Monthly Archives: October 2011
The debate can get quite heated on this topic. We’ve all read the various posts, articles and books touting one method above the other. Some folks say they must have everything down on cards or a ‘beat sheet’ before starting their novels. Others just seem to write their first draft without doing any of that.
I recently got to thinking about these two, seemingly opposing views, because a writer in my workshop was having trouble with her first novel. This woman is a talented writer, and a quick study. So I wondered what was going on when she missed a few meetings. An email exchange revealed the problem:
A “writing teacher” had told her she couldn’t write anything further until she had a complete outline to work from. That she had to have her plot twists and characters—all figured out ahead of time. And she shouldn’t write another word forward until then.
This proclamation had gotten the writer all jammed up and critical of herself—because she couldn’t ‘think’ of an outline, and had therefore deemed herself a failure. She despaired she could ever write anything to completion, and was now experiencing a mental block to her own creativity.
I have to say here…my first reaction, once my hair laid back down on my scalp, was extreme annoyance with said “writing teacher”. I had an almost irresistible urge to paddle the teacher and send her down to the principle. So the first thing I did was wait for that to pass. (Nothing good ever comes from violence!)
Then I wrote to the writer, and this is what I told her:
What some people call outlines are what other people call first drafts.
It’s as simple as that. You can write your first draft on cards, or in notebooks, or on your computer in files labeled as chapters. Whatever you choose to label it, if it’s words, written in a sequence, using the letters of the alphabet, naming characters and what they are doing, it’s a first draft. And you can’t get to it without sitting down and filling white space with words.
What we choose to call it is just semantics.
The method we choose is just preference.
It really all boils down to how different people create, well…differently. Some are sprawling, like me. I write big, loose, wild first drafts without any outline. I have some scenes, some of the characters, and I kinda know what the story is about—a premise. The entire first draft is where I find out exactly what the novel or short story is about, who all the characters are, what they sound like, and what parts they will all play. I cannot create any other way. I sit and write. Wildly. Fast. 1500 or more words in two or three hours, every morning. During the rest of the day, when I am doing my day job, or washing my hair, or the dishes, or reading…that’s when I am thinking about what I wrote that morning, and what it means, and what I might write next. (I keep notebooks handy and jot down ideas and cryptic words, sentences and images to help guide me the next day.)
A more ‘traditional’ outline simply doesn’t work for me. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this and I think I know why. It’s because writing that type of outline requires the use of my left brain. And all the really good stuff, the creative stuff, comes from my right brain. That’s where my muse lives, and she doesn’t come out to play when I am being too analytical.
The rational side of me likes the idea of file cards and beat sheets. It seems so deliciously orderly. It’s like folding laundry or plotting the fastest route for a road trip. So very organized and rational. Unfortunately it’s also completely stifling, creatively…for me. Everything I’ve ever written from this kind of left brain activity was utterly boring. If I resisted the urge to deviate from the outline as I wrote, (to pop out of my left brain and into my right) what I ended up with had none of the power, inventiveness or surprise of the work written ‘by the seat of my pants’.
Do you remember ever doing a paint by number painting when you were little? They’re fun. You get to fill in numbered spaces with numbered colors, until gradually a picture emerges. Unfortunately it’s not a picture you want to look at for very long. You definitely don’t want to frame it and hang it on your wall. They usually end up in the trash…which is where they belong. That’s what ‘writing from an outline’ does for me. I end up with a finished story, that I don’t want to read.
If you listen to folks who study the brain and how it works, you quickly pick up that all the most creative stuff we do: inventions and works of art—even Einstein’s flights of mathematical insight—comes from the right brain. So it stands to reason that however we choose to create anything must be the way which stimulates this side of the brain for the individual. If postlets or file cards do it for you, so be it. Call yourself an outliner and go for it, my friend.
But please don’t insist this is the only legitimate way to do it. That it is superior in any way (it’s not). This is just one way. It’s the thing that stimulates you creatively. And we are all wired different.
An outline is a first draft is an outline.
Oh, and the writer from the workshop? She’s back to doing some writing. She’s still dealing with her inner critic…which grew bloated and strong on what she’d been ‘taught’. She is working on getting over the idea that the published novels she reads were somehow shat out by people, complete and polished. But knowing she doesn’t have to show her work to anybody else has helped, and I know if she sticks with it…if she just fills white space with uncensored thought, she will get there.
“It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force.”
Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Writers, how do you create best? Are you an ‘organic’ type of writer? Or are you a ‘plotter’? Do you fall somewhere in between?
