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.

Adultification

30 in 30 is a series of writing challenges. Over the course of 30 days (hopefully, in a row!), I will draft a post within 30 minutes. This 30-day theme is: News Stories. Today’s writing comes from an article on the adultification of Black girls in the LA Times.

Her childhood could have looked mine
But they pressed her down with
Responsibility
Younger and younger than I’ve ever been

For herself
For her family
For her race
For the world

My own body bloomed too early
drawing attention from men
to the way it curved and took up
SPACE
No matter how small I tried to hide it

Hers too

But that attention came
before the bloom
And painted her roses a sinister red
No patch of land for her innocence
to put down roots
to thrive

Not doing it all

This blog space has been very quiet. I’d say I’m sorry, but after finishing law school and starting a job, I found myself with too much to do, too little time, and mounting levels of stress. Something had to give. 

So I took a look. The job is necessity at the moment. My book is in (slow) progress. That left the social media and blogging. I made a choice. 

And basically I’ve been managing those feelings that tell you that you just have to get it all done and that if you don’t then the rest of everything is basically worthless. I’ve read the blog posts about how important a social media presence is to a writing career. I worry I’m shooting myself in the foot by setting this space aside. 

I’ve created more space to work on my book that I wouldn’t have if I were here. It’s going slower than I thought it was (n00b), which then made me fear I’ve been away from here too long. But I put one word in front of another, and one edit after another. It’s going. And at some point time will open up to more. 

So this post, written offline during a flight from Budapest to Milan (I don’t write well on planes), is to say, “Hello, friends. I am still here. Thank you for your patience. Here’s a picture of lovely Budapest in the meantime.”


How do you handle an overstuffed schedule? 

Pink. by Gonzalez

so i dreamed i got another tattoo

because i went into a rando tat shop like a cheesy new orleans palm reader
in some place i have never been but sort of like this one part of dc where i bike sometimes
and rachel was there
so i decided “i’m getting a tattoo”
which was the dream plan all along but also
became the plan at that moment
i got the fucking word “pink” in pink tattooed on my right calf
and then it was purple
and then it was pink again but like the victoria’s secret logo “Pink”
and i hated it
but i didn’t want to tell rachel that
so i said “thanx”
and realized i have no money
uh, where’s an atm?
 it is so far away. 8 blocks!
but i have to go, i have to pay
so i’m going.
and i look at the tat again, and it now says
Pink. by Gonzalez
by Gonzalez in black ink script
Pink still in pink
but i don’t hate it as much anymore
the atm is broken
of course
on the other side of the shop
at the subway
is another machine
which dream me already knew
going, avoiding the shop
because i’m not trying to skip out
on rachel
for Pink. by Gonzalez
the atms line up the stairs
one stair, one machine
the first machine is busted of course
i just decide to sit on the stairs and watch people
and i wake up
worried about my actual tattoo

Managing the 2 Ws

Writing and Work. This is a blogpost for those of us trying to do two careers and just starting out at both. This is to remind us that it is okay to be a beginner. This is to encourage us to experiment, both in those careers and in managing them. This is to say that taking a risk, no matter the outcome, is a worthy endeavor.  Continue reading

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.

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

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 Unfulfilled Promise of Later

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me. Time is the ever-present non-renewable resource that I constantly struggle to manage. And time has been getting away from me lately in the face of the on-coming finals season, end of law school, and beginning of bar stress. My commitment to my writing, as measured in consistency and hours, definitely took a hit. And like we learn in physics: bodies at rest, stay at rest. In this blog post, let’s talk strategies and experiments to get that writing-body back to one in motion.

I don’t believe there is any one way to get back to that place your writer self remembers from last week, last month, last year, where finding time for writing was easy, and the writing itself was ready when you were. For me, it is always a matter of seeing what is going to work for me now that does not involve totally abandoning my WIP even though that is the thought itching at the base of my brain. (Look, Brain, it just needs work and some TLC and is *not* a POS, whatever you think right now. Back off.) 

But this is about strategies. What have I been doing to get back into my writer flow?

  1. Forgive myself. I am REALLY good at beating myself up for not living up to my own (often ridiculous) expectations of what I should be accomplishing all the time. Right now, I am taking note of these thoughts and not beating myself up about them like I usually do (double whammy!) and taking the time to talk myself through them in a postive light. What does this look like? Something along the lines of’ “Okay, so you haven’t been editing your WIP everyday and you are sort of scared of engaging with it. Okay. That is where you are. You have a lot on my plate right now, and you have been doing a read-through and making notes and edits. It is okay that it is not everyday. When you are not inspired, you can work, and that is what you are doing right now. Good for you.” Rinse, repeat until all the mental dirt is cleared until the next time.
  2. Work on something else. I am a person that needs multiple projects going at once. My problem is making sure it is not too many multiple projects. But I feel stuck if I have only one thing going on at a time. My brain needs distractions to work through things and make connections that would not have happened if I was focused in on a single WIP. So, I have some short stories brewing, some in editing, some in drafting. I am engaging with these, so that my WIP can have that break when I am on the verge of abandoning it. The fact that these other projects are in different stages also helps, because I can assess what kind of creation I need right now. Do I need to generate? Do I need to feel like I checked something off of my to do list? Do I need to read other works and interesting facts related to a story? All of these options are available to me in my Dropbox.
  3. Walk away (as in, walk). Physical activity is key to my creativity. When option 2 is not doing it for me, I put on my running or walking shoes and get moving. I know a lot of people have their best ideas in the shower; I have mine on a run or on a walk. I go by myself and let my mind wander. Even if I end up back at my apartment with no new insights or ideas or what-have-yous, I am clearer. Much like the self-care in option 1, letting go of conscious direction of my thoughts helps to clear out mental obstacles and stresses that block me from moving forward. 
  4. Journal. This option is a relatively new one for me.  Journal about the struggle. Journal about things that happened in your day. Journal the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual experiences of your day. My life feels incredibly limited at the moment, because law schools seems like all I ever do. Journaling gets me out of that mindset. My bike rides, lunches, walks, classes, everything all have individualized and specific relevance to my life and to my writing. I can write and write creatively without the pressure of creating something. The story is there; it needs words. And at the end, even if it does not jump start me back into my writing flow, I have a record of experience for future works. 
  5. Schedule. Scheduling for me is not the “I write from 7 am until 9 am” kind. That limits me (kuddos if that works for you; I am totes jealous!). I schedule writing in more of a where does this go in my day kind of way. If I try to say “I will write before I go to bed,” I am not going to write (tired + only accountable to myself = excuses). Mornings work for me. I am not a morning person, but I am good at getting things done in the morning (because I hate everyone until I have been sufficiently caffeinated). I write after breakfast, before I go to school. It is not an exact time, but I can make it consistent so long as I keep it there. Once I start working on law school stuff, my brain switches over and writing is a struggle. In the morning, before law school, after breakfast. And if I miss a day to get some extra sleep, see option 1.

That’s the experiment right now. How do you approach your own loss of writer flow? What other kinds of approaches do you think are effective? Drop your thoughts in the comments, and let’s get a conversation going!