New Book Update: Structure Gives Writing Freedom to Evolve

October 15, 2014

My previous post introduced the paradox that imposing structure as I revise my novel gives me more creative freedom. This “structured freedom” allows characters and scenes to evolve with dissolving.

How the Draft Evolves by Changing Locations

evolutionofideabulb writers blockThis how my drafting evolved when I started adding new scenes for my new POV character Kat:

Day 1: Draft the first new scene (from scene card 4.1) for Kat with Daniel in an alley

Day 2: Tweak first scene (4.1)

Day 3: Draft the second scene (from scene card 6.1) in a laundromat where Kat tells her father how she met Daniel.

Day 4: Add an argument I “heard” Kat and her father have while I was walking the dogs where Kat is offended that her father is having her tailed for her own protection. Revise Kat’s first scene (4.1) to show Kat knows someone is following her.

Later on Day 4: Realize that if Kat’s father is having her tailed, he wouldn’t need Kat’s explanation of how she met Daniel and other plot points would become pointless, so ditch that idea.

Day 5: Realize there is no extra significance in placing Kat and her father in a Laundromat. Revise second scene (6.1) to change the Laundromat stage business (folding clothes, shifting clothes from washers to dryers, etc.) to details that fit being in a park (walking barefoot, falling leaves, etc.). Draft new details that arise because being in the park allows us to see Kat’s father’s reverence for the natural world. See how the characters are more themselves in the park than in the Laundromat.

Day 6: Return to first scene (4.1) to delete the revisions made on Day 4.

Why I Draft Scenes in Order

a_woman_climbing_a_mountainI once thought that hopping from scene to scene to draft whatever I had the inclination and inspiration to write that day was creative freedom. But I wrote myself into all kinds of corners and unsolvable problems that way.

Now I draft the scenes in the order they’ll appear in the novel. Because I do that, what I draft today might affect scenes I’ve already written, but it won’t affect upcoming scenes. If I were to write Kat’s sixth scene before I drafted the second scene, the spontaneous changes I made on Day 4 would not only ripple back to alter the first scene, they also ripple forward to change Kat’s scenes three through six.

My willingness to explore my creative intuition and new options (like changing the location or changing what a character knows) would be inhibited by knowing how much I would have to change both backward and forward in the plotline. I would get overly rigid in how I perceive scenes when my vision should still be fluid.

Drafting the scenes in order and knowing that the only changes I’ll have to make are in previously written scenes keeps me willing to explore. Once again, structure gives me freedom.

Why I Let the Draft Wander

big ideaSo why not just stick to the structure and details on the scene cards? Why allow the draft to drift from the scene cards at all? Aren’t the changes I made on Day 4 a waste of time? No.

The “detour” I took on Day 4 was not wasted time. It deepened my understanding of my new POV character. If I hadn’t taken the detour, chances are I wouldn’t have pushed myself to move Kat and her father out of the Laundromat and into the park.

As I write each scene, I’ll know more about my characters and the story. Upcoming scenes will need to flex to accommodate my new knowledge and greater intuition. The alternative is to become a slave to the cards (the way writers can become slaves to an outline).

Fortunately, it’s easy to change a scene card. And I can easily change following scene cards that also need to change. Changing scene cards gives me freedom. Changing at the level of scene cards prevents the resistance I sometimes feel when I anticipate how difficult it will be to change already drafted scenes.

Working at the level of scene cards, I can be sure the changes fit and enhance the overall structure of the novel before I draft those possible scenes (and in drafting them, fall in love with them and be less willing to modify them). When I do draft a scene from the modified card, I have confidence that the modification will work with the rest of the novel.

I dreamstormed the cards to the best of my ability but with limited knowledge. I need the cards to guide the drafting, not dominate it.

It becomes increasingly clear with each day I revise that writing my first draft without the guidance of the cards was the real waste of time and creativity.

If you’re intrigued with the idea of structuring the first full draft of a novel or memoir at the scene level or have a first draft you want to revise by structuring the scenes and want to learn more about the exercises I’ve described, check out my new online Loft class Revisiting the Flow that starts October 27.

New Book Update: Creating Freedom from Structure

October 9, 2014

creative options canstockphoto15229827I love possibilities. I prefer to keep my options open. Too much structure makes me feel like I’m straightjacketed. (I’m an NP on the MBTI if you know what I mean).

But I’m imposing structure as I revise my novel and still enjoying creative spontaneity. I never imagined that so much freedom could come from structure.

