Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nine Exercises #9: Snapshots from Your Subconscious

Welcome to the last installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story!

Exercise #9: Snapshots from Your Subconscious

Time: 13 minutes and 45 seconds (or a little more)

If you've done Exercises #6, #7 and #8, you have a fast and messy draft of an entire story.

I hope I didn't make you feel too discouraged at the end of Exercise #8 with all that talk of endless rewriting and how you'll have to get used to the feeling of hating your first (and possibly second, third, and fourth) drafts.

It's true writing is a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. Maybe not in those moments when you look at the drafts and hate them. But that happens because you compare them with the wonderful thing you want them to be and sense they could be, and see they're not there yet. Truly, that isn't the worst feeling in the world. It's how you learn and grow.

If writing ever starts to feel horrible and hopeless, not only do you have the right to step back and try a different approach, you must. If you feel dead inside when you're writing something, that will show on the page. You have to love what you're doing in order for it to work.

In that way, writing forces you to be honest about what it is that you love, see, feel, and know to be true. That is difficult, but it's also freeing and exhilarating. It's one of the main reasons to write.

Anyway, forget all that for now. And don't look at your draft. Just think about your story and answer these questions off the top of your head:

1.  Take five minutes to answer to this: What would you like to be different about your story?

Think with your heart and your subconscious. Don't think about the story—e.g. I want it to sound cleverer, or I think people would like it more if it had more explosions in it. Instead keep pulling yourself back into the place where you feel the story—e.g., I feel like this character should be angrier; I'm bored writing the part where they fight about X; I get tense when I think about writing section Y; I wish it could all be about character Z because she's the most fun to write about.

2.  Now take five minutes to write down some concrete images related to your story. Snapshots from your subconscious. Pick up little scraps of images that pop into your head: a gesture, a slant of light, an expression on someone's face. Don't ask where these come from or whether they fit into the story. Just write them down.

Do you see your character sitting in a dark room, dressed as a superhero, hugging herself? Don't censor the odd details that pop into your head. Don't ask "Why a superhero costume??" Just write it down. The more odd details like that, the better.

Notice the colors and forms and sounds. Greenish light, a footfall, a cry of frustration, the hum of a refrigerator. Get all those concrete sensory details in there. Write them all down without censoring or questioning them.

3.  Take two minutes to write something dark about your character, and something light about your character. If you have more than one character, do this for each.

4. Take 45 seconds to tell me who your character loves most in the world. (Not who she should love most.) Do this for each character if you have more than one.

5. Take one minute to put your character in an awkward place. Where she's out of her element, uncomfortable. Give me a snapshot. Do this for each character if there are more than one.

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Here's why I asked you to do these: When you're writing, you constantly have to switch back and forth between your editing brain and your writing brain. Left and right. Conscious and subconscious. Head and heart. Whatever you want to call them. I know you know what I mean.

Some people say the rough draft can or should be written entirely with the writing brain, the subconscious, the heart. But I don't think that's really true. When you're pushing yourself to lay a story down, follow a certain plan, and wind up at a satisfying endpoint (even if you know you're allowed to change it as you go), you have to rely an awful lot on your editing brain, on the conscious, logical part of your mind.

Sometimes, as you try to make the plot work out, try to make the story hang together in any kind of way, you can lose track of your characters' souls, just as you can lose track of your own soul when you're in heated pursuit of some material goal.

The exercises above are to help you get back in touch with your characters' souls briefly before you set the story aside for a couple of weeks. This is so that, while the plot settles and transforms in the fertile compost heap of your subconscious way at the back of your mind, thoughts about who your characters really are will also be fermenting back there. Just leave all that stuff for a while. Let it mix all together in the dark.

Maybe it sounds a little silly, all this talk of compost and fermenting, but this isn't accounting, it's art, and there really isn't any way to talk about it without resorting to some mystical language and wacky metaphors. It's a dirty, messy, miraculous process. Smelly, fertile, and full of worms. Sticky and garbagey and life-giving. Just let it be for a while.

In a few weeks I'll post some exercises to help with rewriting and revising.

Richard Teschner, Fraternity of the Unborn, 1914—18, via 50watts

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