Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Breakthrough on a White Board

It’s astounding to me how often it’s simple, unexpected things that can help solve what appears to be a complicated problem. I was surprised and touched by the comments and suggestions I received in response to my last post about my writing dilemma and want to thank those of you who commented. I am very happy to say that all the insight helped me. In addition to the great advice I received, I found a practical tool to help me work through the plotting and organizational problems I was having.

As ridiculous as it sounds, a white board and dry erase markers broke the spell. I wanted to run through the major plot elements I’d originally established and review them in order to first, make sure that I had worked out a story worth telling and find a way to fix it if I hadn’t. I then wanted to figure out what the primary theme underlying it all was so that I could look at the characters I’d originally created, the settings in which I’d placed them and the details I’d included (or not) that would reinforce the theme. The next step would be to make sure every sentence I’d drafted so far served to either reveal something about a character or was advancing the action.

I was having a terrible time doing this on paper or on my computer, but when I started working it out on the white board, dry eraser in hand, I was able to quickly lay out the big pieces, rearrange them, remove some and add still others in a very loose way. The ability to quickly add and erase made everything so much more fluid as I worked through this. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but I had a much harder time doing this on paper or PC. Apparently, once I’ve written something using either of these tools, it is harder for me to see the big picture and harder for me to make immediate changes. Maybe my desire to fix typos and spelling or write things down neatly takes me out of the creative flow. Once I’d gotten a good start on the white board, the ideas were flying and I was able to start sketching it all out in a notebook in a more detailed, useful way.

With this simple change to the way I was working through my problems, I was able to make my storyline more interesting (I hope) and raise the stakes by adding more conflict and confrontation for my main character. I came up with a number of symbols and colors to represent my x versus y theme. I created new characters to support the additional pieces of the story I’d added and came up with character names that subtly support the theme. There will be many more changes to come, but I am finally anxious to go back to what I have and start rearranging, cutting and adding with the fresh insight into the characters, settings and other pieces of the story that I’ve gained. Now when I work on a scene that takes place in a room, I can consciously make decisions about the feel of the room, the weather outside, the furniture and the colors or even if it should be indoors at all. I can reexamine the physical appearance and dress of each character to determine whether or not they are supporting the story in the way they should. I’d previously done some of this instinctively to start out with, but I can now make much more significant improvement and progress.

I wish I could say I had a dream that gave me all the insight I needed, or something mystical happened that gave me a breakthrough, but it was just a simple change of medium.

Therese Fowler has answered 20 Questions on her process with today's post on her blog, Making it Up. As I suspected, Therese is very disciplined and efficient in her approach -- check it out. Have you had a breakthrough moment, due to something seemingly unrelated to the problem? Do you begin a story and keep on typing, letting the structure fall naturally into place? What other methods do you use to take the premise of a story through to plotting and creating characters? Do you write lengthy character sketches, knowing that very little of what you write about them will go into your novel? There is obviously no one right way to do this and I’m finding that each writer is nearly unique in his or her approach. I’ve heard that many writers have rituals and routines to put them into the zone. What methods and techniques work for you?


reality said...

Hi Lisa,
Nice post and a happy one. Go for broke. Rub that board white and write.
Can't say I have any special techniques then the What If and If So that I use and we talked about.
When I get held up, I like to take a short break, one or two days. And keep on thinking what am I missing.
In the current WIP it was the change in POV that helped. Unfortunately I only realized this after 70K.
Now, you need time to write. Take Care.

Shauna Roberts said...

Before I start, I know my starting situation, some possible endings, and a few incidents that occur in-between. That gives me a basic skeleton. Then I work by what I call leapfrogging. I'll plot forward two to three chapters. When I get toward the end of what I've plotted out, I'll plan another two to three chapters.

With this method, I always know where I'm going for the short-term and I know where the book will end up, but I'm free to incorporate new ideas, expand the roles of previously minor characters, or otherwise make major course adjustments.

I also repeat these magic words as necessary: "Don't worry about it. I can always fix it in the second draft."

Therese said...

Lisa, I appreciate the link.

And the white-board solution is terrific. I do something like that in my writing journal or just on paper at times, when I'm in the pre-writing phase. Also, literally speaking about the story often triggers new thoughts/ideas/solutions because the brain uses different pathways for speech.

Remember my post about Patience? Hang in there, it will all work out for you in due time. :)

Lisa said...


Appreciate the encouragement and you hang in there. Changing POV 70K into the process is a lot of rewriting, but I know you'll slog through.


Ahhh...that sounds like a good method. Enough structure so that someone like me wouldn't go insane, but open enough to allow for inspiration and creativity. Thanks!


I definitely appreciate that you took the time to post, as I'm sure a lot of other people do as well. I have been planning to try reading out loud, since it seems to help find the awkward rhythms, but just speaking out loud about the story itself sounds like a great idea.

And yes I sure do remember your post about patience -- it was a good one. My aunt Nancy used to say: "Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. It's seldom in a woman, and never in a man." :-)

Larramie said...

Good for you, Lisa. Now you know that your need is to actualy "see" the big picture all at once. And it makes perfect sense to understand where you've started in order to realize where you'll end up.

The art of writing mirrors the art of living in many ways -- including how simple, commonsense solutions to problems almost always work best!

P.S. I totally embrace Aunt Nancy's view on patience. ;o)

Lisa said...


As ever, you are so right. We always try to make things harder than they really are! As for Aunt Nancy's view, it's one of those weird things I've always remembered, along with a poem I had to memorize in 5th grade, called Abu Ben Adhem. I just googled it and it turns out that he was a Sufi saint. Interesting fare from the Boston Public School System!

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf