Monday, April 23, 2007

Plotting, brain-stretching and Stan Barstow

We want incident, interest, action: to the devil with your philosophy.
Robert Louis Stevenson

There is definitely a difference between the bits of the brain used for writing, and the bits used for plotting, don't you find? Writing can be joyful or frustrating or plain hard work (like typing, rather than wading, through treacle) but plotting is one of those tasks that makes my brain feel tired.

I was relieved to read in this piece in the Guardian a while back that this feeling is not unique to me. The writer, Oliver Burkeman, describes doing one of those brain-training exercises (it doesn't work on the Grauniad website, as it's all written in black type so I feel at liberty to reproduce it here). You have to read the following out loud, but read out the COLOUR in which the word is printed, not the word itself:

Red Green Blue Black Black Green Red Blue Red Red Blue Green Black

It's hard, isn't it? Well, that feeling (Burkeman says the exercise activates 'as many regions of your prefrontal cortex as possible, strengthening neural connections and even creating new ones. This is all just neuroscience-speak for the weird sensation - it actually feels almost like a literal stretching of the mind') is the one I get when I sit down to plot a new novel. Don't get me wrong, it's not as though I am working through some complex crime plot, which truly would be like mental spaghetti, but I am at that point expanding an idea which may until that point only exist as the most basic of 'what if's...For example, what if a bunch of former Brownies were reunited, each sharing the same childhood secret? Or, what if a woman who was terrified of everything, had a near-death experience and realised how precious life is?

That's where I am right now - I've got two book ideas on the go (separate from the book I've just finished writing), one quite developed, the other very sketchy, and I am trying to work out which one has most 'legs'. The under-developed one is getting the full thinking treatment - how can I turn a notion into a story, what must the characters do and need, and how can I put obstacles in their way? It's a rather alarming, unsettling form of mental juggling. Or to carry on the circus analogy, perhaps it's more like the trapeze...that feeling of vertigo, of wobbliness. One wrong move and the story comes tumbling down.

OK. Maybe that's a step too far. But I find this aspect of the novel-writing process both exhilirating and exhausting.

And if you're a bit of a gizmo person, like me, then you might like this article on how to plot your novel using Google Notebook - a tool I hadn't realised existed. It's effectively used, in this case, as the online equivalent of index cards. Haven't quite got the hang of it, but it's good fun!

In other news, a piece I wrote for Norm's blog about a favourite book - in my case, the Kind of Loving trilogy by Stan Barstow - has gone up today. Anyone fancy sharing their thoughts on a much-loved book?

Yes, I've been a busy writer the last few days: I've been updating my website with the opening chapter of my new book, The Self-Preservation Society, which is published in just over a month's time. And also been doing some Novel Race updates: welcome to Cally!

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Blogger hellojed said...

I'm currently at the plain hard work part of writing! I use MS Office OneNote to plot - it's excellent.

11:12 am  
Blogger Jane Henry said...

MY favourite book remains undiminished after many many years. It's To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I studied it for O level which should mean I hate, but I don't, mainly because a very inspirational English teacher gave me so much insight into it, and also because it's fabulous.

Why do I love it? For the way she makes you smell and touch the oldness and the heat in Maycomb City. For the way she draws you into Scout's world and makes you see things through eight year old eyes. For her brilliant expose of people's casual racism and the cruelty that it leads too. For the way Jem's idealism is shattered when he realises that justice isn't always done. For the poignancy and beauty of the Boo Radley subplot. And interweaved with all that she has captured the essence of what it is to be a child and the sheer joy of running in the sunshine and unfettered and free.

Every time I think of my top ten books, I always think can I choose another no 1.

The answer's always the same.

Nope... I can't.

For me it's perfect in everyway.

No wonder she never wrote another book!

11:30 am  
Blogger Chaser said...

Ok, Wordgirl, but I am totally going to be upset if you finish your NEXT book before I finish my first chapter...because I am still frittering on the chapter that I was frittering on when you started your race!

3:12 pm  
Anonymous rivergirlie said...

is it possible for you brain to be stretched all out of shape? like a bra that's been washed too hot? i feel my mental lycra is sagging

9:41 pm  
Blogger ageing hipster said...

Hi Kate; greatly enjoyed your comments on Stan Barstow on Normblog - you'll find some similar thoughts on my blog. For good or ill, A Kind of Loving was perhaps my most powerfully formative read - I just re=read the trilogy after a gap of nearly forty years and found it as powerful and moving as back then. Proustian, or what...

8:59 pm  

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