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? 

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Permission To Make A Mess

 

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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?

0

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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