Monday, June 9, 2008

The Ever Changing Method to My Ever Deepening Madness

Steve Malley, friend of the blog from down under – is New Zealand considered down under? – has an expression he often uses after writing a post about craft, and it’s “take what you like and leave the rest”. If you haven’t checked out Steve’s blog, he’s got some very helpful stuff on writing.

I happen to think it’s an excellent piece of advice and I regularly do just that.

Recently, the good people from the ACME Corporation where I work paid for books and testing services from Gallup so that people like me (Anvil, bird seed and Dynamite salesmen) could identify our top strengths. I’m actually pretty cynical about business personality profiling, especially when the test identifies a person's top five repeatable characteristics and defines them all as strengths. Frankly, I don't think our top characteristics are always strengths in all circumstances.

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I decided to try and interpret my results in a way that might help me to become a better writer, or at least explain my scatter shot methods of trying to nail down a process.

These are the test results I received:

“As you may know, the Clifton StrengthsFinder measures the presence of talent in 34 categories called "themes." These themes were determined by The Gallup Organization as those that most consistently predict outstanding performance. The greater the presence of a theme of talent within a person, the more likely that person is to spontaneously exhibit those talents in day-to-day behaviors.

Focusing on naturally powerful talents helps people use them as the foundation of strengths and enjoy personal, academic, and career success through consistent, near-perfect performance.

How well do you think these themes describe me?


Your Achiever theme helps explain your drive. Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by “every day” you mean every single day—workdays, weekends, vacations. No matter how much you may feel you deserve a day of rest, if the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you will feel dissatisfied. You have an internal fire burning inside you. It pushes you to do more, to achieve more. After each accomplishment is reached, the fire dwindles for a moment, but very soon it rekindles itself, forcing you toward the next accomplishment. Your relentless need for achievement might not be logical. It might not even be focused. But it will always be with you. As an Achiever you must learn to live with this whisper of discontent. It does have its benefits. It brings you the energy you need to work long hours without burning out. It is the jolt you can always count on to get you started on new tasks, new challenges. It is the power supply that causes you to set the pace and define the levels of productivity for your work group. It is the theme that keeps you moving.


You like to think. You like mental activity. You like exercising the “muscles” of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions. This need for mental activity may be focused; for example, you may be trying to solve a problem or develop an idea or understand another person’s feelings. The exact focus will depend on your other strengths. On the other hand, this mental activity may very well lack focus. The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound. This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives. Or this introspection may tend toward more pragmatic matters such as the events of the day or a conversation that you plan to have later. Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.


Relator describes your attitude toward your relationships. In simple terms, the Relator theme pulls you toward people you already know. You do not necessarily shy away from meeting new people—in fact, you may have other themes that cause you to enjoy the thrill of turning strangers into friends—but you do derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around your close friends. You are comfortable with intimacy. Once the initial connection has been made, you deliberately encourage a deepening of the relationship. You want to understand their feelings, their goals, their fears, and their dreams; and you want them to understand yours. You know that this kind of closeness implies a certain amount of risk—you might be taken advantage of—but you are willing to accept that risk. For you a relationship has value only if it is genuine. And the only way to know that is to entrust yourself to the other person. The more you share with each other, the more you risk together. The more you risk together, the more each of you proves your caring is genuine. These are your steps toward real friendship, and you take them willingly.


You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences—yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the “getting there.”


Excellence, not average, is your measure. Taking something from below average to slightly above average takes a great deal of effort and in your opinion is not very rewarding. Transforming something strong into something superb takes just as much effort but is much more thrilling. Strengths, whether yours or someone else’s, fascinate you. Like a diver after pearls, you search them out, watching for the telltale signs of a strength. A glimpse of untutored excellence, rapid learning, a skill mastered without recourse to steps—all these are clues that a strength may be in play. And having found a strength, you feel compelled to nurture it, refine it, and stretch it toward excellence. You polish the pearl until it shines. This natural sorting of strengths means that others see you as discriminating. You choose to spend time with people who appreciate your particular strengths. Likewise, you are attracted to others who seem to have found and cultivated their own strengths. You tend to avoid those who want to fix you and make you well rounded. You don’t want to spend your life bemoaning what you lack. Rather, you want to capitalize on the gifts with which you are blessed. It’s more fun. It’s more productive. And, counterintuitively, it is more demanding.”

