The Idea That Changes Everything

Oh, the work in progress. The struggle, the self-doubt, the flow, the joy: all the myriad feelings that go into taking a seed of an idea and creating a garden of story. My current one is a novel that I’ve been at for nearly two years. I’ve drafted other novel length stories, but this one is the one I promised myself to get all the way through the editing process and make it something of which I am proud (even if proud of actually finishing). So, in the spaces between my work and my life and now also the ones between dealing with the pandemic and searching for my place in this much-needed racial justice reckoning, I’ve been writing. And writing. And writing.

I’ve been scared of finishing this one, because it is requiring levels of vulnerability and self-evaluation and risk that I haven’t yet asked of myself in my writing. That’s a whole other blogpost. But I sub-promised myself earlier this year that I would draft this plot through to the end, let it be whatever it was right now, and go from there. I was doing great, about halfway through, with a good plan for the next quarter and enough trust in myself and the story to take me all the way to the end.

And then I had an idea. Not just any idea, but THE IDEA THAT PROMISES TO FIX IT ALL! (aka the TITPOFIA!)

I was finally in a place for the story to tell me what it needed: I had done the work to get to know these characters and I had reached the point where story could start making demands, sending up ideas from my subconscious that had been marinating for my writer-brain to deal with. The TITPOFIA! is a good one, but it will ripple across the story in such a way that most (all) of what I’ve written will need to change, at minimum, but a lot is probably going to get tossed out.

And that left with me with a dilemma. Do I keep that promise and finish this draft, making the change in the next round, or do I abandon it and implement the idea now? How do I know that the idea isn’t just my brain trying to keep me from the scary work of getting to the end? What, exactly, should I do?!

I needed a method. Something that engaged with both this gut feeling that I needed to write this new idea into the story right now, and the part of me that knows that finishing this draft is a very important practice to my development as a writer overall. So I came up with this: Evaluate, Mind-Map, Draft.

Evaluate

Evaluate the idea. This probably seems pretty obvious. But when I am in the throws of a TITPOFIA!, it can be really difficult to see it for what it’s actually worth. I need to find a way to step back and look at the idea with a modicum of distance. I started asking it questions and demanding good answers.

Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the thousand and one ideas that come up when you are writing, like potential costume changes (which, in my WIP, can be changed without causing too many or too large ripples). I’m talking about the ones that feel like, when you are done with them, they will have put your story into a close, but parallel universe: similar but not the same.

My question can be boiled down to three:

  1. Does it increase the stakes?
  2. Will it vastly improve the story overall?
  3. Is it in line with the characters I’ve created?

These questions target what is important so that I can know if I should move forward with the idea now, or write it down somewhere and revisit it later.

Does it increase the stakes? If the idea is simply a different way to tell the same story, to me this indicates that I’m using the idea to avoid telling this story. I’m probably afraid of something, and getting to the bottom of that will be a far better approach to moving forward than changing my whole story for something that doesn’t, in the end, add anything to what I’ve done.

On the other hand, if it increases the stakes, then continuing to evaluate the idea makes sense. The stakes your characters face are the sustenance of the story, so an idea that will increase this is probably worth the effort to make all of the changes it requires.

Will it vastly improve the story overall? I’ll leave to you what “vastly” means in the context of your story, but for me, I want to know that this idea isn’t going to improve only a scene or two. If that’s the case, I can save it for later and implement in the next round of edits if it still makes sense to make the change. But if it’s going to require story-wide changes that also make the story better, then I’d be willing to break my promise to myself and rework the story now.

Is it in line with the characters I’ve created? This question is my gut check that this idea isn’t for another story. If my idea is going to radically change the “who” of my story, then I’m pretty sure that I’m trying to start a new story in the middle of the one I’m actually working on. New ideas are great! I get so many while I’m writing. They go on a list, and I might play with them for a little every night before I go to bed, but they are not my work in progress. This is another way that my fear can hide in plain sight and pretend to be in service of the story when it’s actually distracting me from it. Like with the stakes question, it will be better for me to address that fear head on now.

For my current work in progress, the answer was yes, to all three. Emphatically yes to the stakes and the characters, and yes but in a gut feeling sort of way for improvement to my story. So I’m probably going to make this change, but first, let’s mind-map!

Mind-Map

Okay, so I’ve evaluated and come to the conclusion that the story probably needs to change. But what does that mean? Susan Dennard offers us three potential avenues: write forward as if you’ve already changed it, go back and change everything, or toss out the draft and start again. For me, deciding which way to go was leading to me to a dead end. I needed an anchor. I decided to use a mind-map.