Since I decided to add a new POV character, Katy (previous posts explain why), I’ve dreamstormed scenes featuring her. Some of the scene cards I wrote from the dreamstorming followed one narrative option, others followed a different option.

When I reviewed the structure of all the scene cards in the novel, I saw which of Kat’s scenes cards to use and where to put them.

Now I get to draft the new scenes without worrying about writing myself into a corner or rambling all over the place in search of what happens. In a weird way, organizing and structuring the scene cards gives me more creative freedom as I draft.

Where I Needed More Options

locations give characters options I had a nagging sense that Kat’s scenes were always in the same two locations. So I forced myself to list alternative settings for each scene. This challenge has paid off already and I just finished drafting Kat’s second scene.

Pushing myself to identify alternative settings before I start drafting is particularly useful because when I know where the characters are, I can give them things to do while they talk. (Dialogue is easy for me and re-imagining the dialogue I heard when I dreamstormed the scene is how I usually “get into” drafting a scene.)

Characters’ actions reveal nonverbal communication that can compliment or contradict their actual words.

The first time I drafted Kat’s second scene, I put the characters in a laundromat. Instead of writing “Kat looked away” I could write “Kat bent over to pull clothes from the washer.” Because the second option is more specific, it helps readers see what I want them to see.

If I want to show Kat’s reluctance to tell her father something, I could write, “‘It’s not a big deal,’ Kat said as she bent over to pull clothes from the washer.”

If I want to increase the embarrassment Kat feels that caused her to turn away without telling the reader “Kat was embarrassed” (*snooze*), I can show “Kate bent over to pull her bras and panties out of the washer before her father could see the new sexy stuff she’d bought to wear for Daniel.”

In my next post, I show you how exploring options like moving the scene from the laundromat to a park helps scenes evolve and why I write scenes in the order they appear in the novel. If you’re intrigued with how you might draft or revise a novel or memoir at the level of scenes, take a look at my new online Loft class starting October 27.

How to Make Reality Fit the Writing Plan

October 1, 2014

sirenWe’ve all had days when the writing reality didn’t match the plan. We’ve all started out with great intentions to write but somehow ended up listening to the siren’s call and crashing ourselves on the rocks of social media, email and other e-stimuli.

It’s not the fault of your will power or a character flaw. For millennia, our brains evolved to seek new information that could help us find valuable resources and avoid danger. The brain’s reward system releases dopamine every time we find something new, and that feel-good neurotransmitter keeps us coming back.

Unlike the natural environments we evolved to respond to, social media is an unending source of “new.” In an electronic environment, “new” doesn’t mean “useful” nearly often as it does in nature. But even when the new stops being useful, our reward system lags behind and continues to release dopamine.

You can’t change how this reward system works; once you’re get sucked in, you’re stuck. You — current you — need to protect yourself in advance by making conscious decisions that future-you won’t be able to veto when future-you gets plugged into a dopamine-high of Youtube or Pinterest.

Options to Sustain Your Writing

antisocial_windows2We have plenty of options. We can set specific times when we will and when we won’t respond to email, texts, pings and pokes. We can set specific times when we will and won’t access the internet. We can use software to set limits on what websites we access, when and for how long.

We can put our phones and other devices on silent, not just when we get on a plane or go to a movie, but when we spend time with family and friends. We can deliberately stop processing electronic data to fully experience what it is to eat a meal, play, meditate, sleep, walk or relax. At the bare minimum we can stop taking our phones, tablets and readers to bed with us.

unplugfromtech-1024x1005We need regular, repeated “screen-free” times and places in our lives. (Screen free week is laudable, but one week a year is nowhere near enough.)

We can commit to specific start times for our Product Time (aka writing time) and honor those commitments no matter what’s happening on our phones, in our email or our social media.

For the best results, we can start Product Time before we splitter our attention and fracture our focus. One of my clients starts her day on a designated “writing computer” that has no email or internet access so she can’t be distracted.

I always show up for Product Time on the days I commit to. And I do a pretty good job of showing up when I say I will. The day I wrote Part 1 of this post, I slipped. Fortunately I recognized it before too much time passed.

The sooner we recognize a slip, the better. The less time we spend following e-distractions down the rabbit hole, the faster we can recover our brain’s ability to focus.

We can forgive ourselves and get back to the routines and habits that sustain the life we really want to live.

should be writingI’m going to go work on my novel now. Don’t you have a writing project you want to pay attention to, too?

Does Your Writing Reality Fit the Plan?