Naturally, I’ll take “Achiever”. Who wouldn’t? I’ll happily choose to believe it’s an indication that I’ll persevere and write a book. I think the one to be careful of is the one labeled “Intellection” – which I suspect is not a real word and is most likely a cleverly disguised term for procrastination and navel gazing. Or maybe it's a predisposition toward making myself crazy by over thinking and having a difficult time focusing – but I digress – See!? “Relator” I can buy, even though I also doubt it’s validity as a real word. I prefer to interact with people I have a connection with, even when many of them are my invisible online writing friends. I doubt it has much relevance to writing though. “Learner” is a definite yes. I am passionate about learning and I always have been, and at the moment, my passion is all about learning how to write a novel. And finally, “Maximizer” (also a fake word) I hope will reflect an inclination to rewrite, revise, shape and polish until I’ve written the absolute best novel that I can, no matter how long it takes.

In all fairness, I am superstitious and would be inclined to do the same analysis of an astrological chart if I could interpret it to mean that I’m supposed to be a novelist. But I will take what seems to fit and beware of the scatterbrained “intellection” characteristic and go with it.

So where am I with The Foundling Wheel now?

I think I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, but I want to share what I’m doing and how I arrived here because I’m in the process of doing something I don’t hear too many people talk about, but I’m sure some of you do this or have done it.

To review, the first 11 Chapters, which came to 28,584 words in a format that is somewhere between a rough and early first draft were written completely by the proverbial seat of my pants. An incident that happened when I was in Germany back in the mid-1980’s gave me an idea that I started to build around. I didn’t let the idea percolate longer than a week and I didn’t have an outline or an idea of where the story would go or how it would end.

Then I didn’t quite know what would happen and I tried a variety of techniques I’d read about in order to brainstorm ideas. I jotted down ideas for scenes, subplots, themes and ends. I used index cards, white boards, easel paper. I thought about what I had and I came up with some new subplots, secondary characters and a fairly good idea of how the story ends. I was also able to define my premise. I realize a whole lot of people believe that these are all things that a writer should do before starting to write, but just as many believe that these are things that reveal themselves through the process of writing. I think they are revealing themselves.

I started to write the next chapter three times and each time I started in a different place. The third time I think I found a good place to begin – Chapter 12 really marks the start of Part II of a traditional three part structure.

But the longer I worked on this chapter, the longer it got. When I was writing under the weekly constraint to complete one chapter, each with a specific purpose and function I was able to keep each chapter as a discrete 2,000 – 3,000 word unit. This chapter would not end! I got to somewhere just shy of 6,000 words and realized I needed something else to guide and shape where I was going.

To get back to my original thought -- or Steve Malley's -- about taking what you like, or what works and leaving the rest is that there are a whole lot of ideas and techniques out there. What works for some people doesn't for others and what might work in one circumstance might not in another. The trick is to recognize that there is a way to approach every problem and not to get stuck when one method doesn't work and also not to get distracted by too many options. If you can't climb over the wall, dig under it. If that doesn't work, go around and if that doesn't work, blow it up. There's always a way.

So I'm writing what I think of as a working synopsis. Whether I read about this somewhere or I’d tried everything else and this was the last obvious thing to try in order to provide myself the direction I needed to explain to myself what happens in this story from beginning to end, I don’t know, but I finally consulted the books. Ah, my pretty pretty books. What’s interesting is that of all the books on craft that I have, nearly all references to synopses are to the type used for submission to an agent or editor, but finally I did find two books that reference “the working synopsis”. Hooray! Validation that even if this is not a tool that all novelists use, it’s one that some do.

There’s no real structure to this working synopsis, other than a present tense explanation of what happens from the beginning to the end. I think that by the time I’m done with it, I’ll have about 10-12 double spaced pages I can work from. It doesn’t break down into scenes or go into any detail, it just follows the significant action, and introduces characters and time lines.

So there it is. That’s what I’ve been doing.

I believe that if I had not chosen to move between three different points in time, I might have been able to continue writing a linear story in the way that I’d started, but it’s gotten too complicated for me to keep in my head and the scene cards just aren’t giving me the continuity I seem to need.

Since I haven’t ever heard anybody talk about doing one of these, I suspect most people don’t do them, but I’m very interested in hearing from those of you who do or even those of you who do something similar.

So how about it? Working synopsis? Anyone?


Charles Gramlich said...

Achievor, Intellection, and Lerner, despite the first two terms being rather silly, seem to characterize me very well. The other two not so mcuh.

I do only a very rough working synopsis for my stuff. For the Taleran books I know where I start and where I basically want to end, and then I have some major "points" within the text I want to cover. That's pretty much it.

Julie Layne said...

I'd say those characteristics probably fit many, many writers, so you're in good company!

I haven't done lengthy synopses, and I kind of fly by the seat of my pants, but I do like to know more or less where I'm going. I tend to write one line descriptions of all the scenes I can think of that might come up and leave it at the bottom of my manuscript where I can see it immediately if I get stuck. I rearrange them, add, or delete as I go, as appropriate. It usually keeps me going fairly well.

