Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sniffing the Giant Glue-Stick of the Brain

How do stories form?

I've been thinking about this since the inspiration post yesterday, wondering at the alchemical processes that go on in my head while a story is forming. For me, I think, it's a sort of agglomeration process. I have lots of individual little ideas floating around my head, and they come from almost anywhere: films, books, technical ideas, memory, photographs, pictures, events, news, dialogue, music… almost anywhere. They're not stories, not yet, just little sparks. Ideas… little somethings trailing a few "what ifs?"

And so they float. I don't usually try to force anything. I twiddle around, sometimes, but mostly I just let things simmer, let my subconscious play with these sparky little floaters. Except they're not really sparks, as I tend to see them as something sticky… like sticky bits of pollen floating around, looking to germinate and seed themselves. I let them float… and inevitable they bump into each other, ricocheting about… and sometimes these collisions lead to ideas sticking together. And still they float, but now they have a greater mass, they bump into more ideas, picking them up one by one. So that stickiness is the giant glue-stick of the brain, the sudden agglomeration of ideas.

It's then my job to go sniffing about and see what I have (are stories so different from a chemically induced delusion?). Usually I know what I have right away: when a bunch of separate ideas hook up together I usually experience one of those little "eureka" moments. With sudden clarity I see how the ideas fit together, a new cohesion (a story) forming out of what seemed random chaos.

And then comes the conscious part, or half-conscious part: first I dream, trying to see and feel the story, letting characters and events have a little free rein to play themselves out. Where does that take me? Do I have the heart of a real story? If there's something there, then I set my rational brain to work a little, trying to solidify a few things: conflict, story arc, plot. If I can get a rough shape that's to my liking I can then start writing. Things are still pretty open, pretty fluid, because the writing, for me, is as much about exploration as revelation.

So I write until the story is done, and then I can revise… but that's another post entirely.

That's me. What about you? How do stories form and ferment inside your head?


Bookworm1605 said...

Wow, that's a beautifully worded post, with all the analogies about pollen and gluesticks and the agglo-word I need to look up. Following that up is a bit intimidating. I think you probably described very precisely the organic process that all artists, be they writers, painters, musicians, etc, go through when they create something. Well done.

If I were completely honest I'd have to answer your question with: 'Huh? I dunno.'

My process is very organic, too, but more in a Frankenstein's laboratory kind of way. Most if not all of my stories begin with a raw emotion. Fear of seperation. Need for redemption. Betrayal. Vengance. etc... Once I start dwelling on an emotion I have to find a song. Or, usually, it finds me. Every story of mine has an accompanying song. Lately it's been Metallica but my writing music catalog is fairly diverse with entries from Duran Duran, Alice in Chains, Beethoven and Monster Magnet, to name a few.

Once I have the song and the emotion, I let them combine like some surreal alchemical experiment. I listen to the song really loud as I go to and from work. There's something about the act of driving and listening to music that gets the muse pumped. I don't understand it. Maybe the slight concentration needed to drive a familiar route combined with the music sets some part of my brain on fire, but suddenly the scenes will start coming. I can always see the action scenes first, like watching trailers for a movie. I let that go on until the scenes start repeating, then I try to consciously direct story elements into the mix. I work on characters and conflict and massage plot. That's why some of my stories lack proper characterization--I almost always visualize the story initially as a bunch of action. I have to ask myself: 'Why is all this happening to these poor people?' Then I get impatient and get it all down without letting the characters tell me their stories first.

One of the struggles I've had but an area I'm steadily improving on is relinquishing the first version of my stories. I have this habit of letting the story happen in my head and becoming a slave to this raw idea without rethinking it at all. I'm forcing myself now to go back over every facet of the story and ask myself, 'Could this be better?' 'What could I change to make it pop?' Of course, you can go too far down that road, so it's a balance.

Then, once the demons are out of my head and safely secured in a thumb drive, it's off to editing.

Yeah, that's how it works for me.

Ink said...

I think that "slave to the first version" thing is one of the areas that crits really help me. Getting someone to read it... well, it sort of opens my eyes to the story in a new way, and suddenly its easier to see it as this collection of words that's manipulating an experience rather than as that sort of dream version I have in my head. Getting that crit helps me divorce the story on the page from that sort of film of the action. I can do it myself, at times, without a crit, but it's much harder... and often takes a long time. A lot of space between writing and revising can do it. But getting eyes other than my own to take a gander at the story is the best for that, at least for me.

Frankly, I wish it was easier to do it by myself. I've sometimes thought of trying to create a sort of primer that would allow me to look at my stories more objectively, that would key me into this outside view... but I'm not entirely sure where to start. I was thinking they'd be questions that would pry open certain aspects of the story process, and thus not allow me to hold onto that first vision. So the questions would force me to look inside the story, and bang around with all the gears and sprockets.

Is that sort of thing possible? Maybe. I'm not sure. Maybe I'll give it a go one of these days when I'm in a masochistic mood. That distant thumping sound you'll hear will be me banging my head against the wall...