September 25, 2014

You can’t predict when an “a-ah” moment will arrive or how your writing will unfold — creativity is, by definition, unpredictable.

But if the reality of when you show up for Product Time (aka writing time) rarely matches the plan, you’re either resisting your writing or you have a bigger problem.

My Modest Plan

Today I planned to get up, feed the dogs, have breakfast, work on my novel and walk the dogs before my first coaching appointment.

My Reality

I got up. Fed the dogs. While cooking oatmeal, I remember I need to call my gas utility company. While on hold, I remember an email I need to send to a coaching client. Before I can finish the email, the service rep takes me off hold, asks a few questions and puts me back on hold.

I turn off the burner under the oatmeal, send the email and, since I’m already in Outlook, check for messages that require action this morning. A email notification from Facebook sends me to my FB page. On my way there, I see a photo my sister posted. Scrolling down to Like her photo brings the next post into view. A friend posted a cartoon I have to share. And then?

Frankly, I can’t remember what happened after that. It’s all a blank until I came to about a half hour later.

The Result

addicted to computer2Oatmeal is overcooked, cold and uneaten. My characters are still waiting. The hour is gone, and so is my ability to focus my attention. I can regain my focus by walking the dogs, but my first client will call as soon as I get back.

How did this happen again? When I know better? When I advise students, readers and coaching clients to avoid these kinds of distractions?

The Cause

social media writers block canstockphoto15832084Your brain loves novelty. You are hardwired to respond to novelty. Every time you notice something new on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, email, your phone, tablet or laptop, your brain gives you a little squirt of dopamine.

Dopamine is often described as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, but recent research suggests  the “gimme more” or “do it again” neurotransmitter is more accurate. Even if it doesn’t feel that great, we want more.

Dopamine plays a significant role in addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, shopping and, most recently, social media. Apparently we are all dope(amine) addicts.

The ping, beep or flash that tells us there’s something new to look at reinforces the addiction and makes it oh so hard to resist the temptation to continue fracturing our focus. We can’t stop ourselves from following the next electronic signal down the rabbit hole.

After all, it’ll only take a second. It’s not THAT bad. And I can quit anytime I want.

Are you sure about that? For a few days, make a note of how often you get a dopamine hit from an electronic source. Your don’t have to change anything, just observe. When you lose track of time (like I did), note that too.

My next post will offer solutions. By then, you may be ready to hear them.

The Wrong Question Writers Ask

September 18, 2014

Chances are you’ve asked “Who can I get to read my writing and give me feedback?” There’s no good answer to that question.

Because that’s the wrong question to ask.

In a recent episode of Holmes on Homes, homeowners needed help with a leaky basement. In the process of taking down walls to discover the source of the water damage problem, Mike Holmes and his crew discovered one problem after another. The most frightening were the multiple unsafe electrical “fixes” throughout every room in the house. It was luck the place hadn’t gone up in flames.

I suspect that one of this older house’s multiple owners asked, “Who can we get to rewire the kitchen?”

bad electrician 2 canstockphoto9222141Maybe someone’s nephew was recommended. “Bruce took a course at the tech school, didn’t he?”

Maybe the owners created the dangerous situation themselves. “How hard can it be? I’ll run over to the hardware store and pick up a dozen junction boxes and we’ll be set.”

Maybe an unscrupulous contractor made the changes. “These folks wants the work done quick and cheap. We’ll just bend the code a little.”

“Who can we get?” as in “Who’s available?” is a dangerous question.

The question the homeowners should have asked is “Who is qualified to rewire our home?” Likewise, you should ask “Who is qualified to read and respond to my writing?”

Picking unqualified people to rewire your house because you can “get them” can cost your home, maybe even your life and the lives of those you love.

Picking unqualified people to read your writing because you can “get them” won’t cost your home or life, but it can cost you months, even years to heal from the damage – years when you could have written some wonderful stuff.

I know this for a fact – I’ve worked with courageous and committed writers who invested a lot of time and effort to recover from creative wounds caused by inappropriate feedback.

The pool of available beta readers can be small. Don’t let that tempt you to take whatever and whoever you can get. The pool of qualified and available readers will be even smaller. Don’t let that stop you.

You can read more about feedback in a series of posts that starts with Feedback Should Be a Crystal Ball Not a Wrecking Ball. Steven Pressfield offers another perspective on who’s qualified to give feedback in his post Nobody Knows Nothing.