I started using mind-mapping as an adult when I got my first Passion Planner. [Side note: I don’t make any money on links. These are things I use (or have used), and I like sharing resources. If that ever changes, I’ll make that clear.] Mind-maps are a way to capture and connect ideas while letting your mind run wild. You write the idea or the topic or whatever and put it in the center and then write out the ideas that come from that: implications, scene ideas, blurts of thoughts, whatever. They are useful no matter what writer style you have: planner, pantster, plantster, or those of us with stories that want to stay feral as long as possible.

The one thing about mind-mapping by hand, though, is the limitations of the size of your page. You could definitely just add pages and tape them all together and that could be a shit-ton of fun. I would definitely do that, if that felt like the best way to work through the TITPOFIA! But for this, I needed something more flexible (read: editable), so I am using Scapple. If you use Scrivener, you probably know about Scapple. It’s super easy mind-mapping software that, so far, hasn’t limited me on how far from the “center” I can go.

So, I dropped the TITPOFIA! into a mind-map file and started spinning out the implications. I started with characters, connecting notes about how the TITPOFIA! would affect them. From there, plot and subplot changes started to become clear and new scenes have appeared as well as old scenes that still work with some smaller adjustments. The TITPOFIA! has raised a number of questions as well as a number of options of how to answer them, and all of these have all been dropped into the map. I’ve been able to map things that will definitely change as well as things that might change, and I was able to do this over days and weeks, rather than feeling like I had to capture everything right now! It’s a living document that I color code to help me manage the things that I have already decided, things I am considering, and questions that are open. With the mind-map, you don’t have to answer every question now, but it will help you see how the idea could ripple through your story and that will put you in a better place to know how to move forward.

A mindmap with tens of entries with connections made in all kinds of directions across the map. Some of the blocks are color coded. The text is too small to read (and that was on purpose, FYI).
This is a fairly organized representation of how my brain thinks.

Going in to the mind-map process, I really thought I was going to decide to change some of the recent scenes I had just finished and then write forward to end as if I had already changed everything, but I realized a lot has to change. Not everything, but one plot thread and one of my main characters are so much clearer from doing this, so I’m actually excited to make these changes, even though it means losing or changing a lot of what I’ve already done.

Draft

So now I’m ready to draft. I know I’m probably starting mostly over, but instead of starting from the beginning from nearly scratch, I am drafting or editing the scenes that will be most impacted by the TITPOFIA! first. I need to wrestle with these changes to these scenes before I change anything else. This is another check to make sure I’m not using this idea to avoid the really hard shit that I’m afraid of, and by doing those scenes first, I’ll be able to see how the TITPOFIA! pans out for real and make sure it is worth it before I change everything else.

Art is not efficient, but our process can be smart. This process is helping me to know the difference between avoidance ideas and quality ones.

How about you? What do you do when you think of a TITPOFIA!?

Cross-posted at creatingcarrie.

Fanfic is good. 

Every community has its politics. My experience of a writer community has been mostly positive, mostly supportive.I maybe miss a lot of the politics because I’m trying to do this whole writer thing while also trying to do another seriously time consuming career. But I hear grumblings. And these grumblings stick with me, because they seem to be about something that I don’t understand the point of grumbling about: fanfic.

Some people are really negative about fanfic and the role it plays in the writing world. So I’m going to come out today. I am unapologetically pro-fanfic. In fact, in my personal, non-monetary scheme of measuring success, having a fandom and having people write fanfic of something I have created is the pinnacle. To have inspired people so much or to have created characters that people love so much that they cannot help but create more art around them? I lack words to say how important that is to me.

I think people assume that fanfic is written primarily by teenage girls. I hope so. Teenage girls should be writing and should be creating the kind of media they want to see. So much of mainstream media content boxes in teenage girls into archetypes, and if all fanfic was written by teenage girls, then I would celebrating it as much if not more than I do now because it allows them to tell their own stories and become their own writers. Today’s teenage fanfic writers can become the novelists and poets and screenwriters of tomorrow. And that is good.

But this post isn’t (only) about fanfic on its own as something of value. It’s also about how writing fanfic can benefit us as writers. Fanfic, friends, is an incredible training ground.

