Radical Approaches to Writing, Pt. 5

When last I posted on the Radical Approaches to Writing series, I was prepping for my Ikkyu (brown belt) exam in aikido. To pass, I had to master over 140 hand-to-hand combat techniques. Essentially, it’s like a really long kinesthetic multiple choice test.

How would you respond if someone attacks you by…

  • grabbing your arm,
  • grabbing both your arms,
  • whacking you on the head,
  • stabbing you with something sharp?

According to the ikkyu rubric, there are at least 20 different responses for each scenario. Following the attack-me portion of the test, there was a lengthy weapons component where I demonstrated all kinds of taisos and katas with a bokkend (wooden sword, katana-training stick) and jo (wooden staff).

And after about two solid hours of demonstration, I passed!


Me, demonstrating Kihon Hassei with bokkend (wooden sword). My partner is John Partenope, who recently passed his shodan (black belt) exam. Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.

If you were to plot my year on a storyboard, completing this test would definitely be my midpoint, that huge climax right at the middle of the story where nothing could possibly be any better. But the year is not over yet. Who knows what great things await me in the 2014-still-to-come? Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m certainly getting ahead of myself in this discussion of revise-before-you-write techniques.


Storyboards comprise the last step in the revise-before-you-write methodology—that radical approach to writing which invites the two halves of your brain (the wild creator and analytical editor) to be at peace and work as one.

The storyboard is where you track the entire trajectory of the novel. Every character. Every action. Every emotion. Every scene.

Like Beethoven, the writer is an orchestral composer and the storyboard is the sheet music for the literary symphony, tracking every note for every instrument. Every crescendo and every coda. It will take creativity and analytical pondering to figure out if your beginning is allegro or sonata, if your middle transitions from scherzo to adagio or the other way around, and if your ending returns to sonata or closes out with a rondo!

To make a storyboard, you can use a cork board or simply use masking tape to quadrant off a section of a wall in your house. Either way, you need a place to tack up all those scene cards.

Because stories are told in many different ways, the board gives you the freedom to stick your scene cards up in a variety of ways. You could have a 3×5 free-for-all.  Or think of the board as the night sky and you are the deity responsible for installing the stars. You could stick each card on at random, or you can arrange them into constellations, configurations with explicit and implied meanings. To render meaning from your arrangements, you’ll need an organizational schema.

The schema I’m using is the screenwriter’s three-act structure.


It’s called a three-act, but you can see that this storyboard is broken into four sections: act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3. Similarly, author Tom Birdseye suggests what is called a quartile board which also splits the story into four distinct quarters.


Interestingly, symphonies are also divided into four movements. Y’see? You are a composer. (Cravats and frizzy hair optional.)

If four is not your magic number, then why not try a seven-act paradigm, or the twelve-step formula, or the twenty-two-point framework. Writing professors, professional screenwriters and theorists like Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and others have come up with an endless range of organizational schemas all derived from classical drama, mythology, and even psychology.

(Note: for a truly mesmerizing exploration into all the myriad structures available to storytellers, definitely check out Ingrid Sundberg’s “Organic Architecture” series!)

Screenwriters use three acts because it helps them demarcate the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story. Researchers also use a three-part frame. They divide their papers into sections of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or common ground, disruption, and resolution (Booth et al, The Craft of Research, 249).

Regardless of what each section is called, it’s helpful to know that each section has a function. Each one serves the story in a particular way.

Act One

Act One, Quartile One, the Common Ground, the Beginning, (whatever you call it) opens the story. It introduces the reader to the main characters and the world. Blake Snyder refers to it as a “before shot.” How things were “before” the adventure. Wilbur’s beginning is in a cozy box near the stove in the Arables’ house. Harry Potter’s beginning is the Dursley’s home on Privet Drive.

Act One also hints at problems with the world or the characters. This is very similar to the introduction of a research paper where the writer presents the “common ground” or the context of the topic along with a problem or a series of problems surrounding that topic (Booth et al 162). Wilbur is not a pet and can’t live indoors forever. Harry has powers he cannot always control and does not know where they come from.

Act Two

Act Two, Quartiles Two+Three, or the Middle, takes the reader, and more importantly, the protagonist away from the familiar or away from how things are. If we see it as antithesis or anti-thesis, then it is an upside-down world. Compare Wilbur’s box by the stove to the Zuckerman’s barn. Compare Harry’s life at Hogwarts to Privet Drive.

