Out of the three basic elements of a story—character, plot, and setting—setting often turns into the neglected stepchild sweeping up ashes in the corner. And for good reason. It can get tedious to describe an imaginary place that you can see clearly in your mind’s eye, but the reader can’t. On the other hand, it’s sometimes tempting to use too much detail, bogging the reader down with unnecessary words that only add confusion to the story.
Years ago, in my first writing group, I met a writer who told me he was hunting his voice. I instantly pictured him stalking through a jungle of stories and characters, holding a rifle and wearing fatigues. When I told him this, he laughed and said that he meant “hunting” in a different way. He was talking about hunting like a phone system picks up calls and directs them to the correct lines. If the first line is busy, the hunting feature automatically delivers the call to a second line, and then possibly a third and so on, until someone answers that call.
Right Brain-Left Brain Theory has enjoyed rising popularity in recent years. In a nutshell, the theory states that the right side of your brain handles the intuitive, expressive, emotional stuff, and the left side handles the analytical, rational logical stuff. Now, whether or not you subscribe to the belief that certain people are more “right-brained” or “left-brained” you can use the basics of this framework to tap into some of your best creative writing.
Imagine that you could drive your mind like you drive a car. If you want to go anywhere, pick a gear and stick with it.
Right-brain writing work is putting yourself in DRIVE. You’re moving forward, sometimes so fast you can’t really stop and look around. That’s your writing gear. Left-brain work is putting yourself in REVERSE. You’re backing up slowly to see what you might have missed. That’s your editing/revising gear. Just like a car, you can’t be in two gears at once. And if you shift rapidly back and forth between DRIVE and REVERSE, you won’t cover very much ground.
DRIVE: Let Your Right Brain PLAY
Writing your first draft, tackling those first few pages, getting your thoughts out of your head and down onto paper—those are all Right Brain writing functions. You’re driving. And if you allow yourself to stay in drive, you might even jump on the freeway and discover all kinds of new locales.
This is what we call Creative Flow. It means moving your energy into a state of opening and allowing. It means surrendering to the words pouring out of you, even if somewhere inside you’re still cringing at your word choice or struggling to describe something. You open to the experience. You allow yourself to make mistakes. After about five or six pages of nonstop writing, your subconscious will really start cooking, and this is where the awesome juicy stuff will start coming out of you.
Just like a car, your creative engine needs time to warm up. And in order to become the best driver you can be, you have to drive on a regular basis. Sit down, every single week, and push yourself to write nonstop—at least five or six pages. Surrender to the flow, even if you can’t make sense out of it.
REVERSE: Let Your Left Brain JUDGE
Critiquing your work, adding and cutting material, combing the pages for typos—these are all Left Brain writing functions. You’re backing up to see what you missed the first time through. These logical, analytical functions all have their place, but in creative writing that place comes when you have a finished sloppy first draft of your manuscript.
This is what we call Revision. All writers have to revise. (Yes, even Ernest Hemingway.) When you revise your work you’re bringing in your careful, critical eye. You’re asking questions like, “Will this make sense to the reader?” “Can my opening line be better?” “How can they fly to Saturn if they need pink elephant juice to do it?” The energy of revision is slow, nit-picky, and judgmental.
Just like when you’re driving a car, sometimes it’s necessary to back up and change direction. And when you’re backing up, you have to do it slowly and check all your mirrors. In order to master creative writing, you need to hone your craft. Let your inner critic come out to poke holes in all your lovely plans—as long as it’s after you’ve finished your first sloppy draft.
The more you write, the better you’ll get at letting go and surrendering to the flow. When it comes time to revise your first sloppy draft, you’ll get good at zeroing in on problems and issues. I’ll be covering both processes in much more detail with the goal of giving you comprehensive how-to guides for finishing that first draft, and revising it for outside readers later.
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