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It may look like I’m staring into space…

because I am.
Most of my work right now is taking place in my head and so I look like I’m not being productive. Actually I’m not being productive if you take that word apart and try to find what I’m producing. Not many words, some vague ideas, some inklings and notions.

What I’m getting at is that I need this…this unproductivity, this lack of externally verifiable semblance of work. But I have to be careful to differentiate between moodling and flaking, active waiting and complete avoidance.

Every day it’s a challenge, to be honest. And it’s easy to be distracted (hello internet, how’s your day?) and easy to take the first thought-train that comes while I’m standing at the station, before sunrise and in the wind, waiting for a very specific, very variable and periodic locomotive with no predetermined schedule. Fickle, anyone? The driver of my locomotive, who has trained his whole life for the job might be justifiably let down when I’m off gallivanting with the driver of the train called “Weird Things People Make With Bread Dough” or the one headed toward, “Gee I Think I Need Another Gingerbread Cookie.” He pulls into station after station and only gets a glimpse of my retreating back.

I worked on GOTS through the first two or three weeks of NaNo and then realized I needed to sit with the story some more. Only I didn’t know it in exactly that term – I just felt stalled, like there was obviously something that needed to happen, but I didn’t know how to get there. I hadn’t done the level of planning needed for the mid section of the story and so had no idea where to go with it.

Attempts to just sit down and get it planned didn’t work either, for the most part. But rather than sitting down to focused planning time, I sat down and then did other things when brilliant ideas weren’t immediately forthcoming. And very few of those other things were productive, or if they were, they were productive of things other than my story.

I’ve stalled before, had creatively dry phases and times unpopulated by ideas or the drive to fulfill them. I used to worry when things went quiet, afraid there was nothing left, that the few things I’ve written, the scattering of handicrafts and small collection of drawings were all there really was, that there might really be nothing more I was capable of. Actually, I still do worry, only I think I’m getting better at my practice of letting the process go where it needs.

This week and next the kids are home from school and that does make it difficult for me to work.  I wish it weren’t so but I need space and some degree of undistractedness to write the way I want.  Perhaps a lot of my inconsistency comes from not being able to give myself the kind of situation I need in which to write – I have to really struggle to find it.  The dangerous result is that I pick up the message, quite clearly, that if real life isn’t aligning in my favor and if I’m not writing what I want, then it obviously means I am incapable of writing what I want and I don’t have any support in the matter.  In fact those are such distinctly different things, a logical fallacy that incorrectly links cause and effect, and I’m working on separating them, merely for my own mental health.

Just before the kids got out for Christmas break I stopped at the university library to see if it might work as a “studio,” and it looks like it might be a good option.  So, after the new year, I’ll be giving myself the courtesy of a schedule and a workspace so I can get back to my poor dangling story.

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Sentence evolution

The Sentence is a tool to keep a writing project focused and I’ve worked over GOTS’ Sentence many times inthe past two years in an effort to refine that focus, or, in the case of last year’s massive setting shift to reflect the most important elements of the story.

It’s interesting to note how a story can change so much yet still remain the same project. To illustrate that, here are several incarnations of my summary.  The first is the actual first attempt to figure out what in the world I was working with.

  • A five year old passenger in a wreck that leaves her brother in a coma is sent to her grandparents’ while her mother gives all her attention to the injured boy. In a strange environment and with no friends, Kimmie discovers an unlikely and dangerous ally who sends her on a journey to restore her brother from unconsciousness.

Wordy, wordy, wordy, but I was merely working my way toward my point. Gradually I cleaned it up and had something I could work with for a while.

  • A dubious fairytale ally helps a little girl far from home discover the path to recovery from the trauma of a car wreck that left her brother in a coma.

I started working with that as my guiding principle – it gave the most important details of the story around which I could work new information and plot expansions.

Eventually, as detailed in The Convoluted History of GOTS, and What GOTS has Turned Into,  I realized I was on a tangent, a wrong track, for this story.  It has themes it wants to maintain and the decisions I was making for the story weren’t working for them.  Not that I have an ulterior motive in writing this, or that the entire point is the “message” but that this story has fundamental characteristics, or dare I say, needs, and that to deviate from them would be to undermine it.

