Monday, October 19, 2009
Writing Process (Part 2) or...The Key to My Writing Universe
I'm afraid that my last entry might have given the impression that my process consists of eating and sleeping. What I was actually building up to was what I believe is at the core of my success as a writer. Actually, I think it's at the core of any successful person's process, and it's probably the single most valuable tip I could give you. And it is... Learn to program the default mode of your brain to your story. Our brains are always working on something. The trick is to train your brain to work on your story even when you're not physically writing it. I believe that humans are born problem solvers and our brains crave having something to chew on, to solve. If there's nothing meaty around, it'll find some small problem and stew on it until it becomes meaty. If we have no drama in our lives, we'll soak up the drama of others and apply our problem-solving skills where needed. This can be with a real-life situation, or (I think more insidiously) a fabricated one that you follow on television. We get sucked into the drama, real or fabricated, and wind up turning over our mental programming to others. It's not just the time it takes to watch the program, it's the time we spend thinking about it afterwards. Our brain is on a problem-solving quest, so it wants to figure out who's doing what on the island, or what's going to happen next with the love triangle in the emergency room, or who's going to get the kids--the Doofus or the Money Grubber. We spend WAY too much time chewing on fabricated problems, and where does that get us? Nowhere. What you need to do is switch the station back to your story, your book, your life. This is actually way easier said than done, because years and years of bad habits and preconditioning interfere. Still, once you get the hang of it, you'll find an amazing improvement in what you accomplish. For starters: turn off the television, the radio, the phone if you have to, and your casual Internet use. They are all distractions; ways your brain can get a quick fix of something that has nothing to do with what you need to be working on, yet give you the false sense that you're working on something. Next, force your brain to focus on what you want it to work on. In this case, this means think about your story--an upcoming scene that you're planning to write, a character that you're developing. When you're first attempting this, it helps to choose something small and build up from there. Start with a line of dialog and let it blossom into a whole conversation. Go back and fix it, redo it, take a different path until you love it and can really feel it. Or start with a physical trait and let it help you better define a character. Or visualize a place. First the tree, then the leaves, then the wind and the flowers and the smell of the earth. See it in your mind's eye, hear it in your...mind's ear? Let the characters and their words roam around in your head. Make your brain stew on that. You'll find whole scenes will develop, ideas will drop into your brain from nowhere, or you'll get goosebumps because you finally know the theme that will tie your subplots together. It takes time, and it takes discipline, but it's what makes your imaginary world real to you, and in the end that's what makes your world come alive to your readers. What helps: White noise--the car, the shower, the vacuum cleaner. I find it also helps to do a menial task while story-stewing. Sweeping, folding laundry, washing windows, mowing the yard...it's like part of my brain is tied up with the menial task and can no longer interfere with the part that's attending to my story. If a task is both menial and creates white noise it seems to work the best for me. (And by the way, not only does this work much better than just staring at the computer screen as you try to come up with what to write next, it also makes for a clean and tidy home--multi-tasking at its best.) Now, your brain will not want to mind you. It enjoys roaming around. And it expects to be allowed to, seeing how you've probably always let it. So it's time for some tough love. When you realize that you're thinking about something else, get that bad boy back in line and start again. The more you do this, the better you'll get at it, and the more productive you'll be, to the point where some part of your brain will be thinking about your story 24/7. When I had a full time job teaching school and two little kids I would answer the (very common) question "Do you get writer's block?" with the quip, "I don't have time for writer's block!" But the fact is that while I was away from the writing desk, my brain was stewing in the background--my subconscious was puzzling out what would happen next in my story. It was a quiet hum back there, going all the time, and each morning when I got up at 5:00 to write, I had a good idea about where I was going. So there you go--the key to my writing universe. I hope it works as well for you as it has for me.