Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 3

(Migrated post. Content originally published 2/2014 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)

New research has started to debunk the idea that the two hemispheres of our brains do separate or independent tasks.

Image from www.wallpaperhi.com.
Image from www.wallpaperhi.com.

Neuroscientist Kara D. Federmeier has found that the brain is much more dynamically linked than we ever suspected. Federmeier asserts that the two sides of the brain actually work in tandem, through unified partnerships, to get things done.

Take language processing, for example. We used to think that the right brain handled that (along with other various “creative” tasks), while the left brain handled math (or other more “logical” tasks). Federmeier’s research through the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology shows that BOTH the left and right side of the brain are involved with language. So when someone is talking you, your left brain is anticipating what’s coming next and actively trying to predict meanings. The right brain is also actively engaged, only its neurons are working on retention tasks. It’s like your brain’s little secretary jotting down the important stuff you’ll want to recall from the conversation.

Essentially, neuroscience is finding that the brain breaks up big tasks into bite-size pieces and both hemispheres share the many tasks involved. Like a couple sharing the household chores! One washes the dishes, the other one dries. One sweeps the floor, the other one mops.

"A Distraction from Chores" by Auguste Serrure. Image PD.
“A Distraction from Chores” by Auguste Serrure. Image PD.

And this new research is huge for me because one of the tenets of my writing methodology encourages writers to a.) break up the task of writing into smaller pieces, and b.) get their brains to work as a more unified and harmonized system (rather than a left-logical/editor brain at war with a right-creative/writer brain).

Evidently, this is what naturally works best for our brains. It’s what the brain is already doing! In Part 1, I talked about how imagination impacts neurology. Imagining yourself playing the piano or practicing a sport stimulates and develops the neurons almost as if you were actually physically practicing. Thus, to be more effective and productive, writers need to stop imagining their two brains (the editor brain and the creator brain) at war. In Pt. 2, I explored how writers can break up the monumental task of writing a novel into more manageable pieces. Not only that, but how to break it up into tasks that allow both hemispheres of the brain to participate as a unified team: how to revise while writing, how to edit while creating!

Yes, this is a tower of books! Beautiful, eh? Photo by Aleksander Razumny. Image CC.
Yes, this is a tower of books! Beautiful, eh? Photo by Aleksander Razumny. Image CC.

This time, I want to cover the next bite-sized bit in my radical approach to the writing process: Gathering Sources.

An inside view of the tower. Photo by Mar.tin. Image CC.
An inside view of the tower. Photo by Mar.tin. Image CC.

When researchers gather sources, they go about gathering books, articles, or interviews. They talk to librarians and consult experts. They draw pictures, diagrams, charts, or maps. I recommend those steps if you are writing nonfiction, or need some fact to back up your fiction. But the kind of gathering sources I’m talking about is a little different.

Gathering sources is the time to journal wildly. Make character diagrams. Interview those characters and creatures. Find out what they want most and what they most fear. What they treasure and what they can’t stand. Explore your world. Draw maps of your settings. Be your own best expert. Do any of the millions of writing exercises suggested in all those craft books you read.

You might be tempted to think of this as the drafting stage of writing, but really, it’s what my VCFA faculty mentor Julie Larios would call “playtime.”

AND, there’s a plethora of research already out there underscoring the importance of play! (Curious? Check out Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Brown and Vaughn. Also, there’s a great video from the Aspen Ideas Festival 2010, and a podcast worth your while!)

So if this is not drafting, then what is it? Well, to me, it’s the kind of writing you should do throughout the whole of NaNoWriMo. It’s the kind of hot and fast writing Stephen King refers to as “telling yourself the story” (On Writing). Here’s a snippet of my “gathering sources” writing which I blazed through in the 2013 NaNo challenge.

WARNING: What you are about to read is in its roughest, toughest, most nascent forms. It came from a beat on a beat sheet and then from a summarized scene on a scene card – two other methods in the revise-before-you-write approach that I’ll talk about further on. Yes, this scene will undergo future revision, but for now, this is how the writing comes out when I forget all about being a writer and just focus on telling myself the story.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: This scene falls in the middle of book two in my Silk and Venom series, a YA hard boiled urban fantasy that chronicles one teen’s encounter with seretans. Seretans are the half-human, half-spider creatures descended from Arachné – ya’ know, the woman tortured and transformed by Greek gods. Humans are a seretan staple. They crave our bodily juices. In my saga, seretans are poisoning smartphones with their venom in an effort to make the surface of the earth their new kingdom and cafeteria. In this scene, the protagonist computer-hacker Harker, is prepping for a journey. He and a few rebel seretans (Brash and others) have had to team up in order to defeat “the big bad,” but at this point, the team is not exactly getting along.