In research, this section is where the researcher tries to establish and defend what he believes is the kernel of truth at the crux of the research. As you might recall, the theme is your story’s kernel of truth. While you state it in Act One, you will fully establish it and test it in Act Two (Snyder, Save the Cat, 79). Either the unfolding events will successfully defend the theme or they will destroy it.

For example, Act Two of The Wizard of Oz grapples with “Is there really no place like home?” If Dorothy Gale can face every obstacle and survive every danger in Oz, then you betcha! Because there’s no place like home, Dorothy is willing to face flying monkeys, a wicked witch, and an all-powerful wizard just to get back to it.

Act Three

And Act Three, Quartile Four, the Conclusion or The End, is where problems are resolved. Some writers are satisfied with defeating all the villains and getting to the happy ending. Similarly, some research papers use the conclusion to restate supporting evidence and annihilate the antithesis. But both examples miss an important opportunity to achieve synthesis. Synthesis is sort of like aiki, where two opposing forces are blended. From it, truth emerges out of our better understanding.

To synthesize the story, the protagonist takes lessons learned from Act Two and applies them back to the problems and conflicts of Act One. We see this clearly in Charlotte’s Web. Remember the logline we came up with for this book?

In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all humans and to himself.

Throughout Act 2, Wilbur has been doing all he can to prevent his own untimely death. But the book’s theme centers on the miracle of life. Specifically, the theme is: All life is extraordinary.

When Wilbur stops fixating on death (first his own, and later, Charlotte’s), he starts thinking about life. And that’s when he finds a solution: he will take her eggs back to the farm and care for them until they hatch. He will see to it that they live. In other words, Wilbur comes to understand the theme and by doing so, E.B. White implicates the “so what?” of the whole story.

An ordinary pig become extraordinary and saves a spider’s egg sack. So what?

So what? Every life is exceptional and extraordinary. A pig’s. A spider’s. Mine. Yours. That’s what!

Researchers think of the “so what” in terms of the significance of all that has been studied and presented in writing (Booth et al 252).

Equipped with your logline, beat sheet, scene cards, and storyboards, you too can map out your entire manuscript, including the elusive X that marks the deep, philosophical treasure at the heart of all you’re trying to say with, “Once upon a time….”

Here’s a basic example of a storyboard with scene cards arranged to fit a traditional, linear hero’s journey/arc plot:


And, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, just like all the other revise-before-writing methods, you can revise the board over and over again before you sit down to write the first draft. It’s one more tool to help your creator-brain and your editor-brain team up. Playing with the storyboard is a lot like playing with Legos. You can create, stack, and layer to inconceivable heights, but if you don’t logistically analyze the structure of those stacks and layers, your creation will surely crumble.

And just like Legos, a storyboard is more fun to play with than your laptop! So play, play, play. “Keep playing with it,” Tom Birdseye instructed me in an email, “[keep] arranging, rearranging, until, ideally, it is so good, and feels so right that it gives you the writer’s electric buzz of triumph. Or at least a feeling of ‘this may actually work.’”

And once you’re buzzing, you’re ready to write. So go write. I have given you all the steps you need to revise before you write. Please know that despite the clean, linear order of all the steps, you will often work on different stages simultaneously. You don’t even need to draft your scenes in order. You can and should skip around. In fact, your brain will appreciate it if you start with the awesome scenes, the ones that made you want to tell this story or get to know these characters in the first place (Snyder 103). I call these the cookie-scenes and ample neurological research proves that cookies can help you complete long and difficult tasks!

Cookies for Writers

Scientists gave put a bunch of college students in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of freshly baked cookies (Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 135-36). Half the students were told: DO NOT eat the cookies, but the other half was told they could eat cookies.

After noshing, the students had to try to solve a difficult puzzle. On average, students who did not eat cookies were grumpy and easily frustrated. They spent less than six minutes on that stupid puzzle. Why?

Because willpower is what enables the brain to exert discipline and self-control.  Willpower is why you get dedicated to a project, a diet, or a workout routine. It’s like a muscle. You can exercise it and train it, but then it gets tuckered out (Duhigg 139). And when you’re out of willpower, you’re saddled with decision fatigue. That’s why the cookie-eaters could work on that puzzle forever. It took no willpower to sit in a room and eat warm delicious food. Two hundred other studies have modeled this one, and they all found the same results: Cookie-eaters work harder and longer (136).