This past week was such a busy time for my household. We were in a frenzy of cleaning and preparations: dusting and vacuuming, readying the guest chamber. You see, we were expecting the arrival of one of the most renowned and erudite celebrities of the blogosphere…yes, you guessed correctly. None other than Mr. Bacon!!
I knew this visit would be a whirlwind of activity…Mr. Bacon’s ‘handlers’ keep his schedule fast-paced and there is always much pressure to fit in all his scheduled engagements…and yet I hoped to still have some time to get to know ‘the man himself’, away from all the hoopla of his more public persona.
Alas…the beginning of our visit did not get off to the best of starts.
Mr. Bacon’s legs are, regretfully, rather short.
As you can see, things got a little dicey for Mr. Bacon. Zeus got a whiff of his bacony mojo—and deemed him irresistible.
Things happened rather fast. But at last order was restored.
The whole episode took a little shine off our guest. A bath was ordered for Mr. Bacon…or HG (His Greasiness), as we now call him here. Followed by a time out in the
birdbath spa, to regain some lost composure.
After some R&R HG was “fit as a fiddle” and ready for his much awaited visit to the Arizona Novel Writers Workshop.
There he deigned not to hear any of our “country scribblings”, but offered instead to read us his 400 page dissertation on, The Benefits Obtained by Living a Kosher Lifestyle, or (subtitle) Failing That, At Least Be a Vegetarian For Pete’s Sake.
This was a surprise (and, I must say, a little bit of a disappointment) to those attending, since we had presumed HG would be giving us advice on OUR writing. But HG brushed aside our misgivings, and, after dealing with my ‘silly question’ as to who this Pete was, for who’s sake we should become vegetarian, launched into the opening pages.
The suggestion was made that perhaps the title should be shortened, (and indeed, the entire thing) to perhaps say: The Benefits of Being Vegetarian. This made HG scoff. You see, (he informed us, chest puffed and head high) his host with whom he resides is obtaining his MFA, and he therefore knows that lengthy titles are de rigueur for dissertations. In fact, it can hardly be considered a dissertation without a lengthy title. To which I responded, stutteringly, (he’s very intimidating) that I knew that. I have, after all, “been to Berkeley”. I could see this disclosure had the desired effect, and I was greatly raised in HG’s esteem. (He needn’t know it was for a Joan Baez concert back in the 70’s.)
Dissertation read, I awoke the other members of the ANWW, and we commenced to party. And I must say, HG is a man, err, bacon strip, who can hold his own.
Hurry back, Mr. Bacon!!
My backyard is bathed in moonlight so strong it’s almost like day. Colors are muted, but discernable, and furniture and potted cactus cast shadows, though it is almost 2am. My muse feels it; she has awoken me, scratching at my eyelids and whispering to me. She’s restless and wants me up.
What is this strange effect the full moon has on us? Have you ever felt it? This month it feels like a bad case of ADD, to me; like an itchiness just beneath the skin. I can’t settle on anything and am being pulled in many directions at once.
I had never heard of the full moon having any effect on people prior to meeting my husband. But he informed me one particularly grouchy full moon that he was a ‘wolf man’, and not to take seriously anything he might say or do during some full moons. Since then I have met others who are adversely affected by the full moon. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes am too. Not always; maybe just a few moons of the year.
If you Google full moon madness you will pull up stories about it. Here’s what Wiki has to say about the phenomenon:
The exact origins of this theory are ambiguous historically, because paleolithic moon artifacts from many cultures predate written history. This belief has been around for many centuries. The term lunacy itself is derived from Luna, “the Moon” in Latin. The connection between the words lunar and lunatic can also be demonstrated in other languages, such as in Welsh, where these two words are lloer and lloerig. Perhaps the most famous myth arising from this theory is the legend of the werewolf.
So it’s not something new or that only one culture has experienced. And it’s a simple leap to imagine it as the impetus for the wolf man myth; a human who cannot resist the draw of the moon and turns into a wild creature, sprouting hair and claws and behaving in ways s/he wouldn’t the other days of the month.
It’s said that if you limit your exposure to the actual light of the full moon its effects are lessened. But I haven’t noticed that to be true. When it’s ‘one of those full moons’ the moon’s power can reach me where ever I hide.
When I was much younger I worked in a hospital as a CPD aid. I recall hearing that nurses and doctors dreaded emergency room duty on nights with a full moon. There was a greater than average chance it would be a rough and busy night. In my current day job incarnation I’ve had nurses for clients, and they’ve confirmed this to be true.
Have you ever felt the effects of a full moon?