Balancing Big Picture Brainstorming with Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Photo via ecooper99 Flickr

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but have you ever felt that you couldn’t see the individual trees because you were too occupied taking in the whole forest?

Sometimes, in the brainstorming phases of writing, the ideas are flowing, the big idea is clear in our mind’s eye, and we have no problem seeing the overall theme or message we want to convey. We might be going along with our day when we get a cool idea for a story; initially, everything seems to make sense, but when we sit down to really begin planning each scene, the going can get pretty tough.

It’s not often that I’ve liked getting into the details of any project, whether it’s planning a retreat, crunching the numbers on a new purchase, or even plotting a book. My high school English teacher once told me that I was a “big picture” person or an “ideas” person, which explains my aversion to doing math, and it’s true that I have always found mathematical concepts fascinating– whether I’m learning calculus or discussing quantum physics with my engineering friends– but I simply can’t be bothered to actually work out the details. This is hardly surprising, as I am an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgemental) personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test, and my intuition and preference for holistic thinking lends itself to generating concepts rather than concrete details.

This way of thinking is necessary for most endeavors, especially writing; after all, you have to know what you want to say before you can properly say it.

However, there is a Japanese proverb which states,

“Vision without action is a fantasy… action without vision is a nightmare.”

There are a lot of would-be writers who seem to have no shortage of ideas for the next big thing but who never seem to act on that vision and write. On the other hand, a quick trip through Amazon’s indie published titles reveals that there are just as many people with the ability to hammer out a book but who seemingly have no vision directing their writing.

It would be too easy to say, “Well, I’m a visionary. I’m just no good at the nitty gritty.” And frankly, this seems rather lazy. Writing is a particular business, and it takes a rare breed of person– one who possesses both the free-spirited creativity necessary for generating ideas and the analytical, no-nonsense practicality of organisation and discipline– to do it well.

It’s true that we all have differing balances of right and left brain proclivities, but there are ways we can leverage our strengths to help shore up the areas where we’re weak and to trick our brains into thinking they’re playing when the task at hand would normally seem like work.

For example, yesterday, while I was feeling particularly stuck with plotting my current WIP, I did something I’ve never done before. Usually, I resort to mindmapping, but this time, I just began writing down impressions and words connected to the scene I had in mind without circling or drawing connections between them. In this way, I created a sort of “cloud” where I could see the overall “feel” of the scene I needed to write, but I didn’t bother trying to draw connections between them until my subconscious tired out and the flow of ideas dried up.

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In the past, at this point, I would have probably tried to jump into writing the scene, but the problem is that I still only have an impression: I can kind of see what the scene needs to be, but it remains shimmering, effervescent, and vague.

So instead, I then turned to a new page in my notebook and, still in that creative state of mind, began writing in linear fashion the progression of events in the scene. I was still pulling ideas from the air, but now that I had an impression of what the scene would be, it was easier to focus my creativity into coming up with individual events that would be plausible within the scene. Now, I have a list of targets to hit as I progress through writing the first draft.

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I like to think of this method of brainstorming as “telescoping,” much the same way you can go to Google Earth and look at a map of the whole United States to get the big picture, then you can zoom in to your particular city to see the roadmap of where you’re going, and finally, you can enter Street View to get an on-the-ground perspective.

Similarly, we can first come up with the big idea for what we want to write, then we can organise those ideas into something resembling a roadmap for the draft, and finally, when it comes time to write the prose, we put ourselves actively into the scene and fill in the details on the level of sentences and paragraphs.

I’m going to tweak this method and see how it works for other scenes, but for now, I feel much more prepared to write the first draft.

How do you go about planning a piece? How would your process differ for blog posts versus fiction? Do you prefer to work backwards, writing scenes from the ground up and later organising them into a big idea for a story?

Going Pro in 2013

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Image via Nemo from Pixabay

I came back from France on December 20 planning to spend Christmas taking it easy with my family with the intention of starting my search for work in earnest after New Year. So far, I’ve gotten the “taking it easy” bit crossed off my list of things to do for 2012, but it’s 2013 now, and I’ve got a whole new list of things to accomplish this year.