I am trying to work on my writing craft while I work a job and work through my WIP. I’m working cubed. Working on craft is difficult, because you need to spend time strengthening and experimenting with the various aspects of it until it becomes natural. I don’t really want to do that with my WIP. As an actor, I would work on my craft through scene study, focusing on what particular aspect or aspects I needed to strengthen or add to my toolbox. While obviously a writer can do that by writing their own scenes, fanfic provides characters and worlds that can be used or discarded as needed.

Let’s say that you want to work on creating settings. You can take the characters from your favorite show, drop them into some new world (an alternate universe,  or “AU” for the uninitiated) and practice the craft of staging your scenes. You have ready-made characters that you are familiar with, so you know what they look like and how they react to certain situations. Part of the creating and writing is largely taken care of, so you can experiment and explore and train some aspect of your craft. Fanfic can make your training more efficient.

You can also get feedback by posting your works on fanfic sites and getting comments back from the fandom. They already know the characters well, and you are all starting from – more or less – the same place. You have a built in audience with whom you can test your new crafty skills.

Or maybe you don’t post it. Cool. You write it, you develop your craft, and you move those lessons to your WIP. You do you.

Fanfic is excellent training ground. But even if you think all of the above is bullshit and you have your own way of doing things, cool. But I encourage you not to shit on fanfic. Every iteration of Sherlock, every movie based on the works of Shakespeare, hell, every movie based on a book, all of it is just fanfic. And fanfic is good.

 

Bodies in Space

Some of you may know – and probably I put it on my About page (*makes note to go check and update the About page*) – that I am a recovering actor. My undergrad was in theatre. Here. Have a picture of my teenage self as a Vietnam era nurse.

piece of my heart

I’m the one between one girl’s butt and one girl’s crotch looking contemplative (appropriate).

Aaaaaaaaaanyway. My time as an actor gave me a lot of experience about holding your body in space. Building on my theme of taking obvious ideas and trying to explore the nuances, today we’re going to look at how your character holds themselves and how that affects them. And if you take away some lessons to apply to your own life, awesome.

Most of us probably know that when you feel a certain way, your body will shape itself to match that feeling. Like puffing up like an alpha male when you need to be aggressive. Shrinking into yourself when you want to disappear. These things can happen automatically. You can use them, however, to get yourself to feel those things. So whether you have a character that feels sometime and the body follows or needs to feel something and therefore puts their body in that feeling’s shape, it’s a good idea to have sense of how bodies do that. I’m going to talk about two things today: 1. extroversion v. introversion of the body; and 2. grammar of the feet.

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Lessons of Time and Place

Happy New Year everyone! I know, I know. Where the hell have I been these past months? Well, ‘where’ is a very good way to ask that. I’ve been in DC finishing law school; in San Diego taking the bar; traveling through New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Amsterdam; back in DC working; and in and out of Switzerland for work. My cat is none too happy about all of this, but really she should be used to it by now. (I am thinking about getting her a kitten though. #levelupcatlady)

But I’m back (for) now! I’m setting my intention for this blog now, and it is to monthly and hopefully more than that. This month: Lessons from Traveling. Continue reading

Karaoke Creativity

I hear there are these people that need no accolades for their work. They are able to do their thing no matter the response or whether there is a response at all. I am not one of these people. Not to say that I need gushing positivity over every piece I crap out. But I need kudos to help fill those spaces where I doubt everything I’m doing and wondering why I’m even pretending to be a writer. 

I’ve been exploring how to meet this need without it affecting my WIP (premature accolation can totally ruin a process). Borrowing from advice I got as a baby actor, my solution is this: karaoke creativity.  Continue reading

The Importance of Being Ambiguous (On Purpose)

Dear Readers, in case you were unaware, I am in the Supernatural fandom; a Supernaturalyte, if you will.* This week’s episode, aside from destroying my feelings and burying one of my favorite characters, had a small, key moment of ambiguity that complicated an important moment in Dean Winchester’s character arc. So, let’s take this moment to explore this moment and how deliberate ambiguity can enhance a reader’s experience and complicate how they feel about their hero’s actions. Beware the spoilers, sweetie, below.

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How to Suck at Being an Adult (& Why It’s Important – Not Necessarily in that Order)

I will start out with the following statement in order to put my parents at ease: I don’t totally suck at being an adult. I pay my rent and bills (on time even), I have a post-law school job lined up, I do things like cook and exercise and vote. I can adult all over that.

But I am talking about that outer kind of adulting. The kind that tells you that you have to adult the way your parents (or some previous generation) adult. And holy chuck does that look clausterphobic. [insert assurance that this is not judge people that choose to adult this way] I remember looking my thirties down the line and just waiting for the sensible clothing and predicatable days to decend upon me. Terrifying.