The moral of this story is: eat your cookies, which is to say enjoy your sweet-scenes whenever you want!


Photo courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman, Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

Storycrafting is demanding and complex. Be prepared to follow its crooked path. And never let any process or plan box you in. Be as plastic and ever-changing as your brain. Writing, after all, is a life-long pursuit. As you change over the span of your life, permit your writing process change with you. Allow your process to grow, shift, and adapt over time.

In closing, I hope I’ve encouraged you to see the storycrafting process in a new way (especially with NaNoWriMo coming up)! When we see revision first rather than last, we can tackle it more successfully. When we see the two sides of the brain in harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page.

“Thinking, we believe, tends to be for procrastinators. Writing is the real work. But that is a fable,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. And he is right. Throughout the Radical Approaches to Writing series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), you have seen just how much work can happen before writing. You have seen that revising does not come after writing. And you have seen that you can tell a story without putting your brain in conflict. You do not have to banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And you do not have to handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like supergluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

In light of all this evidence, isn’t it time we reconsider the old writing process? Rather than put writing at the front and center of your novel’s cosmos or making it orbit revision throughout, start with some revision. Instead of imagining the battle between the two brains and crafting in the middle of their battlefield, imagine the harmonious path of your story paved with scene cards and lit by a logline. Imagine yourself not merely attempting a novel, but completing it.

Take this moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself anew. Imagine yourself as competent and confident. Imagine yourself as a storyteller. Imagine it now and alter the tendrils of your living brain.


“Child of the Universe,” by Josephine Wall.


Radical Approaches to Writing, Appendix A (Beats)

The beats of a story are the big, important points and the critical moments. Like nails driven into posts, beats are what you tie the clotheslines of a story to so that you can get from the beginning to the middle and the middle to the end. Fill out as many beats as you can. If you have to leave one blank because you don’t know, don’t “beat” yourself up. Oh, and always use pencil when filling out the beat sheet. It’s going to change as time goes on.

Here’s a translation of the beats as they appear in many books:

















Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 4

Ohmeohmy! What a crazy quartet of months it has been since I started this series on revising before you write!

First, I participated in a black belt test at my dojo. I was not the one being tested, but I did have to attack him and take whatever throw or pin came in response. I performed as a weapons partner for several intricate katas. The test was a success, and now I’m preparing for my own brown belt test.


That’s me, doing the throw. My Sensei looks on from the corner, “grading” the technique.

I also took on a basketful of new projects. One was an article for the New Mexico Mercury, an indie news hub for the state. I got to do a lot of hands-on research about worm-composting.

I critiqued many amazing manuscripts! Memoirs, picture books, zany novels with anthropomorphic magpie narrators! And one of the scholarship essays I helped critique and edit won the student a full-ride Ph.D. at Oxford!

Then, in the midst of it all, I got this shiny new website! A huge thanks to all who have signed on to follow me thus far. WordPress is a whole new adventure for me and this site is a continual work in progress.

So, all that said, let’s get back to revising before we write. It’s a premise I worked up and turned into my Master’s Thesis. I realize it is not the easier premise to wrap one’s head around. I went back and forth with my advisor, Coe Booth (a powerhouse writer with a warehouse of patience—which came in handy dealing with me for a semester), who said that I was really talking about pre-writing.

Me: Well, yes…but mostly no.

Coe: Then it’s pre-planning.

Me: Again, yes…but mostly no.

If you’ve read the previous posts in the this series (Part I, Part II, Part III), then you know that my entire premise centers on the neurological workings of our brains. I posit that the usual writing methods work counter to our inherent neural networks, and I have tried to devise a new methodology that minimizes writer’s block (the result of decision fatigue) and maximizes creativity (which requires achieving a continuous flow state between both sides of the brain). Revising before you write activates both the creative and analytical sides of the brain, allowing them to harmonize, or achieve aiki.

Outlines or Beat Sheets

"Flow" courtesy of me.

“Flow” courtesy of me.

So, continuing on the path of research writers and screenwriters, where are we? You’ve so far devised and revised a logline. You’ve come up with a quick pitch for the book (yes, the one you’ve not yet written). And you’ve hopefully spent some time gathering your sources. Now you’ll need to make an outline or a beat sheet.

