Druid's Brew

a novelist's process journal

Tools: “SuperNoteCard” software

I’ve tried lots of different creative writing software packages over the years, and have found all of them virtually useless, except for one. The SuperNoteCard app from Mindola is the one piece of software I make sure to load on every PC and laptop. (I’m not getting paid for this unsolicited endorsement).

What does it do? Quite simple: it gives you sets of virtual index cards to play with, in any manner that suits you. So whether you’re outlining a non-fiction history text, scripting a movie, or outlining a novel, you can jot your notes on the virtual cards, and easily re-arrange them any way you like. You can also “nest” them, to collect scenes into chapters etc.

There are various other features that I don’t use very often, tagging different elements on each card (such as which characters appear in which scenes for example). Best of all, it’s affordable, only $30. Here’s where to get it from Mindola.

Literature = Language Sorcery

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Like many writers, sometimes I ask myself: what the hell am I actually doing when I write? The most satisfying answer I’ve come to lately is that I’m a sorcerer conjuring new worlds out of language, worlds that can be entered and shared by my readers.

Of course, this process is a collaboration, since all the reader actually sees are my words on a page – they use their own powers of imagination to conjure the worlds in their minds. So my creative actions serve as a prompt for their own creativity. I think that qualifies as a pretty good magic trick.

Off-Broadway play: Completeness

Yesterday I went to an off-Broadway show, Completeness, by young writer Itamar Moses. It’s a super-geeky comedy about a romance between two scientists. I was amazed at how much technical jargon Moses was willing to pump into his dialogue, including several detailed monologues on computer algorithms and molecular biology. I followed these long threads happily, but I heard folks in other seats muttering about being lost. The actors were terrific, delivering the technical arguments at a very quick pace, but deftly.

While I enjoyed myself, and admired the playwright’s ambition, at the end of the day however, there just wasn’t any real substance to the frothy work. Ultimately you’d expect that some greater metaphorical point would be made about human relations, but despite all the scientific back-and-forth, there was just another generic romance between a couple of emotionally immature post-grad students.

My own novel-in-progress (NIP) also features scientists as primary characters, so I hope that I can do a better job at exploring how their scientific concepts are confirmed and/or refuted by their personal behaviors.

Inspirations: the short stories of Jayne Anne Phillips

Twenty-five years ago I bought my first book of stories by Jayne Anne Phillips, because her work had been praised by my idol, Nadine Gordimer. And I was not disappointed: Phillips’ brief fiction pieces were drive-by shootings that left me on the ground afterwards trying to figure out exactly what had happened. This is how the story Lechery opens, told by a child prostitute:

“Though I have no money I must give myself what I need. Yes I know which lovers to call when the police have caught me peddling pictures, the store detectives twisting my wrists pull stockings out of my sleeves. And the butchers pummel the small of my back to dislodge their wrapped hocks; white bone and marble tendon exposed as the paper tears and they push me against the wall. They curse me, I call my lovers. I’m nearly fifteen, my lovers get older and older. I know which ones will look at me delightedly, pay my bail, take me home to warm whiskey and bed. I might stay with them all day; I might run as the doors of their big cars swing open. Even as I run I can hear them behind me, laughing.”

Her stories are composed of vivid vignettes like the paragraph above. There’s rarely any plot, rather we are immersed into the worlds of her narrators. Every time I write a paragraph I ask myself, how does this compare to one by Phillips?

She has turned her attention to novels for a long time now, but the longer works have never glowed for me like those early story collections. I’m hoping that someday we will get more of those glorious brief stories from her.

Inspirations: learning from David Lynch

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Whether you think the films of David Lynch have any merit or not, as a creative artist I am always fascinated by his willingness to just go out there into his own dream-realm, not caring whether his works make “logical” sense to anyone else. The narratives of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, for example, both start off as conventional noir thrillers, but eventually veer off onto utterly surreal tangents that no Hollywood studio scriptdoctor would ever have approved.

I would love to have the same courage to suddenly “take a wild left turn” in my novel and go into unexpected scenes that surprise both the reader and myself. I doubt that I’d ever take it to the bizarro Lynch extremes, but would still love to know that I could

…and of course I do have that freedom, if I only dared to try it.

Lynch has been very open about his own creative process, outlined in his recent little book Catching the Big Fish. He’s always credited his regular use of Transcendental Meditation as the key to opening the caverns of his unconscious.

He says that you just find “small fish” if you stick to the shallow waters, and so the only way to hook “big fish” ideas is to go diving way down into the deep ocean.

Although like Lynch I have a long-time meditation practice, I’ve never found it to be a direct source of creative imagery. I’m much more likely to jot down visions from late-night dreams, or to generate surreal ideas using word-association games.

So I’d love someday to have coffee in a diner with Mr. Lynch and grill him about exactly how specific examples of movie scenes arose from his TM technique (and ask if even he knows who the hell really killed Laura Palmer).

“Each paragraph is like a puzzle.”

The Sept 2011 edition of Poets & Writers has an interview with Julie Otsuka. Her latest novel took almost a decade to write, but the slow pace suited her:

“I really like the act of writing; it’s the same as painting in that I become engaged in the process of making stuff. What I love is the form and language. Each paragraph is like a puzzle.”

I’ve been pondering that quote – usually I consider each individual scene in my novel as a separate puzzle to be solved, with the characters as pieces. But Otsuka is going the next level down, where the words and sentences are the pieces in her Rubik’s Cube.

This in turn reminds me of the “word palette” technique used by many people (such as the poet David Biespiel as described in this interview) where you first collect a palette of random words and then grab a couple at a time and use them to stimulate new sentences.

So if I’m listening to a pop song while reading a newspaper article I might jot down random words from both sources, for example:

porthole, socket, lovesick, turtle, windmill, yearning, landmine, keening etc

Grabbing two words “turtle” and “landmine” might prompt me to come up with a line for my novel such as:

“On the beach at night we cannot tell if those are turtles buried in the sand, or landmines.”

I’m not saying it’s a great line, but this word-association exercise provoked a sentence from my unconscious that I would never have come up with otherwise.  So I love using these “word palette” techniques whenever I’m stuck in writing a dull scene and need a quick bolt from the Muse.

A Novel = A Game

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I’ve recently been reading Jane McGonigal’s terrific new book Reality is Broken, where she examines the positive “flow” experiences that individuals often have when they’re engaged in playing games. Then she goes further, to see how the attributes of successful games can be replicated in a real-world context. For example, a group of lazy roommates could become motivated to do their housecleaning tasks if they’re competing in a game such as ChoreWars.

I’ve always considered literature itself to be a type of Language/Imagination play, but McGonigal’s book clarifies the essential attributes of a great game, and now I’m interested in using her analysis to create my own “Write-a-Novel” game.

So, one way of adapting the elements she identified for my own purpose would be:

1) Establish the game’s Quest Goal: publish a brilliant, successful novel;

2) Give the Quest a positive real-world purpose: my novel will encourage empathy with beings who are “not exactly like us”;

3) Set clear Rules: no cliches allowed, etc;

4) Establish challenging Obstacles for player:  set one vivid vignette in every paragraph;

5) Give the player quick Feedback on their progress with rewards and penalties: send my excerpts out to magazines, and enjoy either the reward of publication or penalty of rejection;

6) Play with others: write a blog like this one and engage in literary discussions;

7) Enjoy the pleasures of play itself: savor the fun I can have with language and drama in my writing.

These are just my initial responses to the idea of literary games  – I will probably return to this topic again.

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