Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back to Basics

I got together with a friend of mine this morning for our weekly summertime writing, support, marketing, critique group meeting. We met at the SF Conservancy of Flowers and talked for a bit and then wrote for a bit and then talked some more, and I've been feeling great ever since then. It's amazing how much of a difference being able to jot down a few words makes to my sense of balance and well-being. But more than that, I made some connections today that I want to share with you.

Traci came up with our writing prompt. It was a really simple one: Choose an object in this room and have your character interact with it in some meaningful way. 

Both of us are working on fantasy projects right now, like I wrote about in my last post about Decoding the Muse. I decided to use a traditional quest/hero's journey pattern for my project and was outlining it while I was at Lake Tahoe last week. I know where it's going, and I know most things about the plot, but where I kind of got bogged down in my outline was in Chapter 3 -the small tests, trials and obstacles that my characters encounter on their trip. I couldn't figure out what those would look like and finally had to tell myself that I'd figure it out when I got to those middle chapters. The small obstacles portion of the plot is important - it keeps the action going while the characters are learning the rules, getting to know each other, and discovering the skills they will need to be successful on their quest. If you think about Lord of the Rings, these are the small trials the Hobbits have to survive before they meet up with Strider at the Prancing Pony. In the book, it's things like the Barrowdowns (where they get the swords that will ultimately allow Merry to defeat the Witch King of Angmar) and they meet Tom Bombadil (an alley who helps them safely on to the next phase of their journey). When the Fellowship is formed, there's a similar phase as each member of the Fellowship slowly learns to trust each other. In the movie, it's the scenes where Boromir is teaching the Hobbits to fight and when they're trying to climb the mountains, but Frodo is allowed to say they will turn back when the Sauroman brings a blizzard on them.

Anyway...I was having trouble figuring out what obstacles my characters would face, what skills they would need to acquire, and basically just over-thinking the whole thing (how strange for me). Today's prompt gave me a road map.

The object I chose was a strange plant (see right) that, as I wrote, turned into an animal and then became a cub that drove a spike through the toe of one of the character's shoes when he nudged it. One of the other characters recognizes that what looks like a plant is actually an animal and that it has a MOTHER that is much larger and they must get out of there now. And suddenly, there it was, one of the first tests this group of characters has to face. 

What also happened was that I realized I had a road map for the rest of the tests, a way to figure out how to write them. I'm going to do them as a series of prompts based on locations in Golden Gate Park. I realized this after I stepped outside the greenhouse and came across this tunnel. After turning a plant into an animal, seeing this tunnel as dark and dangerous, almost like a mouth, was no problem. 

Writing prompts are one of those "tricks" all writers keep in their tool boxes. Prompts are a way of narrowing down choices which, in a perverse bit of psychology, actually helps us make decisions. Too many choices = no ideas. Put limits on those choices and suddenly the world is just bursting with the EXACT THING YOU NEED FOR YOUR STORY.

A little bit after this, I picked up my younger son from chess camp where he's a junior counselor after having been an attendee since he was in first grade. He's teaching the younger kids the skills that he's learned and discovering that it's a good refresher in the basics for him as well. Which is when I realized why teaching creative writing to the kids in elementary and middle school has been such an important part of my creative process for the past eight years. It's about remembering the basics and continually reminding myself that the fundamentals are important. Keep writing. There are no wrong answers. When you can't think of something to write, make something up. Those are the things I tell my students all the time. All the fancy bells and whistles and terminology with which writers want to dress up the writing process come down to basics. Traci's simple writing prompt was enough to open up the world of my novel in a way that all the convolutions of my outlining and knowledge of the hero's journey didn't.

And don't get me wrong. Having those technical skills and depth of knowledge about craft is important - they'll save me when the novel bogs down and I can't figure out why. I'll be able to go back and figure out what went wrong because of those skills. But the basics...that's what's going to keep the project moving forward and get me working on the next one and the one after that...and it's what's going to have me back in the classroom in the fall telling the kids to keep writing. When they tell me they can't think of anything to write about, I'll tell them to look around. The world is full of possibilities.

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