Monday, March 28, 2011

On Divided Attentions

My good friend and fellow blogger Matt raised an interesting question in one of my posts a while back.

Here's the question:

Matt said...
I was curious: do you divide your attention between different work or are you usually singularly focused on a single project on a given day?
 To which I responded (essentially): "I don't know."

It's a relevant question about work patterns that I haven't really thought about until now. What drives me to work on one project fanatically (as I did at the end of February, making it my most productive weekend in the history of my career)? And what drives me to split my attention among several projects (as I did at the beginning of February, which saw me writing a bunch of character sketches and short stories in addition to my work on "Godchild")?

I think it largely depends on how much time I'm devoting to brainstorming and how much time I'm devoting to reading.

When I'm developing a project, I usually have more ideas than I can use. Those ideas don't always go away, though. Sometimes they crop up (weeks, months, or years later) in my mind in a similar form or with a whole new twist attached and that prompts me to turn my attention back toward the idea for a time. I'll rework it, rethink it, and after a while I'll actually get around to writing it. Now that I've been doing this writing thing for a while (I've been generating ideas for about ten years now) the ones that have endured probably deserve to be written down, and the ones I'm generating are far more likely to be worthwhile at first glance. Thus, I take a shot at jotting them down.

On the flip side, this happens a lot when I'm reading as well, especially nonfiction. While I'm reading and encountering new ideas (or familiar ideas with a new perspective or in a new light), my mind often buzzes with variations I could put on those ideas. Curiosity as to how far the writer will take that idea, or how far I might be able to take such an idea, causes me to begin designing scenarios. Sometimes these scenarios will be simple rehashes of what I'm reading, while other times it'll take an idea from the book and throw it together with one of my older ones (see above paragraph) and come out on the other side with my eyes wide and the enthusiastic side of my mind crying "Brilliant!"

When I get ideas like this, the enthusiasm usually drives me to record some form of the idea out of fear for it "slipping away." This year, that's taken the form of a writing notebook for more nebulous or novel-length ideas that I can tell will need some added structure, while a folder titled "Project Development and Sketches" has become the home for a variety of short stories and individual scenes that have formed as a result of me attempting to channel a particular voice or very focused idea.

This all worked very well on the day-to-day level as it has allowed me to chip away at my word counts a little here and there in order to build up a respectable number. This was especially true during the earlier half of the semester, when my initial excitement over my creative writing classes was burning brightly and every day seemed to bring a new and bold glimmer of inspiration.

But if I really want to be productive. If I want to churn out massive word counts like I did at the end of February, I need to work on one project.

It has to do with that voice thing I mentioned earlier. Without a doubt, the easiest and most productive "one-shot" pieces I wrote earlier in the semester were the ones that had a clear way of telling the story, instead of just a simple idea behind what the story would be "about." I'm Going to Kill You, Geoffry Jones is an excellent example of this. It grew out of that one line, what I feel is an interesting twist on ghosts, and a grumbling character voice. It's been so much fun to write that I actually came back to it on several occasions to add to my initial flurry of productivity. Whereas other projects that I have a much clearer idea about where they are going or what I want to do with them ("When in Rome," I'm looking at you) have failed to get off of the ground because I just can't find the voice.

Right, okay, how does this apply to novels? Well, I'm usually writing in the same voice throughout. At the very least, I'm going to be working with a single voice for days on end through many thousands of words. Writers often say that the biggest challenge for them is getting started each day. This, I think, is because we have difficulty finding that voice of a character to pick up where we left off.

Think about it. When you read a book, you'll get to the end of a chapter or the end of a scene and then put it down for the day. Why is this? Because that's usually a good stopping point. It's a break or pause in the events. The writer designed it that way (book organization is probably something I'll talk about in the future, once I have a bit more experience with it). You never want to stop in the middle of a scene or, worse, in the middle of a paragraph. You'll even get a little frustrated when something interrupts you and forces you to "put a bookmark in it." Why is that? Well, aside from the simple "wanting to know what happens next" feeling you get from the action in the scene, it's also because your mind will have difficulty keeping track of where everything is. When you pick up the book again, you'll probably spend some time going back over the last few paragraphs or even the last few pages to try and "catch yourself up."

Now, imagine having to do this every single day, while also trying to remember how to talk.

Yeah, it's kind of like that.

I'm usually working on two or three major projects at a time. This is because I have yet to perfect the art of perseverance and because I simply have way too many ideas to ever write within this lifetime. Working on a variety of projects helps me keep my interest levels high enough that I'm always able to work on something. I don't think that I have yet talked about how writing helps me think, so I'll have to do that later. For now, understand that when I'm writing, the subconscious part of my brain is generating information and ideas in such a way that it doesn't often apply to what I'm working on. Thus, by working on one project for a little while, I'll get my brain juiced up to create ideas for another project. So then I'll jump over to the project (or just jot down the idea on a piece of paper if it's too big to capture in a writing session or doesn't apply to the immediate context of the story) and start working on it. In this way, I can usually meet my word counts by jumping from project to project as the ideas come to me.

Again, though, this only helps me with generating ideas. If I really want to surprise myself, I need to get into the voice of a project. By sinking myself into a character's voice, I can begin seeing their world not simply from their eyes, but from the eyes of almost everyone else around them. Getting into a character's voice allows me to make far more inventive progress than skipping from idea to idea, because I'll almost always learn something about the character as I'm writing. This increasingly intimate knowledge will help my mind (whether intentionally or subconsciously) to find new and interesting conflicts for the characters to face that really address them personally, rather than the sweeping dramas that I design in my outlines. It's this kind of personal conflict that drives the heart and soul of a novel, and keeps the reader interested for the lengthy sagas that I enjoy telling.

But without getting into a character's voice, I'm just bouncing ideas around in my head.

1 comment:

  1. Now that's an answer!

    Oh man it is difficult to find the voice sometimes! Thank you. You've identified the exact reason why I have difficulty writing consistently. I have the same struggles. Lots of ideas bouncing around; not a lot of the right voices to tell them with... now what's the magic solution?