Walking Backwards into the Future

NaNoWriMo count so far: 31747.

The scene I just finished was a great example of the improv rule: Everything you need has already been improvised in a scene. I managed to tie together three previously unrelated details I’d mentioned for the sake of scenery and ambience, but now integrated them into a character action as well. It made the scene feel not just organic, but added a sort of “OH, THAT’S WHY” penny dropping moment to this chapter.

In Improv, there’s a game called Walking Backwards into the Future: http://www.unexpectedcommunications.com/the-unexpected-blog/walking-backward-into-the-future

The way we played it, you would pace off and somebody would improvise a space-object and hand it to you and you’d then incorporate it into the story. But after five objects, that was it. You could spin off of THOSE objects, but the idea was to keep yourself from frittering away down new and novel paths and instead wrap back to the story and offers established. You justified those offers and they all reinforced each other.

You’ve probably seen that improv where somebody, trying to be funny, keeps throwing new and random shit at his partners for them to pick up. At first the juxtaposition can amuse, but it wears on because none of the old offers matter in the face of the new offer. That can be very frustrating.  Whereas when you found a way to tie two established offers together in a NEW way, the whole scene raised to a new level.

So here’s my writing tip/suggesion/thing to try for your NaNo or for the next time you get stuck: Is there a detail you’ve overlooked or some fruitful bit of world building that you’ve already established that you can link to another seemingly unrelated detail? Look back and see what you’ve written and let it guide you into the future.

Pomodoro, Pomodoro!

Pomodoroing along. Not sure what the writing streak is at actually, but I’ve still only not written twice in the last month. It’s been not only easier to sit down to write, but harder to stand up and stop writing. The pomodoros really help there, because as long as I enforce them regularly, it feels like I want to get back to writing. I’m still in the Amazed At Self stage, which is kinda nice.

Also, this is the MOST ORGANISED I’ve ever been as a writer. Snakes is nestled happily in a Scrivener folder (backed up to a zip file) and I have a neatly organised research folder, files that credit who helped me with what idea (yes, all you folks who answered my earthquake question are in there), queries for later outlined chapter by chapter, the previously mentioned timeline with lunar calendar dates. And whenever an idea occurs to me, all I have to do is go to the chapter notes and stick it in so I don’t forget that oh yeah, I wanted that character to make an appearance now or this clue to be found then.

Broken Habit

What with all the things I had going on yesterday, primarily class and interview, but also trying to get some stuff done before John left, I failed to write, thus breaking my writing streak of nearly three weeks straight. BUT instead of letting that be the end of it, I made sure to pomodoro today. I am now two chapters from the end of the expanded outline/treatment that tells me all my beats and known details. When it is done, I will begin integrating the existing chapters that aren’t getting cut into the new draft and then writing out from the point where I got stuck on the novel. 

At this point I can confidently say that I know a LOT more about the details where I got stuck, that the world is denser, that Megs is way more pro-active than once she was, and that I have a bunch of little clues and red herrings and world building for later that I didn’t previously. 

And improv is right–every thing you need has been improvised already. 

The Virtues of Outlining: The Calendar Timeline!

Seriously, sometimes it REALLY helps to make a grounded timeline. I picked out an event to start my timeline, and then started working out days and times compared to my rough outline. I grabbed calendars from November 2011 through April 2012 and everything started falling into place. Megs has a family gathering in the timeline–oh, look, that week is Thanksgiving, that’s convenient. There’s an office party–oh, Christmas, right. Valentine’s Day, the Ides of March, April Fools, and a convenient Friday the 13th all line up to plot points, or have spawned a couple of Wouldn’t It Be Interesting If THIS Happened plot ideas.

Even better, this means the sequel is lined up for the summer and fall of an election year! Just like I wanted it to be. HANDY!

Lake Symphony

I walked down to Lake Union again on Monday evening.

Only a few days earlier, I had been lakeside yet again, watching the fireworks over Gasworks Park, and weirdly resenting the masses of people pushing into what I felt illogically was My Space. Normally, only a handful of people are walking the docks, but on the Fourth, the park was a wall of people.

Fortunately for my equanimity, Monday found our urban lake habitat restored its usual quiet self. Or what passes for quiet, since as I sat on the sun-bleached boards of the wooden boats docks, I began to hear noises I mistaken for silence.

The dock itself swayed with a certain syncopation. On the upward thrust of the gentle waves, I heard a rather high-pitched mewling sound, soft, like a weak kitten. Downwards, the dock emitted a metalic croak. Aged metal strained against the push and pull of the water. Beneath it all was a constant gurgle.

It was unexpectedly harmonious, taken as a whole. Any single sound would have annoyed on their own, intruding on a bare silence. Altogether, they charmed.

I began to mentally sort each sound, as if I was shaking it off, extracting it from the whole, holding it up to the light, and then delicately re-inserting it. I catalogued them all:

* One invisible wasp, tethered and slippery
* A clickety zippering noise, shiny like ball bearings
* Velvety rustle of the politely distant motorboat, refusing to intrude
* A strident goose honk
* The embarrassed quacks reproaching the goose
* The mechanical purring growl of the seaplane
* The indiscreet and rather gauche burp of a propeller refusing to start
* The slithery hiss of a winch unspooling
* Sloshy groans
* Twittering tourists, shielded behind unfolded maps.
* The sound of curiosity, as emitted by the gentleman in the burnt orange t-shirt, watching me with noisy soundlessness from his yacht, as I scribbled down this list.

Improv Night: CROW and Other Lessons

I’ve been taking improv courses since last year and just restarted up with a new company here in Seattle. Even though I’d done about four or five levels in SF, enough time had elapsed that I was feeling a bit rusty, so I started back with the beginning level improv. Which is good because we’re revisiting concepts but I get to see a fresh new take on them with a new set of teachers.

So now I’m trying to take my improv lessons and see if they can’t be applied to writing. In improv, we’ve got a concept for building a scene: CROW. It’s an acronym* for Character, Relationship, Objective, and Where.

Character refers to the individual characters we choose to play. We can endow them with history, mannerisms, voice. On stage, we occupy their bodies, we build their physicality. We slump, we wrinkle our noses, we occupy the space they do, we can expand or pull in tightly, we can be sloppy or strait-laced, we can be arrogant or nervous, so many personality choices, and so many ways to physically inhabit those traits. In writing, the voice, the dialogue, the choice of words and the character’s actions all inform the character.

Relationship: How our characters interact or are positioned to each other. This can mean Actual Relationship, like father-and-son, or sisters, or teacher-and-pupil, or lawyer-and-criminal. It can also start building off of character, and inform how the character behaves. This is where we set up dynamics, hierarchies, power–who has it, who doesn’t. A character by themselves may be one person around their mother, but another around a lover. (Unless their mother is their lover, Oedipus.) They might be pleasant in the office, but take out frustrations with family.

Objective: What do our characters want? Whatever they want. It should raise the stakes. You can get great dynamic scenes by having wants in opposition with the other character’s wants. Tonight, our classmates enacted a scene–a husband and wife going out to eat. They go to the restaurant–not a fancy one–and they conceive a need to sit at a particular table. Why? How does this relate to what we know about their characters and relationship? Why is this particular table important? Most importantly, what will happen if they don’t achieve the objective?

Where: In improv, knowing and defining where you are is important. One improv game we play involves five short snippets of dialogue. Hi. Hello. How are you? Fine thanks. Glad to hear it.  That conversation can sound completely different based on where you are AND who you are. Imagine that conversation held first at church, then at a prison. Knowing where you are can give your character obstacles or define their objectives. In writing, this can be setting.