I’m not going to out and out list those themes (sorry, no Cliffs Notes version of GOTS), because if I succeed in making the story I want, you’ll be able to find your own in it and I will have done my job well without hitting you over the head with blatant explanations.

Most recently, I started working again after a several month hiatus (encompassing an international move) and I started with the Sentence as written in the previous post. It’s obviously related to the last pre-setting-shift version, but with significant alterations.

  • A dubious fairytale ally gives a gifted student the means for her injured father’s recovery but immanent homelessness requires relinquishing her dreams to save her family during the Depression.

With the help of How to Think Sideways members to whom I offered a longer description of the story, I was able to work out a new and improved summary.  This is where I’m currently basing my story, what keeps me focused.

  • When a math-whiz risks her dreams to support her family during the Depression, a double-dealing frog promises the cure for her comatose father if she’ll sign her talents over to him.

Even rereading it now I find a few places where it isn’t perfectly consistent with the amorphous-but-still-fully-formed-in-my-unconscious story that wants to be written.  Every now and again I’ll revisit the Sentence and see if I can get it to reflect the project more succinctly and fully, but for now it works.

GOTS – The Sentence

A dubious fairytale ally gives a gifted student the means for her injured, comatose, father’s recovery, but immanent homelessness requires relinquishing her dreams to save her family during the Depression.

small step – to heck with the “write a novel” idea

No, no, no – don’t panic!  I’m still plugging along with GOTS.  I just realized (again) this week that Big Project Titles intimidate me.  So no longer am I going to dangle it over my head, I don’t need the torment.

Instead I’m just going to keep up the small steps that are part of the whole picture.  Yes, I’m fooling myself intentionally – obviously I know I’m working on a novel.  But there’s a voice that says (with a whine): gee, don’t you wish you could “write a novel?”  How come you’re not “writing your novel?”  You’re not very committed to “writing a novel” are you, if you’re not actually writing it?  etc etc.  And that voice can officially shut up instead of freezing me up.

This week has been full of small steps (which look large in comparison to the months of no activity I’ve had recently) and I am pleased to keep keeping on with them.  They’ve involved clustering, and today a revisit to the Dot and the Line, HTTS’ Lesson Five.

The Dot and Line work are integral for me, even though they’re difficult, because I was not granted an intuitive understanding of the conflict in my story other than that which is completely obvious.  In the past I’ve tweaked the Dot with great results (the spoke shape Holly uses never worked for me, I’m more of a list maker at heart), and from the walkthrough I saw that it was possible to draw a three (or more)-pronged line to show conflict between multiple facets.

It’s good to be developing the story again – and not succumbing to hopelessness that I’d be able to come up with the depth the story needed.

small step – clustering

Mind mapping/clustering seems to be a good way to generate and record random half-thoughts that might eventually be used. Yesterday I spent some time mapping both what the Golden Gate Bridge means in this story and what’s important about the setting being San Francisco. I brought my SF map to Germany and yesterday looked it over – an exercise in both reminiscence and imagination.

With the map I was also able to think about whether or not it’s feasible to pull in a sunset seen from the East Bay, setting through the GGB.  Just a thought I had – and I guess it would mean that at some point I’d need to determine where on the horizon (during which particular season) the sun actually appears to set… Probably too much research than I need to be getting into at this point, but I did write the possibility down on my cluster.

This morning I stepped away from physical objects and put down “Characters” as a central circle for a cluster and promptly stalled out.  Maybe “Characters” is too broad for my creative mind – but I did something I’m learning to do more often and it helped.  I opened up my cheap notebook and wrote out about being stumped by “Characters.” Eeventually I turned from that page and clustered a little about one of the main characters, asking questions and getting more detail.