Wise Writers Step Back From Procrastination

September 10, 2014

one step forwardOne step forward, one step back. Two steps forward, two steps back. Does this sound like a route through the push-pull of procrastination?

It is. And it makes perfect neurological sense.

Let me tell you about our dog Kelda to illustrate. As I mentioned in a previous post, Kelda notices anything that is out of place or different. She used to be fearful in these situations, but she learned to be brave by following the “check it out” command.

“Check it out,” means Kelda should touch the palm of my hand, which I hold close, but not too close, to whatever it is that startled her. When she touches her nose to my hand, I give her a treat. Then I move my hand closer to the startling object and repeat the process until Kelda learns that what scared her is really okay and actually a source of good stuff (i.e. treats).

Kelda studies her next move

Kelda studies her next move

Our trainer told me it’s essential that I let Kelda back away from the scary object after she checks it out. In other words, let her take one step forward and one step back. Then ask her to take two steps forward and let her take two steps back.

When you challenge yourself to step toward a writing goal that makes you anxious, your limbic system will trigger, which turns off your creative and problem-solving cortex.

If you then take a step back, your limbic system will back off, too. You disengage the limbic system and bring your cortex back online. You can relax and feel good about what you did.

Then you can challenge yourself to take a slightly bigger risk. When you take two steps forward, you start with your limbic system disengaged. Because the first step will be familiar, it’s less likely to trigger your limbic system. When you take the second step, your limbic system will engage, but by then you have forward momentum.

On the other hand, if you take one step forward (which triggers the limbic system), and instead of allowing yourself to step back (to disengage your limbic system), you immediately challenge yourself to take another step forward, you start that second step in an already anxious, fight-or-flight state. The stress escalates. And the procrastination gets worse.

It is much easier to step into a challenge when you’re in a neutral state than when you’re anxious before you even start.

If you keep your brain in a near-constant state of anxiety and stress, you quickly get entrenched in the push-pull of procrastination. You keep yourself too scared to move forward because you never let yourself back up long enough to let your limbic system calm down.

If you’ve been in the habit of driving yourself or if your push-pull procrastination pattern is entrenched, you may need to repeatedly practice taking one small step forward and one step back to rewire your limbic system. You need to learn that you can relax after taking a risk.

Stop thinking about stepping back as “slacking off.” You aren’t procrastinating – you’re calming your limbic system so your cortex can choose your next creative step forward. Or you’re doing the cha-cha.

Break Free of the Push-Pull of Procrastination

September 3, 2014

procrastination writers blockProcrastination is one of the most common forms of writer’s resistance. You know how it goes: some variation on “Of course I’m going to write. But first, I’ll just…”

No doubt you’ve berated yourself for procrastinating at some point in your life. Or you’ve questioned your will power, discipline or desire to write because you procrastinate.

The truth is, if you didn’t have will power, discipline and a powerful desire to write, you wouldn’t procrastinate, you would have given up years ago. People who don’t care about writing, never procrastinate about writing — they just don’t write.

The Neurological Perspective on Procrastination

In an article in Wired UK, noted neurologist David Eagleman writes:

“Consider this lab experiment: if you put both food and an electric shock at the end of a pathway, a rat will pause a certain distance from the end. It begins to approach but withdraws when it receives a shock; it begins to withdraw but finds the courage to approach again; and so on. It oscillates, conflicted. If the rat is connected to a Newton meter, you can measure the force with which it advances towards the food and retreats from the electric shock. The rat pauses at the point where the two forces are equal, where the push matches the pull.”

Your cortex is “hungry” to write, so you move toward the act of writing. When you approach writing, you remember pain associated with writing in the past, get anxious and your limbic system moves you away. Even experiences you can’t consciously recall can trigger anxiety.

When you move away, the anxiety drops, your limbic system releases control to your cortex and you think about writing again. But the closer you get to writing, the more anxiety you feel, so you pull back again. This is the push-pull of procrastination.

Even though it had nothing to do with the decision to step away from writing, your cortex tries to explain why you aren’t doing what you said you were going to do, and you come up with some story about how something else needed to happen first.

Sometimes your cortex  notices, “Oh, I’m procrastinating. I better stop that and get down to business.” As if the cortex had a choice in the matter!

around procrastination writers blockProcrastinators Rejoice!

Your procrastination is proof of your desire to write and your courage to keep trying.

All you have to do is find a way to another “pathway to the food” — a way to approach writing without getting shocked or anxious about the possibility of being shocked.

How do you do that? Find out in my next post.


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