Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Brainstorming, aka TORTURE

Holy crap! I have 209 PAGE-VIEWS! Blogger is telling me that people might actually be reading this blog. Funny how I start to feel more self-conscious as soon as I realize that... 

So, in my last post, I talked about the seed that is the beginning of a novel. And then I asked, "So you have this seed. Then what?" In other words, how do you turn that little idea into a book, complete with a compelling plot, three-dimensional characters, and mildly important structural things like a beginning, middle, and end?

Well, it turns out, you get to do this super-duper amazingly fun thing called brainstorming, which I also like to call TORTURE. It involves floating in an infinite sea of possibilities and trying not to drown while you grab as many little fish-ideas as you can and attempt to mash their wriggling slippery little bodies into some kind of coherent story.

When I was trying to develop Cloudland, I started with this premise: "I'm going to write a book about loss where the characters end up in this crazy, magical land of clouds." Ok, cool. So, um, who are the characters? Who did they lose? Where and when do they live? Is this the real world, or are you going to make up a brand new world? What IS this crazy, magical land of clouds? How do they/he/she/it get there, and what happens once they do?

And on and on and on and OH GOOD GOD MY HEAD IS EXPLODING.

You can guess that this process might take a while. You'd be right. Part of the reason for that is that I have the world's worst focus when it comes to brainstorming. Anything can distract me. I am, in fact, looking for things to distract me. I check my email. I get excited when I have new items in my Spam folder. I stare blankly out the window. I eat snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. I'm happy when I have to pay bills, for God's sake. 

In between all of this incredibly productive procrastination, I try to sort things out. A lot of what I start with comes from pure gut instinct. I don't know why, but I knew Jake was going to be one of my main characters: I could already see him in my head, a six-year old kid, small for his age, with smooth brown skin and enormous brown eyes. I knew he was going to have some kind of supernatural guide once he got to the land in the clouds. I knew this was going to take place in the real world, today, because I was going to have to do enough world-building for this cloud place, and I didn't want to have to do it in the characters' everyday lives, too. 

So, I had that much. Over months, I wrote and wrote, on paper and on the computer, all free-flowing ideas (this, by the way, is essential). I came up with genius, brilliant ideas for scenes that never made it into the book. Over time, I realized that I wanted an adult protagonist, too. I wanted to show that grieving is universal by having two very different people deal with similar losses, and I wanted a second perspective on everything that was happening.

And so, Sara was born. I don't know why, but I immediately decided that she was a young social worker at Jake's school. Someone who was supposed to be professional, calm, distant, and who ended up being everything she wasn't supposed to be. 

Now, I had something to build on; I had a foundation. I had two main characters - Sara and Jake - and a secondary character - this supernatural guide. I had a theme - loss - so I knew both of these characters were going to lose someone important in their lives. And I knew they were going to end up in the clouds.

Next step: figure out who the hell these people are. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Inch by Inch, Row by Row

Do you all now have Pete Seeger singing that song in your head? Sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, I do, too. Stupid seed metaphors.

This all came about because I was thinking, if I'm going to write about writing, should I at least try to go in some sort of logical order? And then I thought, OK, then, where exactly does a novel start? The right answer is that there IS no right answer. It starts in dreams, or in a single word; it starts in a flash of an image, or one line of dialogue; it starts with life doing what life does, and periodically slamming you into the ground with stunning, breath-taking loss, or beauty, or joy. There's no telling what that one thing will be - the thing that catches flame, and flickers to life inside your head.

Which brought me to the seed metaphor. You know, little thing, flickering to life, etc? I'm saying there's always a seed of an idea. And it's always just that; just a seed. No one has an idea that springs instantly into a fully-formed bestselling novel from one's prolific head (unless one is a Greek god named Zeus, in which case, all bets are off). I get a flash of an idea, nothing more that a little seed, and then I have to plant that seed and water it and tend to it and weed it and then, inch by inch, I end up with a garden and with this dumb song stuck in my head. You get the idea.

There are, by the way, a ton of these seeds in my head at any given time, and only a few of them ever get developed. Some of them are waiting for a chance at my attention, and some of them are just really bad seeds (cue the opening sequence of that Macaulay Culkin movie, based on that older, much better movie).

In the case of my first novel, Cloudland, and Other Stories, the seed was loss. I knew I wanted to write a story about loss, or, more specifically, about the insane, heart-wrenching, terrible process of grieving. Then I got on a plane for various unimportant reasons, and looked out the window on that mind-boggling, reality-defying landscape of clouds - you know that one, when you're above the cloud-line and the entire horizon is filled with hills and valleys and plains and cities made entirely of clouds - and thought, I'm going to write a book about loss where the characters end up in this crazy, magical land of clouds. And there you go: the seed sprang to the front of my mind, and got my attention, and didn't let go.

That was, incidentally, eight and a half years ago. I didn't start actually WRITING said novel (or developing said garden, if I want to stick with the same tired metaphor, which I don't) until about four years ago. I don't know what the average amount of time for most people is - to write a novel, I mean - and I'd be glad to learn more if anyone knows, but I'm willing to bet that it's somewhere in that range.

So yeah, no Athena's leaping to life in nanoseconds, here.

So you have this seed. Then what?

More on that in another post.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Because you have to have an introduction...

Well, here we are, dear readers! And by "dear readers", I mean myself, my wife, and possibly my mother (although since my mother only has a cell phone for "emergency reasons" - a huge misnomer, as she only turns it on when she is having an emergency that doesn't involve her own unconsciousness or other inability to use her phone - and may or may not know what a blog actually is, I'm guessing she won't visit here, much). At least for now. I hope a few other people will somehow stumble across this blog and subscribe to it by pure accidental chance, and stick with it just because it's easier than figuring out how to unsubscribe.

I know, introductions are really dull, but since I'm a fairly anal retentive writer, I can't bring myself to start a blog without a real, honest-to-goodness, boring-as-hell introductory post. So that's what we're doing, here.

A little about me: I'm currently in the process of revising and editing my first novel, and developing and brainstorming my second novel. The idea for this blog grew out of a thousand conversations I've had with readers/non-writers, who all wonder how the hell an otherwise sane, rational, normal person would manage to sit down and put hundreds of thousands of words on paper (or computer) in a generally coherent story line over uncountable hours of effort that may takes years to finish - in other words, how someone might go about writing a novel.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but I've stumbled through the process for one novel, and through a very similar process for a number of plays, so I thought I might as well stumble through it publicly! I'll be updating and posting here on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, so there will be plenty of opportunity for stumbling, staggering, and the occasional brilliant flash of genius insight. I hope.

Because I'm human and infinitely distract-able, and am always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to procrastinate, I will also occasionally post on a variety of unrelated topics, such as food (I LOVE FOOD), the Boston Red Sox, and reading and writing in general.

Thank you (Mom?) for reading!

- Liz