Old and New 2

QuillWriting-GentlemanHere’s another one of my favorites from my old blog:

 Brainstorming

I once read a great science fiction story (don’t remember where, sorry), about a man fascinated with Shakespeare. He’d read once that Shakespeare wrote only one draft of his plays – they simply came out perfect on the first try. Somehow, this Shakespeare fan stumbled on a time machine, and, volume of plays tucked under his arm, went to visit Shakespeare and see this amazing feat up close. He arrived to find a disheveled guy in Elizabethan garb hunched over an ink-stained page with line after line crossed out and rewritten, clearly tearing his hair out over the whole inspiring process. The visitor, sorely disappointed, explained to Shakespeare who he was and how he’d gotten there. He showed him the book of plays, and expressed regret that Shakespeare wasn’t as automatically inspired as he’d been led to believe.

Shakespeare, no dummy, listened to all this, then promptly killed the visitor with a letter opener, or some such thing. He then took that hefty book of plays from the dead man’s hand and proceeded to copy it out onto a new, clean sheet of paper – not one ink blot or crossed out line spotting the page.

So much for the idea that anyone’s perfect on the first draft. This comes up often when I’m asked about brainstorming as part of the writing process. No matter what tools you bring to the table, you’re going to need to brainstorm, because you can never write without thinking. And that’s what brainstorming is – thinking, letting your mind make connections.

I like that one, you probably guessed, because of that Shakespeare story. I wish I could remember now who wrote it, but it was one of those that really stuck with me. It’s the quintessential writer’s story, because if others are anything like me, they’re always struggling with the ideal of perfection. Someone asked me the other day if I fall in love with my story when I write it, or if I see all the flaws in it. Both. Both! I do fall in love, because I think you need to love it to stick with it long enough to give it life. But then I’m away from it, and I start to see all the flaws – I guess I fall out of love, you could say, and become that nit-picky relative no one wants to have around. This is where my amazing editor comes in. She has that second pair of eyes that helps me see it a little more clearly. And now that I’ve seen how she works, and how much better she made Zebra Forest, I’ve learned to trust her ear even more. And so while I never give up that “I wish it were perfect the first time I write anything down” dream, I have to admit I’d probably not even believe in it, and proceed to take it apart, piece by piece, just to make sure. Thank goodness for good editors, is all I can say about that!

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Old and New

LOGO

From my business-writing book: The Writer’s Road Map at Work, available at Amazon

As I’ve mentioned before, a few years ago when I had my first book come out, a how-to on writing at work, I did a blog for a while on the process of business writing. That blog’s now defunct, but lately I’ve been thinking of the connection between my earlier writing career (freelancing, teaching business writing, that book) and my new life as a novelist. (I never get tired of saying that out loud.)  I’m fascinated by the differences and the similarities between those two kinds of writing, so one of the things I’d like to do on this blog is occasionally examine them side by side. Here’s an excerpt from one of my early entries in the business writing blog:

Beginnings.

Nothing is as hard as making yourself start to write, because the blank page telegraphs a message to your subconscious: nothing’s here and nothing ever will be here. But this is simply a lie. Listen to it and you’ll delay forever. Make those first marks on the page, and you’re on your way. To do this, you’ve got to begin brainstorming by asking yourself questions – on paper. Thoughts disappear; notes stay. The power of writing down those initial thoughts, no matter how silly they sound, is that you then have something concrete to work with.

I’ve found this to be 100 percent true of fiction writing. Sometimes you get a quick launch with a wonderful phrase that comes into your head, or an exciting idea that comes to you while driving. But even if you’ve gotten that gift, there will come a day when enthusiasm peters out, and you ask yourself that awful question – “What exactly was I thinking when I started this thing?” The only answer for that is to keep at it on the page.

In Gettysburg, one very smart girl asked me whether I just let the story unfold as it will, or whether I know in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a hard question, because whatever you think you know, stories do unfold at will. They’re wily, strong-headed things. And yet I don’t get very far before I start talking to myself in notes about the plot. I don’t like to fly blind, just wandering with language, unless I’m doing that to explore a character or an idea – to see what it is I’m actually thinking about. And so if I do wander, it’s in discrete lumps and for a specific reason. More often I sit down and ask myself questions – What’s this character like? What’s going to happen next? What needs to happen next? And then I write notes, telling myself the story, until one day those notes wake the language part of my brain up, and the voice comes. And even when that happens, there’s the long, hard middle of a story to contend with, where you keep having to circle back to that notes-to-voice process, until you reach the end.

