(Migrated post. Content originally published 1/2014 on jennifermichellmason.blogspot.com.)
Waaaaayyyy back in November, I promised to write about the kind(s) of writing that can lure the writer down the path of self-defeat. I have returned from the black hole hiatus of holidays to fulfill that vow, like your own knight in shining armor!
Actually, like a true knight, I have returned from a quest out in the hinterlands. December was a mostly internetless existence (due to bad routers and damaged towers) wherein I was delightfully plagued with many a late night squandered on writing new material. My beloved, Zach, discovered a neat little contest that I just had to enter. Yes, there’s good money at stake and, yes, my chances of winning are slim, but who cares? I was provoked to write. Invited to explore a new world with new characters. And I had such fun!
But, now that my entry is submitted and my e-powers of communication are restored, I am back to look at writing from a radical angle. I want to share with you a dastardly approach to writing that helps eliminate writer’s block and plows a traversable path all the way to THE END of your novel!
I call it writing in reverse…or revise before you write!
Jeeeezzz — now you tell me, you grumble, post-NaNoWriMo.
Well, if I’d told you to try this before you tried writing a novel in a month, you wouldn’t have believed me. But now, you’ve made the attempt and had time to recover. Now you’re in a prime position to reflect back on your writing performance and pinpoint where things went off track, tapered off, or tuckered out.
Now’s the perfect time to ponder why the galloping novel challenge may have bucked you off its thick bully back.
Typically, we writers tend to think that first comes writing a draft and then comes revision. Or, we align the two steps like binary stars and revise while writing the manuscript. Instructions, recommendations, and advocacy for either approach appear in dozens of craft sources.
But is either approach truly effective?
Whether you write-then-revise or revise-while-writing, here are the most common craft elements you should alter or reconsider: plot, theme, symbolism, structure, stakes, motivation, obstacles, character arcs, character authenticity or 3-dimensionality, antagonist arcs , antagonist authenticity or 3-dimensionality, point of view, opening scenes, closing actions, back story, endings or resolutions, climaxes, page turns, concrete vs. abstract desires, objective correlative, metaphor, narrative proportions, motifs, repetition, simile, rhythm, pacing, conflict, dialogue, setting, typos and errors, etc, etc, etc.
Staring down that long list can feel overwhelming. We have no idea where to start. Or we feel the onset of writer’s block. I know that’s how I felt for a long time.
You might find parallels in your New Year’s fitness resolutions. Like I said in my last post, you can suddenly take up jogging, buy bushels of fruits and veggies, upend your normal way of life and evict all the junk food inhabiting in your pantry, but the path to the newer-trimmer-you peters out as quickly as it appeared.
Because the new options in food and activity — like the list of craft elements you must tackle – overwhelm your brain with decisions. Recent studies show that decision-making fatigues the brain (Tierney). The more choices we make, the harder each one gets. After too many decisions, the brain suffers from “decision fatigue.” Writers are no doubt regular victims of decision fatigue. Every single word on the page is a decision the writer must make. Tackling that long list of tasks after the first draft or juggling it alongside the writing is a sure way to fatigue the brain.
So if traditional methods fatigue our brains, why do we use them? I suspect these approaches came about because of common observations — sort of like how Earth started off in the center of the solar system. It seemed right based on what everyone noticed.
We writers all notice how our brains seem divided between a creative sphere and an analytical sphere. Drafting demands the free-wheeling, creative side of the brain, while revising requires the more analytical, logistical, editorial side of the brain. As a result, the storycrafting process can feel like an adversarial tug-of-war between the two. To combat the tug-of-war, author Natalie Goldberg instructs the writer to defeat or else ignore the editor-brain (28). Stephen King cranks out his fast first draft so that he can outrun the editor-brain (209). In short, most writers shush the editor-brain because it keeps the creative-brain from creating. Conversely, they will chain up the creative-brain so that it won’t muck up everything the editor-brain is trying to fix.
Sounds a lot like the iconic struggle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: two warring personalities trapped inside one body. But things don’t exactly turn out well for Jekyll or Hyde, and the same is true for our brains.
When we defeat, ignore, shush, and suppress a part of the brain, we are actually causing neurological damage.
The brain is made of many neural pathways, or neurons that are connected to one another and working together. The more you do something, the stronger these pathways get. When you write-then-revise, your creative, amorphous neural pathways get big and strong. But shushing the logistical neurons for many months of drafting results in neural atrophy. It’s like turning one side of the brain into a couch potato. Your logistical neurons get flabby. They get weak. They diminish. And, after months of banishment, suddenly you spring upon them the monumental task of revision. Likewise, if you spend many months juxtaposing short bursts of writing with mini-bouts of revision, you literally develop short-circuits, or amorphous neurons good for only a short while and logistical neurons good for a short while.
Lucky for us all, the damage inflicted during either approach is not permanent.
Newer studies have found that the brain is malleable or plastic. Unlike a laptop from the factory, the brain constantly rewires itself. This ability to rewire is called neuroplasticity. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, psychologist Norman Doidge explains how neuroplasticity has enabled stroke victims to overcome paralysis, the deaf have learned to hear through their tongues, and the blind have been taught to see through their skin.
And surprisingly, your imagination can cause the brain to rewire itself. “Each time you imagine…you alter the tendrils in your living brain,” says Doidge (213).
This is a staggering fact for writers, but not just because our jobs demand lots of imagination. It’s a big deal because if we imagine the writing process as one sphere of the brain battling the other, then our neurons will physiologically respond. In other words, to imagine conflict is to produce the carnage of the battlefield.
Interestingly, Morihei Ueshiba articulated this principle long before modern neuroscience. At the turn of the last century in Japan, Ueshiba founded Aikido, a new martial art dedicated to eliminating conflict. Continual conflict—imagined or actual—ruins the mind and spirit (8). As an alternative, Ueshiba proposed aiki training. Aiki means harmony, thus aikido is a way to practice harmony.
My aiki training started in 2007, and it’s the reason why I can’t lock my brain in a Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle while writing! Richard Moon, an internationally renowned sensei, notes that a harmonized “aiki” brain functions with more creativity. For writers, this means that when we put the brain in a state of harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page. We can be better storycrafters.
Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to invite each of you to indulge in some aiki writing training so that you can unify and harmonize the Jekyll and Hyde spheres of your brain. Let’s rewire those plastic neurons and elevate our writing abilities!
Don’t banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And please don’t handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like super gluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.
Rather than write-then-revise or revise-while-writing, I would like to show you how to revise-BEFORE-you-write. I’d like to suggest that you have opportunities to revise BEFORE the first draft of your novel is even written. Seems impossible, I know. How can you possibly be creative and logical at the same time? And how can you revise what you have not written?
Tune in next time to learn about writers who revise before they write: screen writers and research writers. Pros like Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, E. O. Wilson, and Stephen Hawking use similar techniques to revise before they write. And I’m going to show you how they do it—how they mix preliminary creation with logistical revision in order to tell good stories, which is the goal, whether you are writing an EPA research report, a blockbuster script, or a middle grade novel, whether you want to be the next Dr. Seuss or the next Junot Díaz.