Friday, July 30, 2010

Workout Supplements and Writing

Every now and again, I get on a workout kick. I just get tired of being out of shape and embark on about 90 days of hard workouts to get myself built back up again, after which I let things slide for a while (I would be on one now, if I had a job that allowed me to afford air conditioning).

What frustrated my wife about the kicks I would get on, though, was that I would invariably spend 50 bucks or more on protein powders and other supplements that she figured I didn't need.

And she was right. You can find plenty of articles attesting to the facts that...

  • Supplement effects are overrated
  • They can't compensate for a bad diet
  • Their effect is likely to be minimal unless you're participating in very hard workouts
  • There is no guarantee that the research behind them is solid or of the purity of their ingredients

I know these things. And yet, every time I enter a workout cycle, I go out and buy the stuff. Why? And what does this have to do with writing?

The reason why reveals perhaps my own weakness, and yet it's a weakness I'm at least aware I have and know how to exploit for my own benefit (at least short-term). The new object in my life gives me a talisman, a physical object that serves as a reminder of my goal and what I need to do to achieve that goal. And because it's new, I get the added motivation of learning something new and figuring out how to make it work for me. I get to play, and that helps keep me motivated.

I do that with books as well. I seem to approach every new book differently. Blue Falcon (as well as some of my earlier screenplays) was written mostly in longhand at bars, to the point where it got hard for me to write any other way, with a very basic outline outline written in Word. Angel Baby, aborted after 100 pages, was written in an office I rented. I think I also tried using a product called yWriter during this time, but didn't get very far with it.

Hero Go Home was outlined on note cards and mostly written at the same office, partly during Nanowrimo;. For the second draft, I noted the story's different locations on Google Earth. For a proposed sequel to Hero Go Home (which was to become Digger's Big Con, the aborted webcomic story that I need to finish someday) I made a lot of brainstorming notes on a website called KayudaMaps, which subsequently shut down, losing all the notes in the process.

Death Wave was outlined with a product called Anthemion Writer's Cafe. It was demo software, though, so I wasn't able to use its full capabilities.

So here we are on a third (and I hope, final) draft of Hero Go Home, and what have I done? Besides the chance to play with the layout of my website, I've downloaded two products to help me do what I have never done well before--outline the story. There's a product called Freemind, which is mind-mapping software that I'm using like the old KayudaMaps, only I don't have to worry about the website shutting down and dumping my data. And I'm using yWriter 5 to put meat on the bones.

I didn't like Freemind at first, but now I'm starting to get the hang of it and it's actually helping me figure out the flow of my story. It works with objects called nodes, which is a piece of text. Each node can have siblings and children. So I make a node for a scene, then sub-nodes for each beat of the scene, and if I have a specific piece of information I need to fit in, or if I have an idea for a great line of dialogue I want to have there, I can give it a sub-sub-node, and so on.

And each family of nodes is collapsible, so I can look at the overall flow of a story at a glance, but if I want more detail on a given scene (say, the one I'm writing at the moment, or one I want to foreshadow, or one I want to flash back to), I just open that node and the tree of sub-nodes under it pops open.

yWriter also, I didn't much like the last time I tried to use it. It was an earlier version, though, and it intimidated me with all the fields of information it wanted about characters and such. You build the book in chapters and scenes, and there are database-style fields for you to keep track of characters and locations and such, with space for detailed descriptions. You can even run reports that tell you how many scenes each character is in, or show it visually as a storyboard with a card for each scene on a timeline. The important thing is, I'm more comfortable with leaving as many fields blank as I want, only adding stuff as I go along and discover new things about the characters.

For some reason, I thought I was doing it wrong when I didn't know my characters inside and out when I started to write. But all of the standard methods of filling in backstory and doing character work ahead of time just make my eyes glaze over. It seemed as if I was doing a lot of extra work that I might never use and had little to do with the story I wanted to tell.

And while I am more comfortable now with doing character prep than I was, I am also learning to accept that I will never know my characters perfectly before I start writing. At some point in the writing process, I stop telling them what they're like, and they start telling me instead. It sounds like an artsy-fartsy cop-out, but it's true. Lisa--one of the main characters in Death Wave--was supposed to be a throwaway background character, but emerged to become a driving force in the story.

So will these products be the magic bullets that somehow fix what was wrong with the story in previous drafts? Doubtful. There's no guarantee that I'll have the patience to use them to their full capabilities, or that I will be able to somehow unlock new mental abilities thanks to their help.

But right now, they're helping me focus what were previously really unfocused efforts at revising the plotline, and I'm encouraged at the results. To be painfully honest here, a few days ago, I was really excited with the look of the new website, but very scared that I would have no idea where to go with the story once I got past the first couple of chapters that had already been written. I had serious flopsweat going, and I don't now.

I mean, I still don't know if the book will find an audience, but I'm much more confident that there will at least be a book. And a better book than before.

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