Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 2

(Migrated post. Content originally published 1/2014 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)

Today’s post is dedicated to the Magic Ifs who just graduated from the Writing for Children and Young Adults program and VermontCollege of Fine Arts. These magicians are my colleagues and my friends. Their amazing creativity is a part of what inspires me to clear the authorial roadblocks and explore the writerly conundrums and cruxes.

Congratulations Magic Ifs!

So, to pick up where I left off in the last post, part of what makes writing so daunting is the overwhelming mob of decisions banging on the walls of your brain. Making decisions fatigues your brain. Fatiguing the brain leads to reckless behavior (AKA cleaning-under-the-fridge-instead-of-writing) or indolence (AKA writer’s block).

Add to the fatigue the natural (but inhibiting and festering) tendency to imagine the writing process split in two, separate and opposing spheres. Writing vs Editing. Some see it as a creative phase followed by an analytical phase. Or an amorphous brain in tune with creative muses fending off the nit picky rule-flogging logical brain.

I am not saying the brain isn’t divided into two spheres equipped with different skills; however, conceptualizing those spheres in a never-ending dual only kinks the brain in endless neurological knots.

But what’s a poor writer to do?

To start, I say try aiki, or harmony. Why not re-envision the writing process as a unified, collaborative effort – a partnership that bridges creative brain with analytical brain? A time when the logical and the amorphous can co-exist, and in doing so, construct the most stunning feats of written expression.

Playground at the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Photo CC. Courtesy of Stephen Oung and David Case.
Playground at the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Photo CC. Courtesy of Stephen Oung and David Case.

Because the imagination has a powerful effect on your neurons, go ahead and re-imagine the battlefield in your brain is really a lovely playground. Replace the carcasses with carousels. Swap the bloodstains for a swing set and slide. Fill the trenches in with sandboxes. And for the sake of vanishing bees everywhere, plant a few flowerbeds. Ideas need pollination, too.

Ahhh, that feels better already!

Photo PD. Courtesy of John Sullivan.
Photo PD. Courtesy of John Sullivan.

Now that the carnage is removed, it’s time to experiment with your writing process by incorporating some techniques that get the two halves of your brain to cooperate. Interestingly, these techniques are found in the usual process of screenwriting and research writing. Perhaps even more interestingly, these techniques cause the writer to do lots of revision before the actual drafting begins.

Let’s jump in with…

Loglines & Pitches

What’s your story about?

That’s got to be one of the hardest questions you will ever answer about your writing. But having an answer is essential because you’ll never escape the question. Think about when you’re at writers’ conferences – it’s the question everyone asks you. It’s the question you must answer when you query an agent.

Answering this question before you tackle the first draft gives you a North Star to follow through the writing. The answer is your compass, a shorthand Sherpa to guide you to THE END.

Photo CC. Courtesy of Uwe Gille.
Photo CC. Courtesy of Uwe Gille.

Screenwriters answer “what’s it about” by writing down a logline or a one-line. They have to be able to sum up their entire 120-page screenplay in one sentence. And they do it BEFORE they write it. Researchers also try to narrow down their topic by stating the thesis, or one sentence that declares “what” or “who” is going to be researched. It narrows down the topic BEFORE the writing begins.

Screenwriters have a very rigid definition of what a logline is and what it should contain, which works well for their industry, but for creative writers, I’d say you’re well on your way to a killer logline if you can summarize your story in one sentence! Two at the max. It’ll be even better if, in that one sentence, you can also establish the story’s protagonist, the central conflict, the antagonist, and the story’s significance. (For more on loglines, see Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.)

Here are a couple of examples that can help you formulate your own logline:

  • In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all people and to himself. (Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White)
  • Through the power of love, a magical boy defeats an evil wizard who would otherwise destroy him and terrorize the world. (The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling)
Photo CC. Courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.
Photo CC. Courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

Both examples boil each story down to one sentence. But let’s break those down further so we can see their essential components.

As you can see, each example connotes:

  1. a protagonist (the pig, Wilber or the boy, Harry),
  2. a central conflict (stay alive or protect the world),
  3. an antagonist (Mr. Zuckerman’s ax or Lord Voldermort), and
  4. the story’s significance

The significance is the “so what” of your story, or why this story must be told, or why you think anyone else should read it. Charlotte’s Web should be read because it deals with the dignity and exceptionality of life. Harry Potter is a worthwhile read because in it love overpowers hate.

Once you have a logline, try pitching it, which is another excellent revise-before-writing exercise. To pitch your story, deliver your logline to a stranger or a friend. Watch their eyes, because if they look away or glaze over, you’ve lost them. Your story is not quite there yet.

I know pitching puts you under tremendous pressure to say “what is it” and why it’s awesome. But if you can figure out what in your story gets and keeps someone’s attention in one or two sentences, then you’ve got something worth months of effort.

And, as you might have guessed, nailing the logline and pitch is going to take several attempts, which means, you’re revising BEFORE you write the full first draft! It also means your reducing the monumental task of writing a novel down into one utterable sentence. Rather than make 60,000-80,000 words worth of decisions, you decide on roughly 20 words. Definitely doable without fatiguing the brain!

So, go ahead, give it try.

Write up a logline for your story – whether it’s the one you’ve had in progress for a while or the one you’re about to dive into. See if you can riddle out who you’re protagonist is. What’s his/her/its central conflict? Who or what is the antagonist of your story? And, finally, why must this story be told? What’s the significance?

For additional fun and experimentation, try boiling your story down into a haiku and submit it to Zach Hively’s newly inaugurated low-ku contest (which is free of many “hai” expectations.)

Next time, I’ll cover how gathering sources and researching prevents brain fatigue and epic sphere battles between the creator and editor sides of your mind! I’ll also reveal how playing while gathering results in the kind of daily writing with word counts more than sufficient to complete challenges like NaNoWriMo sans tears, stress, hair-pulling, and insomnia!

By jenmichellemason

Jenny is a story hunter. She has explored foreign countries, canyon mazes, and burial crypts to gather the facts that make good stories. Once, she sniffed a 200-year-old skull...for research purposes. Jenny received an M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. She has authored nearly 20 STEM books for young readers. Her inquisitive and funny nonfiction articles have appeared in Mountain Flyer, Cobblestone, and Muse magazines. Jenny also works as a freelance copy writer for nonprofits and small businesses.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.