Monday, May 31, 2010

Do Not Let Your Left Brain Know What Your Right Brain Is Doing

The Rutabaga Festival. How it plagues me. On my work-in-progess, Reasons For Leaving, I got up to chapter 10 without much of a problem. Then somehow, I stalled. I did have to set it aside to do some revisions on Chained, and then I was distracted with the sale and with normal everyday stuff like housecleaning and way too many good books to read. Oh, and a computer virus, daughter's prom, upcoming graduation, etc. That's life, though--everyone's busy, distractions are everywhere, we all get sidetracked and somehow get our work done anyway. But for some reason I keep avoiding writing this next chapter.

When I've had this problem before it's because I wasn't sure what needed to happen next in the story, but in this case, I know what happens. The main character goes to a Rutabaga Festival. That sounds harmless enough, but I literally did not write anything on this book for weeks and weeks. I'm not even sure why I don't want to write this chapter. Is it because I worry it will suck? Likely it will, but it's only the first draft, so that's ok. Maybe I don't want to write the details it will need. Maybe it's a sign that the chapter isn't necessary at all. Still, it's a first draft and I just need to write it. Later I'll take it out or revise it or whatever it needs, but for now I just need to get it onto the page. I keep telling myself that, but it doesn't seem to work.

I imagine my main character knocking on my window and saying, "Helloooooo...remember me? You left me sitting in the car."

To get myself back to the manuscript at least, I decided to skip over that chapter for a while and write the ending. I'd been thinking of the last chapters anyway, so I wanted to get those ideas written down. Also, since there's a mystery in the story, I think it's good to have the ending written so I know where it needs to go. Now the last two chapters are drafted out.

So that's nice. Back to the middle.

If I don't get my left brain out of the way--the part that worries about the chapter organization, that it won't work, that it will be boring--this will never get done. Usually it helps me to set the computer aside and do some freewriting when I'm working on a new chapter or when I feel stuck on a scene. The ideas flow better that way and I'm not tempted to edit so much like I do when I'm on the computer. I've done plenty of freewriting on this chapter now, but when the time comes to write this part of the story, I still end up staring at the blank screen until some other distraction saves me from having to do it.

So I took out my copy of Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser, because I remembered it had some great exercises for getting that judgmental left brain out of the way so the right brain can do its work. I turned to the chapter on branching. Unlike linear outlining, branching is a way of organizing ideas from the center of the page outward, and allows for new ideas or details to be added easily. And it uses the whole brain. Klauser explains: "A linear outline is one-sided and left-brained. Branching is multi-faceted and whole-brained. Branching gives a picture an encourages spontaneity (right), at the same time, it provides structure and indicates logic (left)." [pp. 48-49].

I started in the middle of a blank page with the words "Rutabaga Festival," then branched out from there with the different things I might include in the chapter, then branched out further with more details. Now and then I did have to stop my left brain from wanting to take over the whole task. When I drew the branch about food at the festival I thought, "Ooh! I should get online and research rutabaga recipes to get ideas for what they might serve!" Yes, perhaps later, but not right now. Be quiet and keep working. Or on the branch about people: "Careful not to get stereotypical or anything. Just because they're in East Texas doesn't mean they'll see people wearing camouflage or a guy with a belt buckle bigger than his head." Yes, I know you're concerned. We'll take care of that later. "And she probably won't be playing the games or going on the rides when she's there to look for her friend..." Yes, I understand that. Now go away before I start singing Ludacris songs to you again.

So here's what I had after I finished the branching exercise:

I know, it looks like a hot mess, but it's actually really organized, and a lot of ideas are on the paper now. Here's a prettier example I made so it would be easier to share:

Of course, if outlining works for you, keep doing it. But if you're like me and don't like to outline, you may enjoy branching as a way to get ideas on paper and organize your chapter, your to-do list, even your whole book.

After all this, it's possible the chapter won't be in the final manuscript, but now's not the time to decide that; now's the time to write it. But the time spent on it won't have been wasted, because there will be other times I feel stuck and want to avoid writing something, and I'll know that I can work through it. For I have faced the rutabaga.

If it does show up in the final manuscript, and that manuscript is sold and made into a real book, you might read it and think, "That's it? That's what gave her so much trouble? What was so hard about that?!" And that means I will have done a good job, because sometimes it takes a lot of work to make writing look effortless.

So what holds you back from getting your writing done, and what have you done to overcome it?


  1. Pat Malone (The Legend of Lady Ilena) taught a similar technique called mind mapping at a workshop last year. Hers used the same branching technique and we were encouraged to draw pictures too. It helped me work out a problem in my novel - and my stick figures gave me a good laugh. :-)

  2. Yes, it does seem like mind mapping. I need to make it a habit to do it more often, because it seems to help. It can really be used for any kind of notetaking, too.

    Great idea using pictures, too!

  3. Thanks for sharing your strategy! Sometimes it can be hard to burst through those creative blocks. I love the title of your post. :)

  4. Thanks Ruth! I hope some other writers find the branching useful, or just enjoy seeing one writer's struggle in working through a tough chapter.

  5. Thanks for this, Lynne. My new motto : Face Your Inner Rutabaga!

    I am definitely using this technique, very soon!


  6. Lynne, stopping by from the bb's to say "hi." I love the title of your post and found the information very helpful. I have Klauser's book - need to get it out again and look at this as I'm stuck also. Have been that way for quite a while. So, this is just what I needed. Thanks!

  7. Yes, embrace the rutabaga!

    Great to see you here, Sharon. It is a great book, isn't it? Hope you get unstuck soon too!

  8. Finally finished the chapter-- and it's only 4 pages! Amazing how something with so few words can hold us back so much.

    It'll need some revising, but I'll be able to bring it to critique on Tuesday!