Anyway, I’m trying to run my Snakes and Ladder scenes through CROW in order to see if each of these things are clearly addressed in the scene. If it turns out my character doesn’t have an objective or that isn’t expressed in the scene….that’s something for me to focus on. Does it feel like my characters are consistent to their history and voice? Do their actions and dialogue BELONG to them? What relationships do they have with each other and how does that change their objectives? What stakes are there? What will happen if they don’t achieve their objective? Do they inhabit the world or are they talking heads spouting dialogue?

This isn’t meant to be wisdom from on high or anything. This is just me attempting to make use of my improv class. Obviously there’s other tools to be used here, like try-fail-try-succeed cycles, but I’m cannibalising from class and seeing if it can’t help push me along.



Today’s favourite bit of writing advice: Outline til it hurts. From Charlie Jane Anders One Weird Trick.

And outlining backwards is magic. Start with the end, and then put “because” after that, and keep going back. This happens because this happens, because that other thing happens, and so on, back to the beginning. If you can’t stick a “because” between two things that are supposedly causally linked, that’s a bad sign.

Omega point outlining! I like it!

*Not an initialism, honey!

Writing Steadily

It is a funny thing about depression. There seems to be a common idea floating around that being depressed makes you sad, that you are a little blue ball of unhappiness, rolled up in a corner and isolated from the world. There seems to be an equally common idea that if you are depressed, art just flows from you, tapping that wellspring of depression. Think of all the stereotypes of angsty poets and angry drinking writers pounding away at their typewriters in lonely attics. Problem is: It’s just not true. For me at least.

For the last year, my writing has come very slowly. I’ve let myself be prey to the idea of waiting until I am ready. Now I realise that with my depression, which I count as a physiological issue concerning my brain chemistry, and my lifetime habits of only working on things that seem to come easily, I can no longer afford to do that. I will never be ready. Writing and art were both things that used to come easily, and therefore I did them all the time without regard to whether or not I felt moved to. But when my depression strikes, it actually REMOVES my ability to want to do the things I once loved.

Imagine knowing CLINICALLY  that you want to do something, but trying to actually do it, even being there, is like pulling teeth. You sit down to write or paint, and you feel paralysis creeping over you, from the outside in. First you settle in to the place where you make things, and you sit and stare in desperation at the empty page or the blank canvas. You’ve had ideas ALL WEEK, things you’ve desperately wanted to paint or scenes you wanted to craft, but now that you have sat down to work on them, those ideas go skittering off into your mind. Instead of moths seeking the light, your ideas are more like roaches, hiding themselves from discovery.

Or maybe there are too many ideas. Too many things to chase down and you chase each one, only to have the trail fizzle out on you.

I got bored, you tell yourself, therefore my story isn’t interesting. If It’s not interesting to me, how will it be interesting to other people?

My art skills are rusty, rusting further. They wobble, I wobble, I put down the brush in frustration. I’ve lost the place where I felt everything just flow.

And that is why I haven’t written or painted much in the last year. I partly feel a failure. We are coming up on the anniversary of my layoffs from the job in San Francisco. I tried to use those layoffs as a launchpad for inspiration, and I think I largely succeeded. I used my first few months to write, paint, and explore my beloved city before I moved back to Seattle. And then somewhere, I lost my way. I think I chose to pack too much time into projects that were passion projects for friends, but actually coming between me and what I wanted to do. Between my new job and the side projects I was too burned out after a while to consider working on my own stuff. I suffered from a failure to prioritize the works that would make me happiest.

Lessons learned:
1) I’m going to have to show up every day. Muses be damned.

2) I have to learn how to do things that are hard for me.

3) I’m going to have to fail more. Perfection is the enemy of good.

4) I’m going to have to say no to side projects other than my own writing and art.

Anyway, that’s partly why I’m resurrecting my never-used HereticFish blog. 🙂 I need a place to write things that aren’t Twitter or Facebook, that actually cause me to stretch a little, but can be a place to fail. I need a place to prime the pump for Snakes and Ladders.