Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thoughts from the Reject Pile: Tips on Brainstorming

I know I've written about this topic before, but the last time, I wrote about it in retrospect, remembering how it had worked for Cloudland, with that lovely rosy tint of memory coloring my thoughts (ok, fine, it was more like the sludgy brown film of frustration, but whatever.) Now that I'm freshly enmeshed in brainstorming my new idea, I find that I have some new ideas to offer.

To be entirely honest, I found that out because I kept cutting sections about brainstorming out of other posts. Once I had collected a bunch of rejected paragraphs, I decided I could shmush them all together into a brand spanking new post. And here we are - the reject pile!!! Isn't that exciting??

So what I realized is that brainstorming takes a very specific shape for me. Yes, sometimes I do write out ideas, and explore them, via a sort of stream-of-consciousness conversation with myself. But more often than not, I just write.

I know this seems self-evident, since, y'know, I'm a writer, but that's how I brainstorm best: by writing. Not by freewriting, although that's the catalyst, but by actually writing out scenes.

When I'm brainstorming, ideas often occur to me as fragments of prose or dialogue. So, when I'm developing each, I write out a brief scene-let that's built around that fragment. I then end up with lots of little bits of writing, which I call "freewriting". Right now, I have at least two or two bits for each of my ideas of lives for my two souls. Then once I have a fragment of a scene written out, I can see how the idea works, and where my characters want to take it. More often than not, these fragments don't end up in the finished manuscript, but sometimes they do. The first chapter of Cloudland came directly from one of my freewrites.

So, how does this actually work?

Well, I know I want one of the stories in this new book to involve a love affair between a Greek god and a mortal. When I was first brainstorming that idea, I was trying to work out a bunch of different things: which god, what kind of affair, how they meet, who they are, etc. I settled on Apollo as the god, and then I had a flash of an idea, a fragment of prose, really, about how they might first meet. It appeared in my brain as "The first time Apollo saw him... The second time Apollo saw him..." and so on, with each "time" being a new paragraph briefly detailing each sighting, following a rising arc of action that begins with the first sighting and ends with Apollo actually meeting this person. I then thought of the myth that Apollo, as the god of the sun, rides a chariot that pulls the sun across the sky, and decided to use that: the sightings happen when Apollo is in his chariot, making the sun rise.

(Yes, I know that it was actually Helios who pulled the sun, and that it was only later that this became associated with Apollo, but this is all part of the glorious freedom of artistic license.) 

So, I wrote that flash of an idea out. I have no idea if this will end up in the finished book, but it helped me figure out some things about Apollo and this unnamed to-be lover of his - for example, that at the time of the first sighting too many of Apollo's lovers have suddenly died or been transformed (thank you, Greek mythology), and, heartbroken, he's committed himself to celibacy; that this new to-be lover has been determined to seduce Apollo since childhood, and may actually have orchestrated all of these sightings, setting up a nice little conflict very early on; and so on.

Since I swore to myself that I would never, EVER share any of these brainstorming bits in this blog, because they consist of unfinished, unedited, weird writing that is for my eyes only, I naturally decided to post a little bit of this example here today! Hooray for self-humiliation!!

Remember, this is TOTALLY UNFINISHED. It might really, really suck. Here's that first paragraph, anyway:
The first time Apollo saw him, it was in a curving glance of golden light: his limbs bending up the long grass, each fine thread of muscle and sinew coiling with life; his hair black and wind-blown in the first drawn breaths of dawn. Swift and easy he raced up the shadowed slope, chasing after the flickering white tails of his herd. The god stilled his hand on the chariot and the horses reared back in plumes of flame, and the sun settled its burning arms low on the rim of the world, and so the day began with wildfire and black smoke instead of the rushing stream of rose Apollo had intended. 
And that, my friends, is what I call brainstorming.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Refilling the Tank

I'm on a small hiatus this week. I took myself off to the Kripalu center in Western MA to celebrate finishing my edited draft of Cloudland (yes, I really am DONE. It's a miracle), but also to rest, recharge, and refill my tank - and, I hope, to work some more on my new book. Refilling our - well, for lack of a better term, even though this one makes me cringe a little - wells of creativity ok no I really can't say it. Refilling our tanks is essential for everyone, not just writers, and it's something we all tend to forget to do. We work and work and give and then we wonder why we cry at TV commercials and feel like swearing at the poor kid at the movie theatre who asks for our ticket, because why is one more person asking me for something?? Not that this is what happens to me. Ahem.