Okay, here we go:

In the next scenes, I think it would be fun to have Harker and Brash clash a little over what all Harker is packing. He’s got a huge duffle bag full of crap. Brash points out that he won’t be able to carry and it’s full of stuff he won’t need.

I do need all this! And it’s not that much, says Harker.

That duffle bag is bigger than you are, Brash retorts. Then he sifts through it noting the multiple pairs of pants, undergarments, feet coverings—

Those are called socks, Harker corrects.

And you can’t go a few days wearing the same…socks?! Brash snorts. What happens to human feet if they do not wear clean socks every day?

Well, for one, they don’t grow weird hooky-things on their toes.

Brash squeezes his feet self-consciously.

Yeah, Harker goads. That’s right. I saw those bad-boys when you were bleeding to death on my dining room table.

My toe-claws are at least useful. Unlike your four sweaters—

Hey, I don’t know what the weather is gonna be like where we’re going—

And your…comic books.

Brash spreads out the full series of Destin Espoir and he is immediately reduced to gleeful mush when he sees there are so many to be read. “There is more than one?”

Harker snorts. Chuh! There are 262, not counting the spin-off series.

I had no idea, Brash says. I had this one (he indicates the series opener).

Brash thumbs through the second in the series. He remarks that he thought the first one ended on an unreasonable cliffhanger. Stopping mid-action like that. Ridiculous! But now he sees why.

Harker nabs the comic book and makes a remark about maybe Brash can check them out when they get back—since none of these can come along now.

Brash relents that maybe they should bring a few, considering the long drive and back. They seem on even ground for a just a moment. Brash picks through Harker’s packing supplies and says he should put those in something he can carry on his back.

Brash even goes so far as to twist it all in Harker’s bed sheet and tie it around Harker’s body. He displays how all of his possessions are on him in the same way.

That is how a Warrior packs, he says. Harker admires the compact approach.

Harker looks in the mirror and realizes he looks like an idiot. Madda even cruises by the room to ask about more sleeping bags (should they send someone out to go buy some?) and she laughs pretty good when she sees the twisted sheet tied around Harker’s torso.

Harker thanks Brash, but then dumps out his backpack and says he’ll stick with how humans pack.

As Harker struggles with the knot, Brash goes to the window and checks their surroundings. He glimpses Sophie in her room, spying on them, but she’s gone so fast he’s not entirely sure.

He mentions it to Harker who says, “Oh that’s my good friend, Sophie. She’s not spying, she’s just really shy. You can wave at her if you want. But you gotta’ do it human-style.”

How’s that, Brash wonders.

With this finger up, Harker demonstrates. He makes a fist and lifts only the middle finger.

That’s weird, Brash says.

Yeah well, that’s humanity for ya.

Brash waits until he sees Sophie again, and then he smiles big and waves. The look on her face is not what he expected but she stops peeking through the window.

That’s it. No quotation marks and really not a whole lot of proper punctuation in general. But who cares? The scene flowed fast and furious. It made me laugh out loud because all of the sudden Harker tricked this bad-ass Warrior who inadvertently flips the birdie to a nosy next door neighbor. THAT detail was NOT on the beat sheet and it certainly was not on the scene card! It just happened. It was an act of autonomy, a declaration of independence! An imaginary character that I created basically asserted himself as unique, self-motivated, and independent of my puppet strings.

And all because I took the time to gather the source material on him. I let the two spheres of my brain work together, each one taking on a different aspect of the writing process. And all that miraculous neuroscience took place while I was basically playing around!

"Depths of Imagination" by JennaleeAuclair.
“Depths of Imagination” by JennaleeAuclair.

Playing helps you better understand the people you will write about and the world they live in. It also sparks your best critical thinking and problem solving (The Craft of Research, Booth et al, 30). In other words, what seems like purely creative playtime is also an analytical heyday for the brain. And if revision boils down to reconsidering ideas in light of new evidence, then gathering sources is the time when you encounter a lot of new evidence and will likely revise your story a lot.

But never fear. All you risk changing at this point is a one-sentence logline (refer back to Pt. 2).

Unfortunately, you can’t gather sources indefinitely. You have to complete your novel some day. So, set a deadline for your playtime and really focus and funnel your creative and analytical efforts.

Now, even though you may be tempted, do not jump in and start drafting—YET. I know the pull back to your old two-brains-at-war habit will be strong. But trust me, postpone drafting for later. Your Jekyll and Hyde have only just begun to get along and work together through aiki. And besides, we have a lot more revision to do. So, before you run off and write your story, go play and gather sources.

In the next installment of radical writing approaches, I’ll show you how to make a beat sheet (AKA an outline) and then some scene cards!

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.


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