Bookworm1605 said...

When you say 'primer' I automatically think of some enigmatic writ of formulae with conflict boxes and character analyses in an Excel spreadsheet. Something to check boxes off on after a story has been written to make sure all the traditional elements are there. I'm sure that's not what you have in mind, but that's what comes to mind for me. I think the rethink process has to be slightly...mystical? Is that the right word?

I remember back in junior high, (WARNING: shimmery flashback scene coming with parachute pants, Sun Britches and OP T-shirts. Cue Night Ranger music) I had a teacher who did a bit of an experiment on our class. He asked us to answer three questions as quickly as we could. First question: What is 8 x 7? Second question: What is 7 X 8? Third question: Name a vegetable!

OK, the third one isn't a question, but the point is, almost everyone said 'carrot'. According to teach, some scientist had done a study and something like 98% of the population would think of carrots after being asked those two questions. It has something to do with synapses and nerve pathways in the brain. Evidently we think more alike than we'd like to admit.

My thought is that when we write, the story burns a channel in our synapses and each time we reread it, we tend to take the path of least resistance and follow that channel, so it's hard for us to recognize weaknesses in plot and such. We have to find some kind of synaptic burning exercise that will wreak such havoc in our brain cells that we can then go back and view our story in a much more enlightened and less biased light.

Wanu, undoubtedly, will suggest having a pint or two, as I've seen some of his pix on another website and he's toasting something in most of them. Actually, a frozen Margarita or three isn't a bad way to gain perspective on some things, but I digress.

When I finish a story I treat myself to a movie. Usually a high-octane visual extravaganza, so that it will hopefully cover over those synaptic channels my story has made and allow me to go back to it and see it in a different light. I plan on seeing that Sunshine movie you suggested after I finish my current WIP.

Ink said...

Sunshine is great...

I totally agree about the path of least resistance. It's even stronger in new writers, as they have a lot of trouble, often, separating the story in their head from the story in the page. They don't see the disparity between the thought and the word. So, yeah, I think we're on the same wavelength there.

As for the primer... I don't think it would be boxes to check off, but it would be somewhat inorganic... because my organic processes are stuck following that path of least resistance. So it would be creating questions to ask of your story once it's finished, but the trick would be to craft questions that force you to consider the story objectively. The goal would be to write a series of questions that knock you off that path. The questions jar you loose and get your brain working actively on the story without being confined by that initial vision. Basically, a sort of jump-start process for revision, a sort of map to follow for self-critique. Istead of me just reading it over and going "Um..."

I gotta think of something better than "primer". Something brainy-ish. Cortical Activating Analytical Program for Stories? CAAPS. Rockin'. Now I'm all 21st Century. Where's me jetpack and flamethrower?

Wanu said...

Ink, weren't you going to do that, ages ago? There was some discussion about questions that would make an author think about specific aspects of a story in isolation. I can't remember if it was for critting, or self editing, but this idea sounds very familiar.

Yeah, Book, the pathways-in-the-brain idea sounds like it holds a lot of water. Going over the story does tend to be a repeat process of thinking 'yeah, this is the way it goes...' and it can be difficult to break out of that thought train.

I think this overlaps with general authorial improvement, too. Like, the old thing that most people's first novels are so bad that they never see the light of day. As you write more drafts, get more feedback etc, your new first drafts begin to incorporate more binding ingredients, more of the good stuff, and they become easier to work with in refinement.

So I think this process changes over time. I've always had a lot of ideas, but some of them now get scrapped the second after they appear - 'No, there's no character journey' or 'No, there's no source of tension' or 'No, nobody wants to hear Jeff the caterpillar's thoughts on existentialism as he chews on an oak leaf.' I tend to throw things out if they lack a few essential ingredients for a good story, or if trying to add those ingredients looks to be an exercise in futility.

Same, I suppose, with stories that make it to the drawing board. Limp scenes and extraneous characters start to melt away because while the 'creation' part of the brain does what it always has, the 'craft and learned stuff' part gives better guidance as to what goes where.

Aragon said the other day that stand up comedians claim comedy is "10% about material, 90% about presentation." I think that's true about stories, too.

There's a woman quoted in one of my 'how to write' books. She had about sixty novels to her name, and when asked how she kept people reading a book, she answered, "I give them absolutely no reason to break from the story. Keep it coming, give it everything."

Something like that.

I think the creation process is all very mysterious and organic, but once the director part of the brain accepts an idea and starts to make adjustments, then there's another sort of magic, and a lot of that doesn't happen until you're actually writing the thing.

Then you get lots of new ideas, too.

Ink said...

I think when you first start writing stories you don't even realize there is a path... but once you've started working at the craft for awhile you start to see that well-worn path, and then you realize you need to get off it. And eventually, or so I hope, you'll be able to whip out your giant machete and blaze new trails even through the deepest of jungles. Just watch out for the occasional tiger...