So, I've gone off to avoid yelling at people, and to refill. And so this post really will be brief. No seriously, Melissa, it will. I swear.

I once posted about the books that changed my life, and turned me into a writer. Like most highly organized, mildly neurotic people, though, I really really like lists, and so I have a lot of other "favorite book" lists. Here's another one for you: my Favorite Childhood Books. Some of these my parents read to me, and some I read on my own. (Yes, there's crossover from my first list. What can I say? These books just rock.)
  • The Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery
  • A Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis 
  • The Lost Prince and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle
  • The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
It's funny; when I was coming up with this list, I thought of a lot of books that I really liked - I may or may not have been one of those be-spectacled kids who got nicknamed 'bookworm' when I was little - but they didn't make the cut, because while I liked them, they weren't my favorites. The ones on the list are the ones that I read so much that the covers fell off, and the pages all curled up at the edges, and the paper took on that warm, woody smell of all well-loved books. They're also all still on my bookshelf, barely held together with scotch tape, with the exception of the last two. I don't know how that happened, but I need to buy new copies. 

And that's it for today, folks. I'm off to read, hike, yoga (yes I made it into a verb), rest, and refill. 

If I don't get to your blog this week, I'll be there next week, I promise. In the meantime, all you commenters, what books do you love when you were a kid?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Inspiration Is SO Not Standard

That Chrysler slogan drives me a little crazy. You know, the "inspiration comes standard" nonsense that they tag smugly onto the end of every commercial, to reassure us not to worry, because while we might not be able to afford things like built-in babysitters, we don't have to pay extra for the intangible joy of knowing that the factory was especially enthused when it made our car.

Why do I bring this particular example of marketing inanity to light today?

Well, I was banging away at my new novel idea all day yesterday, torturing myself brainstorming to try to come up with something resembling a plot, and in general working hard to dig up some inspiration. And despite my best efforts, it turns out that it does not, in fact, come standard to me.

Which is normal, I know. But boy, is it hard not to get discouraged when I'm sitting at my computer, staring at the screen, and thinking, "Ok, plot. Yup. Need a plot. Yes indeed. Gotta getta plot. And - GO! GO PLOT! GO NOW! Plot? Anyone? Plot?"

Needless to say, I didn't get anywhere for quite a while. Other people might call this writer's block; I call it PJS, or Plot Just Sucks. Ask me to brainstorm about characters or setting or theme and I can prattle on and on for pages. But ask me to come up with a story arc and I'm useless.

Clearly, I needed to find some inspiration, and it wasn't coming from inside me. Not yesterday, anyway. (Incidentally, my fellow blogger Adrienne Reiter wrote a post on this last week, about where creativity and inspiration come from. Check it out.)

My own sources of inspiration change from day to day, but there are a few good wells I always turn to, and one of them usually helps me get to work. Yesterday, I needed a bunch of them.

First, I turned on some music. I have a lot of playlists, but when I'm desperate for help, I turn to Sigur Ros.

Second, I created a new Word document, and gave myself license to write whatever came into my head, without censure or editing. The only rule was that I had to keep writing.

Third, I read. In this case tips on how to write romances, and some love-themed short stories.

No, I'm not writing a romance novel. But I am writing an overly complex version of a love story, and the romance genre has some well-established guidelines that it's good for me, as someone who doesn't read a lot of romances, to know about.

And finally, finally, it came: inspiration. At one point, I found myself writing in the first person POV - something I almost never do - as one of the main characters, talking about all the ways these two souls keep finding to lose each other. (If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, read this post.) And then I found myself writing out a small scene-let as a possible way to end of the book. Which is very, very hopeful.

I don't have a plot yet (sigh), but I did get some productive ideas. So for now, I'll just keep making my own inspiration, and plugging away. I'll find the story someday.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Last Gasps of Editing

It's going to be a quickie today (in the purely PG sense of the word. Please, people. There are children out there! None of whom read this blog, but that's beside the point.) I'm just about done with my FOURTH draft of Cloudland [insert loud clapping and whistling here] and I've set myself a deadline of, well, now, to get it done. Which means that today's bloggery must remain brief. And brevity is a major challenge for me, so this is also a personal growth day. Or something.

On this last, final, ending, all-over, done-with and every other word I can think of that means NO MORE EDITING pass, my editor pointed out two little gems that I'll share today. Because, you know, self-humiliation is super fun. And yes, these quotes are real.

She circled one of my favorite darlings, and wrote in the margin, "If you delete this, will you cry?"

Well, of course the answer is YES BUCKETS AND BUCKETS, but unfortunately, she was right. As she usually is. I had rewritten and significantly trimmed down a scene near the end of the book, and as a result I had a piece of exposition that stuck out like a giant, throbbing, possibly infected sore thumb. But I had kept it there because it was really really cool exposition!!! It was all about the Day of the Dead and how the Michoacán people believe that the monarchs that migrate there are the winged spirits of their ancestors and families, who come once a year to visit and bless them. And that was so, so perfect for Cloudland that I just about jumped out of my chair when I read about it, and I couldn't wait to get it into the book somehow. Which I did. By sounding like Professor Liz Blocker, and lecturing on monarch butterflies, their migratory patterns, and their cultural significance to the people of Mexico.

Right. It got cut. Sigh.

But that wasn't all. My editor  underlined a couple of modifier words in another section and noted that the "hyperbole might not be necessary here."


Who, me? Exaggerate in my writing? NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS!

This made me laugh, because really, she should just emblazon that note in giant blinking neon print on the cover page of the book. Or on every page. Otherwise I might forget about it.

Ok, folks, I'm off to finish my rewrites. And this post clocked in at mildly long, instead of really really long, so I must be making progress in the brevity department!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Insecure Writers: Trust Isn't Just a Group-Bonding Exercise

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. Most of whom are insecure. So we support each other from the safety and comfort of our desks. 

I usually spend IWSG Wednesdays indulging my neurotic brain, and cataloging with loving detail all the ways that I'm feeling insecure about writing, which a) satisfies my detail-oriented (read: anal-retentive) personality, and b) helps me feel a little less crazy.

Much as I enjoy and appreciate this electronic therapy, I'm going to do something a little bit different today.

First, a confession: I may, from time to time, just slightly exaggerate things on this blog for the sake of humor. You know, just every single post every once in a while. In reality, I work pretty hard - and sometimes even (gasp) successfully!! - to stay calm and positive and focused.

I have a number of tools that help me do this. Running (the best stress relief known to mankind), music, and deep breathing all help. Meditation would probably help even more, but since I cannot get my monkey mind to settle down and stop flinging poop at me for longer than three seconds, I wouldn't know.

There's one other thing that helps, maybe more than anything else: trust.

Some people might call it faith. Others might call it confidence. I'm a writer, so I get reeeeaally anal about choosing the exact right word. For me, it's trust.

I didn't come up with this on my own; I had some help (which is so essential for writers). About a year and a half ago, I was knee-deep in Cloudland, still trying to finish a first draft. At the time, I was in the process of banging my head repeatedly and with great futility on a plot wall, and was feeling stuck. Very, very stuck. I confessed this to one of my clients (yes, people do talk to me during massages. A lot of people, actually), and she told me something I've never forgotten. She's a composer, so she talks in terms of music, but the idea is universal.

She said that whenever she's having trouble composing, she reminds herself to trust that the finished piece exists inside her, already. Her only job is to discover it.

What an amazing thought.

This is what I remind myself now, whenever I get really afraid, or stuck. The story exists inside me, complete and perfect. I'm not so much creating a plot as I am uncovering it.

Let me tell you, when I can manage to remember this, and believe it, it takes so much pressure off of the process. I don't have to tear my hair out over making the right decisions or solving gnarly plot problems, because I already know what to do. All I have to do is trust myself, and the story will come out.

Maybe this sounds nuts, or New Age-y, or naive. That's OK by me, because it works. Not just for writing, either. It works in so many areas of life.

And that's pretty amazing, if you ask me.