Vesper said...

Lisa, I'll have to print this post and read it carefully. The same for the previous one. I'll come back with my comments. :-)

Ello said...

Lisa, I did the same strength finders test but I am so lame I can't remember what I got.

I always work off an outline of my entire story just because it helps give me structure but it doesn't mean that the story won't get derailed anyway. You never know what is the natural road for the story to take until you start writing. Good luck!

Larramie said...

Does Intellection = working synopses here? ;) And, imho, these personality = baloney!

You already know who you are, problem. :)

Melissa Marsh said...

We must have done the same test here at work. Here were my top five: Intellection (#1!), Input, Responsibility, Empathy, Learner. I think they fit me pretty well.

As far as a working synopsis, yes, I do have one of those, but it is very rough and rambling and can change if need be. But I like having it all down on paper to look at because I forget sometimes what I figured out for a particular plot point and thank heavens I write the dumb thing down, otherwise I'd be in trouble!

Great post, Lisa.

Lisa said...

Charles, I'm guessing you have lots of notes and reference that you have to double check things with for the Taleran books. I find the level of detail that's required for world building to be incredible! I'm guessing you have to be pretty organized.

Julie, Yeah, I'd think these are fairly common traits too. I'm seeing now that people seem to all develop their own "cheat sheets" to keep them out of trouble, to varying degrees.

Vesper, Beautiful post this morning!

Ello, Ha! After reading your post at Moon Rat's, I'll bet responsibility was one of your big ones -- funny, it's not on mine :) So -- do you fully outline from day one?

Larramie, I try not to let much of the natural cynicism that shows during the course of my day at the ACME Corporation show through. To be honest, we're small and most of us have been working together for quite a long time. We're also pretty old compared to the typical start-up -- I think most of us are (now) over 40, so when I heard we were doing this, I thought it was kind of a waste of time. We all know ourselves and each other pretty well :)

Melissa, I do love to compare notes with other people who have taken this test. Most of us in my company who are in sales shared two or three traits, whereas the engineers and the support people were completely different.

And I'm relieved to hear that your working synopsis is "rough and rambling". When I estimated the length of my finished working synopsis last night, I seriously underestimated!

Steve Malley said...

Robert McKee recommends it in STORY. He favors getting a synopsis that takes less than ten minutes to get through, then pitching it to all your friends. After all, they'll give you ten minutes, even if it's a bad idea.

His second step: Only develop the ones that leave your listeners on the edge of their seats. Life is short, after all, and ideas are common...

Steve Malley said...

Oh, and Jim Butcher uses a working synopsis too, I believe!

Yogamum said...

Intellection sounds like something George Bush would say. I don't trust those test people if they are making up words. (Of course, I once wrote lengthy email to my daughter's soccer association explaining that "reschedulement" was not a word so I am a bit testy about these things).

I think a working synopsis sounds like a brilliant idea -- and if it works for you, all the more brilliant!!!

Lisa said...

Steve, There does come a time when you have to be able to succinctly explain the story and I really feel like it's about time! Thanks for the tip on STORY, which I have and didn't think to consult this time around.

Yogamum, HAHAHAHAHAHA! "Intellection sounds like something George Bush would say". That's so true. I have a sneaking suspicion that the made-up words may be part of some business re-education camp system tied to a lot of $$$. Isn't that what you do when you want to protect an idea? "Brand" it and make up a bunch of stuff?

The working synopsis reminds me of the way my little sister Carrie used to sit at the breakfast table in the morning and go into detailed recitations about the dreams she'd had the night before. It was a lot of "and then this happened...and then...oh, and wait, then this happened" We still give her a hard time about it. :)

steve said...

Lisa, American Heritage Dictionary list "intellection," so maybe it is a real word, as opposed to, say, "customer-centric," which some firm under contract with a certain railroad corporation came up with.

I think this kind of thing is dependent on the individual. From what you've written, the working synopsis seems a good idea for you. I have a dread of outlines, but not of synopses. I'll be looking forward to your next chapter.

Meanwhile, I need to get my characters down to the Chicago Coliseum for LBJ's Unbirthday Party.

Vesper said...

I am quite allergic to these so called tests that can find people's "strengths". I think they're highly artificial, and part of the "corporate culture", full of made-up words or phrases that have absolutely no meaning, even though you can understand each word. Besides, I don't like to categorize people.

I can find some traits in each of the ones that you're listing. It looks like they are written a bit like the astrological predictions - something for everyone to interpret according to their wishes or their abilities.

I'm glad about The Foundling Wheel. :-)

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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