Much to my chagrin, we’re already a week into the new year, and I have barely written anything. Despite my weak start to pursuing my writing resolutions, I did have an epiphany the other day while I was writing some more on the current WIP:

If I want to go pro about writing– and I do– I’m going to need a better system. Actually, to put it more accurately, I’m going to need to be more disciplined. For so long, I’ve admired the authors in my Twitter feed selling their books on Amazon or fellow bloggers like Kristen Lamb and Matthew Wright publishing post after post, chastising myself for my limited productivity, but– oddly enough– not doing much to improve said abysmal productivity.

In fact, Kristen’s recent post about talent being cheaper than table salt struck me particularly hard when she was recounting an encounter she had with an old acquaintance. He kept lamenting that he couldn’t be an author because he was “so ADD,” but in typical Kristen fashion, she told him point-blank,

This time, instead of trying to help or agreeing with his excuses or offering to be his support buddy to make him stay on task, I said, “No, you don’t have ADD. You lack maturity and discipline.

They say the first step to correcting a problem is admitting you have one, so I hereby publicly confess to you:

I have a time-management problem.

Happily, I also have a plan to:

  • Keep a professional work schedule

Photo courtesy of mnapoleon
Photo courtesy of mnapoleon

When I was working full-time in Paris, I had to get up around the same time every morning and make sure I was on the metro by 9:00 a.m. or else I’d be late to work. I may not have a job to go to at the moment, but for now, I’m making writing my full-time job while I look for other ways to generate an income.

In the past, I’d take a stab at writing whenever I’d have free time, but I hardly ever produced anything, and I never produced anything on a consistent basis. Now, I may not have a boss breathing down my neck, but I’m treating writing with the same responsibility I would if I still had to get on that metro every morning. Getting my mom up to speed on Downton Abbey this past weekend didn’t help this morning (sacrifices must be made…), but from now on, I’m getting in bed by 10:30, lights out by 11:00 at the latest. That alarm goes off at 6:30, so I’d better be out of bed by 7:00 at the latest.

  • Use my calendar and timer

CalendarAnother aspect of my full-time job at the embassy entailed working five days a week on many different projects with varying deadlines. I’ve had this nifty little app on my computer since I got it, and I’ve barely put it to use. Now, I’m filling in my writing schedule alongside other things like choir practice and job interviews exactly as if it were my personal planner at my previous job.

Speaking of deadlines, it’s astounding how much more productive you can be when you have a looming deadline– even a tiny one. While I was writing a new scene for my WIP the other day, I was using ten minute magic, where I set my little egg timer for ten minutes, set my Scrivener window to full screen, and just wrote. Lo and behold, I actually wrote a little over 1,300 words in an hour thanks to that little kick in the pants. In the past, I would sit down at my desk and try to write, and often, I would end up writing nothing after several hours– usually because I had gotten distracted– which leads me to my next goal…

  • Kill Facebook

what-could-kill-facebookI’m appalled by how often I find myself lost in the endless tracts of Facebook’s newsfeed. I usually have hardly any notifications, so there’s no real reason for me to visit. Now, when it’s writing time, the book of faces will be shut. Come to think of it, the whole internet will be shut.

  • Set measurable goals

One of the things I loved about NaNoWriMo was the plethora of word-counting widgets and progress bars, and I was thrilled to discover a similar built-in feature of Scrivener. Now, when I start a writing session, I can set my wordcount goal and watch the bar move while I type. Even when I’m not writing the actual prose for a WIP, I can set goals to “brainstorm X number of scenes by Wednesday” or “interview the protagonist and supporting sidekick by the end of today.” This way, instead of dithering in the face of the seemingly endless task of writing a story, I can constantly be aiming for and completing a series of more immediate goals.

How do you plan to go pro in 2013? What are your methods to the madness of time-management?