea only because it fits in with a current publishing trend 
  • You like the idea only because someone else told you it would make a great story 
  • You like the idea only because you think it will make you lots of money

Clearly, you have to love an idea to turn it into a terrific story. You have to love it because you’re going to live with it for a very long time as part of the writing process. Merely liking an idea isn’t really enough to sustain the commitment required to complete a novel.

You also have to let go of some darlings, because sometimes, no matter how much you love an idea, the characters, story and plot line simply don’t come together to make a successful story.

I adopt the following process when converting my ‘raw’ ideas into novels.

  • Firstly, I jot down all my ideas. You never know which ones might stick with you or which ones, years later, suddenly resonate. That’s not to say I write down every half-baked idea I get in the middle of the night, but if I’m still mulling over it in the morning, it’s probably worth putting down in my journal.
  • Then I let a few of these ideas percolate, to see which ones I am most passionate about writing about, now. Some ideas I love, but still don’t feel quite ready to explore.
  • I then work through the ideas I’m most passionate about, summarising the overall premise of the story, characters, and plot overview in order to prepare a proposal (about 1-2 pages) for my agent and I to consider. Sometimes, even at this stage it’s clear I’m forcing an idea that doesn’t yet work.
  • Then, once my agent and I agree on which proposal seems to stand out as the story I should work on next, I draft the first few chapters and do a more detailed plot outline to see whether it all looks as if it’s going to hang together. 

Now I’ve had ideas fail at all these levels – either because the premise wasn’t clear enough, the plot was too unwieldy or, even after the first chapters and outline have been prepared, the idea still didn’t seem to work for a successful novel. (In this case, at least I discovered this before I finished the entire first draft!)

So what about you? How do you know when an idea is really ‘story ready’. How do you evaluate whether the idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Do you plan it out or muddle through?


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Rituals and Superstititions

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I remember hearing a talk given by a historical writer who went into great detail about how she got herself prepared to write each day. Her rituals included mood lightning, music, incense, and a few historically appropriate artifacts to get her into the mood, and I remember thinking “what?! I don’t have the luxury of time for all of that, I just have to sit down and write!”. But in many ways that’s not strictly speaking true. I was thinking about it this morning and realized that, like many writers, I do have my own set of rituals and superstitions that form part of the creative process that leads to sitting down, facing the empty page, and writing.

First of all, I have to mentally prepare myself – that means from the moment I get up the words are already forming. In the shower I’m formulating sentences and by the time I’m in the car on the way back from school I feel the ghosts of my characters coming to take their seats. I’m mentally rehearsing for when I finally sit down and write…and when I do I have  a separate notebook for each new novel. I have a scrapbook too – in which I jot down historical notes and cut and paste maps or photographs. When I write in long hand, which I sometimes do rather than type, it has to always be done in a rolling-ball or  fountain pen as I hate ballpoint pens (I used to only write in ink using a fountain pen until my dog Hamish chewed it to bits…) I always write at home, never in cafes, and always in total silence.

Okay, so I admit it’s a pretty lame ritual. I’m not up at the crack of dawn like some writers who get their best work done at 4am, and if I had my choice I wouldn’t be up at 2am either (although I often end up writing this late out of necessity).  I don’t write in a shed like Roald Dahl or use ballpoint pen on A4 paper with only two punch holes (not four) like Philip Pullman. I don’t have an antique hour glass like Dan Brown that I use to mark the time (nor do I do a session of push ups or sit ups either!). I also usually write fully clothed (unlike John Cheever  who apparently wrote in his underwear). So I guess I fall on the rather dull end of the writing ritual scale.

But how about you? Do you have any  specific writing rituals? Are you superstitious (or OCD…) and insist on anything specific when you write? 

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