So I guess I come to the conclusion that at on a macro level – the need for a bottom line of some sort, and the need (at least for me) to lay some scaffolding down before I fully immerse myself in language —  even an accounting memo and a novel have much in common.

Baskets

Image

“Bamboo Basket” by chokphoto, credit: Free Digital Images.net

When I used to teach writing to businesses, I would focus a lot on the “bottom line” – and, though I was teaching accountants, I didn’t mean the budgetary one. I meant the bottom line thought, the overall big thing they were trying to get across to the audience for their work. It’s remarkable how simple and yet important this concept is, because although life is made of the details, we can’t store them that way. So we group things, and the things we like to group best are ideas. When you read, you tend to unconsciously look for ways to put details in baskets. To teach this concept, I liked to play a game with my students, whether they were high schoolers or consultants. Here’s how it goes:

Sink, refrigerator, table, oven . . . what’s the bigger idea? Kitchen. Easy to see when you do it with concrete items. Now how about this one: beauty, truth, wisdom, altruism . . . what’s the bigger idea? It’s a little harder here, since these are ideas, rather than things. The bigger idea, though, is ideals. Getting the hang of it?

Young kids tend to start out learning this by its opposite. Anyone who’s seen Sesame Street is probably familiar with the “one of these things is not like the other” game. (I can hear the song in my head right now.) In that game, kids see four items in a group, and one is different. Big Bird, for example, has three small bowls of bird seed, and one huge one. Cookie Monster has four plates of cookies, but one has more than the others. Some studies have shown that even in infancy, kids can spot these differences. http://www.economist.com/node/12847128 It’s not a huge leap from there to group the things that are the same – and that, I think, is the beginning of abstract thinking.

This works well when you’re writing for work or school, but the interesting thing to me lately is how this basket-bottom-line idea is turned on its head when you’re writing a novel. There, while you may be aware of the larger idea, call it the theme, you don’t generally build from it. Instead, you start with a voice, a character, a detail, and let it grow. And still, it grows to something bigger, something that ultimately will be a bottom line, at least symbolically. So I guess the novelist is more like the person going out and picking berries, one after the other. In the end, it makes a pie, or jam. But you don’t get there without picking each juicy piece off the bush and putting it into the basket.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WhuikFY1Pg

 

 

Gettysburg

Adams County Public Library in Gettysburg, PA

Adams County Public Library in Gettysburg, PA

Last week, as my family was still just coming down from the high of my son’s wedding, and with out-of-town relatives still with us, I had the fun of taking them with me to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I’d been invited to speak at the Adams County Public Library, which had chosen Zebra Forest as a summer reading book.

We all piled into the car and headed up north to Gettysburg, a town which is in the midst of a milestone celebration of its own – the 150th anniversary of the famous battle there, in the first week of July, 1863. When we got there, the town was festooned with banners marking the event.

Gettysburg banners

For anyone interested in Civil War history, Gettysburg is a powerful place to see – one building in town is still pocked with the bullet marks of the battle that took place on the main street of town. Not being one to ever romanticize war, I was more interested in the Gettysburg address (the anniversary of which is coming up this November), both as a fan of Abraham Lincoln and a lover of powerful words. There was plenty to see from that point of view, too. Lincoln was everywhere, or at least plaques about him were. My favorite was this one:

Lincoln plaque

The library itself, though not around during the war, is a majestic old building, a century old, originally built as the town post office. There, I met Nancy Newman, the wonderful children’s librarian who brought me in, and the kids who had all read Zebra Forest. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling amazed that people are reading my book. Especially when I meet a group with such insightful questions to ask!  After I talked for a few minutes about the origins of the story, we opened the floor to questions. One of my favorites was whether I thought the book would have been different if it had been told from a different point of view. The answer to that was a definite yes. Another great comment came from a girl who talked about the motivations of the characters – specifically why Rew got so mad, and how shame and anger can make you want to reject the truth. To see a bit of my introductory talk, click on this link: http://youtu.be/qGjySJpIfFw

As a child of the East Coast who grew up with a father who loved day trips, I’ve been to Gettysburg before, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a more wonderful trip than this one. Thanks again, Adams County Library!

With Nancy Newman, the wonderful librarian who brought me to Gettysburg

With Nancy Newman, the wonderful librarian who brought me to Gettysburg