Asking questions is key, especially, “What if…?” and simply writing out what’s in my mind, journal style seems to help.  These are things that I need to be consciously aware of having in my toolbox.  I’m also finding that though I recognize that such things as a “toolbox” with “tools” in it is symbolic, it helps to accord them a degree of imaginal or magical reality.  I have a toolbox in my mind, and it’s in the studio of my mind where I work to bring words out into the world.

My next step is to continue with the clustering and then to go back and look through HTTS lessons (and walkthroughs) – backtracking a bit to make up for having pushed GOTS to the background.

Translating Clustering for the Left Brain

I love that Holly (re)introduced the technique of clustering to us.  I’m sure it was offered as a tool sometime in high school, right around the time we learned to outline, but I used it only infrequently.

In my first HTTS go-round, I turned my Sweet Spot Map into a Sweet Spot Atlas just by writing it into a hand sewn book.  There’s so much room in my book, it’s a little overwhelming, but it also helps me face the fact that I have given my creative life permission to take up more room.  Little by little my SSM is growing.

For my 2008 NaNo novel (before HTTS), I did a little clustering, but really started in on it for my first HTTS project.  With the Walkthrough’s Lesson Two demo in which Holly clustered for her current book project, I realized I hadn’t tried giving GOTS its own SSM.  I spent some time last week doing that and it yielded some insights and possibilities which I’m so happy to welcome into the stew in my mind.

What I’m working on now, is taking that “stew” and trying to figure out a way to let my Left Brain, who takes one look at the cluster-mess and goes, “eww, you really want me to look at all the scribbles as if they mean something?” have an easier time making sense of it.  My Muse-mind LOVES t0 make the cluster bubbles, my rational side throws its hands up in despair.

I thought, however, since my logical and organized self likes lists, that making a list might be a way to make all the information useful (rather than just fun to collect).

Among the clustering pages I made which are not SSMs, which will only be posted under password protection, were ones organized around two problem areas I’m looking for solutions to.

The one I’m working with here had to do with a sense that I need to carefully approach how I represent the fairy tale element of the story.  I’m basing this story in the reality we (mostly) all inhabit.  Earth, 1930s, California, regular people.  At the same time there’s a very important connection with the fairy tale realm and I have a particular sense of how the two are supposed to relate.

So, in an attempt to translate a half-page of bubbles into something useful, here’s the information presented in list form.  Just having written the information down may have been enough, but it’s likely that I’ll need to go back and add to what’s here or insert things midway or make sharp turns elsewhere.

It was interesting to find that as I followed some branches further in I got into the detailed workings of the story itself – so this started out as a “talk” about the tone of the book and ended up with a few specific questions and ideas to be sorted out later:

  • **Fairytale element has to be subtle and believable**
  •      -not overly otherwordly or intrusive
  •      – a natural progression and regression to something Artie used to know but has forgotten
  •           – not so much another realm, but a return to an inner realm
  •           – she has to go somewhere she’s touched before
  •           – her dad’s book is key
  •                 – her mom’s been hiding it
  •                 – coloring/puzzles/mazes/riddles
  •                      – comic book expert brother? helps solve clues/codes/ciphers?
  •      – had to have been introduced naturally, by her dad?
  •           – why would mother reject it?
  •           – because she rejects father for hurting her
  •                – mother: he has stars in his eyes.
  •                – she resents his freedom
  •            – maybe he couldn’t be tied down or “pinned” down by relationship?
  •                – he’s imaginative, artistic, hard to get him to be responsible in a conventional way
  •                – but he’s still around

What I see is that I quickly turned to story specifics which don’t appear to be directly relevant to the original problem, except that having written it all down it’s as though I’ve put a bookmark in my mind, a mental sticky note, that will remind me of what is required as I write the story.  One thing I find, though, is that it’s the reality-based aspects of the story that allow for the fairy tale elements. So long as I keep true to the characters’ true needs and motives, I think the cross-reality aspects can be balanced.

Question for you:  How do you capture both the creative flow that clustering offers AND allow the clusters to become a useful planning tool?  Are they mostly just idea sparkers or do you have a way to integrate the information systematically into your planning?