For some people, outlines are wonderful tools. For others, they are torture devices. Whether you love the outline or loathe it, I suggest giving the beat sheet a try. The outline or beat sheet is a great tool to help you discover your story and to revise what you think you know before you write the whole thing.

The beat sheet boils down the fundamental parts of the hero’s journey arc plot, which according to anthropologist Joseph Campbell, is a plot that can be found in all stories, regardless of country, culture, or historical context. The hero is called to adventure, goes on that adventure, battles bad guys or has lots of conflicts, eventually wins before going home richer and wiser. The hero’s journey is not the only structure available to a writer; however, it is one that most audiences are most familiar with thanks to the ever-expanding influence of television and movies.

I don’t have time to fully address the hero’s journey arc plot in this lecture, however, for a truly rich discussion of it and other story structures, but a good place for the curious to start is with Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

My beat sheet for novels comes from my own adaptation of Blake Snyder’s movie script beats, which you can delve into by reading Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.


What? A novelist read a craft book for screenwriters? Yes. Exploring all the facets of tunnels of storytelling can only make you a better writer.

So, what are beats? In some ways they are like musical beats, the rhythms of the story. In the movie biz, beats were handed down by Russian actor and director, Constantine Stanislovski, who broke plays (verbal/visual stories) down into “bits.” Being Russian, he called them “beats.”

Snyder lays out 15 beats: opening image (or chapter, if you’re doing a book), theme stated, set-up, catalyst, debate, break into 2, b-story, fun & games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into three, finale, and final image/chapter.

To demonstrate how each beat functions in the story, and how each one takes shape in a book, I made a schnazzy little slide show, but wordpress won’t let me download “plugins” so you’ll have to open this APPENDIX, and if you’re good at scrolling, then it will feel just like an automated slideshow!

Like a logline, each beat comprises no more than a sentence or two. You always fill the sheet out in PENCIL, and if you can’t fill it all out in one sitting, well, don’t beat yourself up. Even if you do nail all the beats, you will inevitably come back and revise them throughout the remaining revise-before-you-write steps.

And it’s not as rigid as you might think. Regardless of structure and genre, many stories use these beats. Some, like the movie Pulp Fiction or the middle grade novel One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia, shuffle the beats out of order.

Your brain's neurons!

Your brain’s neurons!

Riddling out your beats will require your creative brain to create (what pops up early in the story to be the catalyst for my hero???) and your analytical brain to analyze (how does the theme factor into the hero’s dark night of the soul???). The beat sheet also gives you a writer’s high. You’ve seen your story all the way to the end. You’ve journeyed through all the ups and downs with your characters. You know their happily ever afters (or tragic ends). Rarely do writers get to enjoy such desserts. Novels are daunting beasts ever-ready to buck you off. My goal with “revise-before-you write” is to saddle you securely to your novel’s bristling back.

Scene Cards

Once you’ve come down from the exhilaration of seeing “the end” of your novel, it’s time to dig in for some more revision. Your next step is coming up with scene cards. For researchers, the 3×5 index card, or source card, is what keeps track of the facts, quotes, and ideas pulled from different sources.

Graphic novelists turned this concept into thumbnails. Screenwriters adapted this idea and made scene cards, which they use for envisioning the entire screenplay. And we creative writers can use it, too!

We storytellers can fill out scene cards whenever a scene lights up in our imagination. If you’re playing around with a logline, and a scene comes to you, grab a scene card and fill it out. If you’re free-writing in your journal about a character, and you stumble into a crisp, clear scene, get it on a scene card! If you’re filling out the beat sheet and you can imagine the climax or the end, get a scene card before that image slips away.

When I started using scene cards, I got a lot more writing done a whole lot faster. You’ll be glad to know that several VCFA students, besides me, have already enjoyed the benefits of scene cards. On her blog, author Katherine Quimby Johnson detailed how scene cards bailed her out of stuck stories and a critical thesis in crisis. Author Joe McGee tweeted: “I have become an index card addict. Scene by scene, shuffle and move. Each card is like a literary lily pad in the pond of my story.”

