Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Why Men Need Post-It Notes

Now and then, while writing, I get to a place were I'm not exactly stuck, but I don't quite have a grasp of how best to say something. Doesn't feel quite right.

There are ways around it: I can brute force it -- just grind until I get to the end of a scene, knowing I will have to come back and rewrite it. Or I can skip it altogether, move ahead, and come back once I've added stuff that will suggest a better path.

The third way that works for me, when I have time, is to sic my subconscious on it. Put the whole cauldron full of sugar and yeast and water all into a warm spot in my mind's storeroom and let it ferment until, usually doing something totally unrelated, like walking the dogs, sitting in the hot tub, or just about to shut of the reading lamp and go to sleep, it bubbles up. Very often, it is a potent and almost-finished brew; a little straining, and it's ready to bottle ...

Okay, I've tortured that metaphor long enough.

Case in point: My main character in the new novel has uncovered the name of one of the bad guys and he needs to go and have a little talk with him. I know the bad guy's name, where he lives, and why he's doing what he's doing, though my hero knows only the first two and needs to know the third.

So, as I was about to finish reading a chapter in Greg Bear's new SF novel last night and shut it down for the evening, the whole chapter popped into my head. I didn't have a notepad next to the bed, so I grabbed a subscription form from the New Yorker on the floor and jotted down a few notes, so I wouldn't forget it. Here is what I wrote:

Lake Oswego
White curly hair
Jack Oliver kills Kane ---> Bardo Tinzen ---> bath tub ---> Peek
Hair dryer
Karma pass

Believe it or not, that's a good ten or twelve pages of material, easy. And I'm amazed at how often, if I just put it away, my subconscious mind will continue to worry at a problem until it comes up with an answer. Sometimes it takes a while, but it almost always delivers, if I have time to wait.

On my desk, I have a little yellow (or blue or green) sticky pad, Post-It Notes, and generally these are how I outline chapters. A word or a line is enough for a scene. Four or five scenes is a chapter, and that's all I need. I don't outline every chapter, but if I am trying to move along, I will sometimes sit down and do four or five of these sticky-notes so I have that many chapters lined up.

These tricks may or may not work for you. Writers who say, "This is how I do it." and offer their advice might or might not be helpful to you. In my experience, those who say, "This is how it is done, period." cause more grief than joy. If you believe there is only one way to do it and you can't do it that way, you are stuck.

There are as many ways to get there as there are writers who take the trip. Don't forget that. Anybody who says their path is the only one is trying to sell you something.

And that includes me, of course ...

No comments: