[Note: My intention is to share what I'm learning and relearning about writing. I'll be mentioning blogs, books, articles, and webinars. I'm not necessarily recommending them, just trying to be accurate about sources. And I'm definitely not affiliated with any of the sources.]
If I thought figuring out characters was tough, trying to get a handle on plot is even harder.
On the one hand . . .
There’s that quote writers like to use from E.L. Doctorow - "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
In other words, you don’t really need to know where you’re going – you’ll figure it out along the way. Somehow your unconscious or your words or your imagination will produce a story with a beginning, middle, and end. All you have to do is start with Once upon a time . . . then add your character, a tricky situation, and you’re off. Driving in the fog guided by your headlights.
But as one writer friend pointed out, driving that way gives her the kind of headache you get from clenching your teeth, tensing your neck and arm muscles. It’s exhausting.
Which is why there’s the other hand . . .
The mappers. The outliners. The writers who create the whole skeleton from beginning to end and then flesh it out. Call it the Three-Act Structure on steroids.
I often see the term “pantsers” to describe writers who drive almost blindly into the fog. Meaning “by the seat of their pants.” And just as often, Stephen King is held out as the best example of a pantser. Outliners are usually called plotters. They keep things clean and simple.
Yesterday I sat in on a free webinar given by Jerry Jenkins hosted by Jane Friedman, called “Secrets of Storytelling: How to Write Compelling Stories.”
Unlike many free webinars that give you 15 minutes of teaser information and then 45 minutes of pretty hard sell to either sign up for a course or buy a book or hire a consultant, this was at least a full hour of good information. A lot of it familiar. Aimed mostly at pantsers.
Trust the writing. Don’t edit. Follow your instincts. Get it all down and fix it on the next draft. (He said it better, but that’s the gist.)
Evidently, you’re either a pantser or an outliner, you can’t be both. Any more than you an be an empty in-boxer and an email saver at the same time. You get the idea. Supposedly, most writers already know which one they are.
Clearly, I’m a pantser. But I’ve got enough notebooks full of dead ends that I know I need more than headlights.
While I can’t change my nature, I can at least learn what writers do when they’re organized. Fortunately, there are books that can help. (Wish I could remember who passed along a list of books to read to get me familiar with the outliner side of things.)
Here's the list:
I’ve bought them but haven’t read them yet.
What I’m wondering is whether a pantser can pick up a few tips from the outliners? Read a few books and discover the secret?
Or else maybe we can get them to install a few streetlights?
Do you know which one you are?
Tell me if you’ve heard this before.
There are two kinds of people. Those who love deadlines . . .
Take my one friend J. She’ll tell you that if you give her a deadline, she can write anything. Novels, book reviews, essays, whatever. If she’s got a little pressure, something like a small knife dangling over her head, she’ll work better.
Or D, who signs up for NANOWRIMO every year because that’s the only time she’ll make herself sit down and write.
And then there are people like . . . well, people like me who cringe at the mention of a deadline or a quota. 1000 words a day? A novel in a month? One hour five times a week? (Wait, that might be about exercising enough to get your heart rate up.)
Fortunately, if you’re like me, we’ve now got science on our side.
According to an article in The Washington Post ("Do these eight things and you will be more creative and insightful, neuroscientists say," July 6, 2015) neuroscientist John Kounios, and Mark Beeman, colleagues at Drexel University, have found that working on a deadline may inhibit creativity.
They say that one of the most important things you need for insight and creativity is a positive mood. And, for some of us, deadlines can be a mood killer.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview about insight and creativity:
Q: How can readers set the stage for insights, for creativity, to arise?
Kounios: Insight is like a cat. You can’t order it to appear. You can coax it. But you can’t command it. Creativity and insight flows from a particular brain state. And if you can put yourself in this brain state, you will be more likely to have these creative insights.
And we do know from scientific study that altering aspects of your environment can help you.
1. Positive mood: There is a lot of research going back 20, 30 years showing that being in a positive mood improves creativity. When you’re in a somewhat negative mood, a little anxious, that actually improves analytical thought.
Creativity flows from a state of feeling safe or secure. When you feel safe or secure, you can take risks. And creativity is intellectually risky. When you come up with new ideas, they can be wrong. When you try to implement new ideas, you can meet resistance.
But when you feel subtle, unconscious threat, you feel you can’t make mistakes. You have to stay focused on the topic, so you don’t stray far from what the problem is, or what you need to do.
We also found that having a deadline, which carries with it the implicit threat of a negative consequence if you don’t meet it, can create anxiety and shift your cognitive strategy into a more analytical mode of thought. Deadlines can increase analytical productivity, but if an employer really needs something outside the box, innovative and original, maybe a soft target date would encourage more creativity.
In another study, we found that, for people who solved problems analytically, they had more activity in their visual cortex – they were outwardly focused. But before people solved problems with a flash of insight, they had less activity in their visual cortex – they were focusing their attention inwardly.
And before a flash of insight, there was more activity in the anterior cingulate, right in the middle of the head. What the anterior cingulate does is monitor the rest of the brain for conflicts. It also detects different strategies for solving problems. You can’t use two strategies at the same time. Some are strongly activated, because they’re the most obvious. And some are weak, or more distant – inklings, hunches, that tend to be more creative, even strange or off the wall.
When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more sensitive to picking up these weakly activated, unconscious ideas and, when it’s detected, your attention can switch to it, and it can pop into the head as an insight. If you’re in a bad mood, and the anterior cingulate is not activated, it just goes with what’s strongest, which is usually the most straightforward.
A good mood literally expands the scope of your thought.
This is it. The day I begin to write my novel. No one told me it would be a little scary, which is why I’m starting here first. To warm up.
What’s here is going to be more journal than blog. More notes than journal. I don’t blame you for not reading. But I read somewhere that every new enterprise requires three things if it’s going to succeed.
The uniform is black ponte leggings (The Loft), a blue plaid flannel shirt (Madewell), and the short brown Ugg boots (Zappos) my husband gave me ten years ago. (Yes, they’re still in pretty good shape. And no, he didn’t really pick them out himself. I bought them and told him he could count it as my holiday gift.)
What’s in the novel? That’s the scary part. I’m thinking series, three, maybe four, books I started years ago. I have a few old chapters already and a lot of notes. But if you’ve ever written a novel then you know that’s not nearly enough.
I'm told I need to know my characters. Really know them.
Turns out there’s practically a whole industry teaching writers how to get to know their characters. Some experts advise writing a resume. Others suggest doing an interview. Or a map. A family tree. An actual portrait.
What does she really want? What stands in her way? What does he eat for breakfast? How does he talk to waitresses? (Wait, that last one may have come from one of those advice books on how to choose the right man.) You get the idea.
I’m not sure I can do it. It feels a little phony. Give me a week and I’ll get back to you.