My life until then had been something of an adventure. Tragic often, but the kind where you are sucking the marrow of life until you choke on the bone. I had moved far away from my family, which kept their unconscious demands for perfection away from my daily life, which freed me to be ridiculous. Freed me to try on different kinds of me.

But adulthood was coming. Right? I mean, it didn’t really seem like you could avoid it. Better to get all that partying and bad life choices in before it happened. A collection of stories to remind yourself that your life wasn’t always this boring.

For me, Thirty was the marker. That was the day that adulthood would settle in and take over. But as it approached, nothing was changing that hadn’t already changed in me. (Actually my 30th birthday was spent in a vet emergency clinic asking whatever orders this universe to please keep my cat alive — but that is another blog post entirely.) My adult life was my own.

So, I’ve been enjoying it. I realized that as an adult, you can act immature with impunity. When you are silly or run off to Peru for a week, those that love you just say “Oh, that’s just CJ.” It’s not a phase anymore. I am just better at stopping before things get out of hand now. I don’t choke on the bone (most of the time).

Why is it important? Aside from being yourself and loving yourself more than the haters hate on you, as writers we need stories, we need experience. We need different perspectives on everyday life. We need the extra-ordinary. And while we are all capable of imagining and empathizing these kinds of experiences, pulling them from our core and from our own story can keep you connected to that place of heightened reality.

So, the how-to part. Practice being silly. Silliness implies a kind of joy and fun that will help to breakdown the serious barriers a lot of us put up so that other people will believe in or be impressed by us. One simple step is saying the silly thing that comes into your head before you censor yourself. But, I know that can be terrifying, so if you are person that likes or has children, they are the best source of silliness. Kids, especially like 3-8 year olds, are basically pure imagination. Go play with them. When they create things, say yes and play, don’t just play along. Laugh while you do it.

Once you’ve mastered silliness, bring it into places where it would not be inappropriate and discover which of your friends and family want to join you in changing adulthood. Let them say “Oh that’s just <you>.”

Or we all have those things that we do that are not so adult. My dad on car trips would pretend to be all kinds of characters (my fav being the old man driving). Find yours and let that be more than simply a quirk.

What are your favorite not adult things to do? What do you wish you could do? How do you use your quirks in your writing?

The Writing and the Process: A Review of 2K to 10K

While I was on break, I wanted to spend some of the time that I got back reading a book about writing. I had seen a review of 2K to 10K (probably on Twitter, but honestly, if I haven’t made a note about it somewhere, I cannot be held accountable for remembering. #lawschoolbrain). I thought maybe I should dive into a style or craft book, but I really wanted to get the draft of my book done before the break was over (I did it!), and everything seemed to be moving much slower than I needed it to in order to get it done while also actually participating in the holidays. Even with just one tweak from the book (which I won’t spoil, since it is not mine to spoil), I doubled to triple my per hour word count and was able write even when I wasn’t really feeling it. Not feeling it is sort of death for me, because I have so much to do that excuses are easily found. But before I ramble into some other blog topic about that, join me for a brief argument about why you might want to pick up this book. Continue reading

The Element of Surprise

Stories need to earn their surprises. There is very little I find more frustrating than a story that throws you a (usually concluding) plot point or major piece of information that comes right out of left field. Left field is bad, folks. But in thinking about the difference between something coming out of left field and a solid surprise, I’m at pains to say exactly what it is. So, I figured, I might as well blog about it and see if someone smarter at this stuff than I am wants to chime in. Follow me through the element of surprise!

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Writing Trauma

Lap cats are part of my self care.
Lap cats are part of my self care.

Content warning for this post: sexual violence (I discuss writing about it but do not describe any incident)

I dove into writing a section of my book last week involving sexual violence. It is a subject central to the world in which this story takes place and central to the story itself. And good chuck, I was in a bad mood this week. It took me a few days of blaming this month’s mix of PMS hormones before I realized that, no, this mood is not that one. This mood, this irritability, is the story giving me an emotional hangover, working itself out, demanding attention and retreating from it. This mood is the undercurrent of rage and helplessness and empathy that always attaches to me when I am met with these stories, real or fictionalized. It just so happens that this week in Evidence class is also the section on the rules of evidence in sexual assault cases. Rape shield laws, their exceptions, and the policies underlying both. All while holding this character’s hand through her story. WHAM! Right in the feels. What do I do about this? Continue reading