The genius behind scene cards is that they are so approachable and so manageable. Snyder posits that they create a pressure-free zone! No more huge blank pages staring at you. All you have to do is fill up an itty-bitty index card. Think of them as itty-bitty first drafts of your scenes. And, just like a log line or a beat sheet, scene cards can undergo lots of revision in no time.

You can rewrite a scene card in a matter of minutes, compared to the hours or days it may take to revise a fully written and crafted scene. And should you later toss a card out, who cares? It’s not like you threw out a fully crafted scene with hard-earned words expressing the deep sebaceous and psychological layers of your characters. All you toss out is a card with four basic elements which I’ll cover now.

You can write anything you want on these cards, but they are primarily used to denote scenes. To denote a scene, first, you must indicate the location. Later, when you “translate” this card into a fully drafted scene, this location will become your imbued and nuanced setting. For now, just establish where you think the scene takes place. Start general and get specific as you go. Is it inside or outside? Abbreviate with either INT. for interior or EXT. for exterior. Then establish more specifically: GARY’S HOUSE or FOOTBALL FIELD. Finally, figure out when this scene happens. Is it morning or evening or 11:59 p.m.? So often, we forget the when of our scenes, that the sun sets twice or the stars come out during an afternoon lunch break. But a scene card can help you find your way in the where and when of story.

On the next line, you say what happens in the scene, but you must cap yourself at one sentence. What primarily happens. Not every action and dance step, just the juiciest bit. Other things will happen when you get in there and actually write, but what goes on the card is limited to the Big Kahuna. No need to bother with imagery, metaphor, dialogue—but if any of those elements come to mind, jot them on the backside and save them for later.

The next part of the card is to denote the conflict. Every scene must have conflict. Conflict is the engine of fiction, says the sage Margaret Bechard. Scene cards make sure you crank that engine to life. Here you address the main conflict. You figure out who is bucking against whom. Who’s got an agenda? And when you let your characters have agendas, you avoid turning them into plot-puppets, or what Printz-winning author Amanda Jenkins famously calls “plot bitches.” If thinking of “conflicts” doesn’t work for you (it keeps causing your perfectly nice characters to slit each other’s throats), then try doing what author Zach Hively recommends to his writing students: come up with a challenge for every scene. Maybe your character must scale a steep-ish cliff while hiking with his/her heart throb. Maybe your character must master a particularly difficult musical segment. Whatever it is, challenge your character(s).

Emotional arcs go on the last line. You’re not tracking every EKG blip. Instead, use the emotional arc to examine how the main character in a scene feels from start to finish. Things can start SQUEE (+) and wind up LAME (–) or vice versa. You can also take it from bad to worse (- to – -) or from good to stupendous (+ to +++++)! You can also use up or down arrows if plus and minus feel too mathy.

Tracking these arcs on the scene cards will help you track the overall emotional arc throughout the entire novel.

  • Location
  • Action
  • Conflict
  • Emotion

Those are the four main elements to put on every scene card. And when it’s done, it might look like this:

Location: INT. CABIN – DAY.

Action: Jane fends off relentless mosquitoes.

Conflict/Challenge: She can’t close the window to keep the bugs out because her mom’s too hot. Plus there’s no bug spray left, since her little brother used it all up.

Emotional arc: Jane hates camping even more now. (-)

As you can already see, the scene card helps you address and revise many of the craft issues that would otherwise pile up in the conventional modes of writing and revising. Scene cards also demand aiki harmony in your creator-brain and editor-brain. You invent and improvise the story as you go from card to card. As you fill them out, you are amorphously creating and discovering your story. But you are also executing logistics to figure out the conflicts and the ups and downs of emotions. You need your creator-brain to generate the foundations of each scene, but you also need your editor-brain to tie it all together.

Okay, so you’ve written (and rewritten) a killer logline and you’ve pitched your story. Friends and strangers agree: they’d pay money to read that! You’ve gathered your sources and you’ve revised your story a lot. You’ve also been good and filled out your beat sheet, some parts like a billion times. You know what’s going to happen…at least at the important parts, and now you have your scene cards! It’s time to start drafting, right?

Nope. Next stop is your storyboard. Where else will you put all those scene cards? Where else will you see what holes are in your beat sheet or outline?

Tune in next time for a lesson on storyboards, which will also reveal what writers like you and me have in common with Beethoven! (Hint: It is neither cravats, nor awesome hair.)


Image PD.

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.

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.

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!

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!