“We all do what scientists call mental practice or mental rehearsing when we memorize answers for a test, learn lines for a play, or rehearse any kind of performance or presentation. But because few of us do it systematically, we underestimate its effectiveness.”
Norman Doige.The Brain That Changes Itself. From Chapter 2, “Imagination”.
If we’re going to fit full-time writing careers into our full-time lives, it’s a great thing to understand how brain plasticity can help writers work on our stories with celerity and pleasure. The better we understand our brains and how focus can help us, the better we write.
The brain, in its helpful plasticity, follows lines and types of thinking. When organizing a work day, a play day or a trip to the mall, the mind of a writer is in planning mode. Authors can use that particular type of organizational focus to outline and plan our manuscripts while we’re at it. Three ways to do it:
You’re checking your calendar, jotting your shopping list, your stops through the day, and if you love your writing work, it’s a happy bonus to carve out three minutes right then to use that organizing focus to think out an outline of a scene, or steps to and through a heavy choice/turning point for a character.
The same strength of focus directed at non-writing tasks transfers neatly to a three-minute brainstorming session. Perhaps you try for twenty different settings, or ways that a character might make a choice, or any plot point. Thinking twenty in plotting a story takes editors from, “seen-it-so-many-times” to “well-this-is-intriguing.”
If you carry a graphic organizer/outlining sheet, whether it’s a thinking web, a crystal, or simply a list of story beats, you are set up to work on a story, scene, or character for three minutes while you plan your day.
Three minutes of outlining, listing, and plotting here and there during the week will save an untold number of hours creating the finished story, with less revision required for your first draft. As well, rather than trying to split your focus by planning and drafting at the same time when you do sit down to take advantage of a treasured full hour or two, it’s pleasing to draft when you’ve already had a chance to come up with a great idea.
The beauty of using tight focus and brain plasticity to help manage your writing process is a bit like boogie boarding. You paddle and the wave rises, you catch it, and you ride it.
From time to time writers may face blank pages and find their minds are blank, too.
Some give up. That’s it, I’m at 30,000 words and there’s nothing more to say. But what if the imperative stop our minds raise for us is beneficial to our craft?
What if our trained instincts are telling us that it’s time to take a look, not at the next 1,000 words, but at the story structure as a whole? If you accept that our inner writers, in partnership with our inner readers, know quite a lot, and that it’s our strong talent that keeps us longing to write, then when our mind refuses to take another step, we perhaps ought, like Lassie’s owner at cliffside, to stop and listen.
This extended pause may well be a gift to story structure. We can use ten minutes here and there to outline the story as a whole, character development arcs, individual turning points, Hero’s Journey structure, individual scene structure. Write blurbs, reviews, and taglines. It may take days, or weeks, or whatever, to pass, but the more we think positively and professionally about using this blank white time, the less fear we feel facing it.
“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” –Leonardo da Vinci
“Outline, outline, outline.” –Terry Brooks
I’m finally finishing revisions on my novel The Extra: A 1934 Hollywoodland Mystery, wherein two Vancouver girls run away to Hollywood in 1934 to become movie stars, only to discover the dead body of a famous actor on their living room sofa. I’ll bet I’ve written and rewritten it half a dozen times. The trouble was that when I began writing The Extra, I didn’t much like outlining. Oh, I had an outline in my mind Sort of. Certainly, I
There are enormous sections of that book that languish unemployed in dozens of Moleskines.
During the course of these revisions, I began outlining each character’s growth over the arc. I learned to outline the whole narrative, the section, the chapter and the scene. I developed graphic organizers for outlining. I learned to love outlining (I’m a sucker for graphic organizers). Meanwhile, three years into revising The Extra, I began a second mystery series, Stella Ryman and the Fairmount Manor Mysteries. Working from outlines from the very beginning this time, I finished the first omnibus in good time and am nearing the end of the second volume in that series.
I’ve just about got the last chapter of The Extra right at last. Fortunately, I never got tired of my hero Frankie Ray or her struggles to clear her name and escape the electric chair.
But it’s a shame to waste that kind of time. The I-could-have-written-eight-other-books kind of time. More planning, less drafting. Da VInci said it: ”He who thinks little errs much.” In a workshop I attended, Terry Brooks said it at least as well: “Outline, outline, outline.”