Some Thoughts on WriterBrain, First Rock (with a few decorations)

On another site, on which I’d written a long comment about the statement “ignorance is bliss” someone complimented my writing (always pleasant to hear) and thought my “story-writing brain” was completely back in service.   Which–though much improved–it’s not.  That’s not a venue in which to explain how many different components and levels a fiction writing brain uses, but this is…for anyone interested (if not, there will be pictures later.  NOT of the story-writing brain, either.)   What I use for writing nonfiction is part of what a fiction writing brain needs–the equivalent in math of (from my era) 4th grade arithmetic, all very clear, definable, and useful.  Basic grammar, syntax, basic logic.  What a fiction writing brain needs beyond that is more like vector calculus, where forces (and fields of forces) intersect and the cool stuff is how you can figure out what’s really going on in things like geological formations shifting, river and ocean currents interacting with winds and gravity and so on.

In writing short factual essays, or comments on others’ essays, I make straightforward logical (usually) arguments based on the facts in question.  Nothing is creative in the way fiction is.  We’re talking politics, which is real people in the real world, sometimes opinion, sometimes imputing motive, sharing facts and experiences individuals have, in fairly short and simple ways.  When  I don’t agree, I try to provide reasons that make sense, and use a plain straightforward style, sometimes more formal and sometimes more conversational, that readers will readily understand.

Writing fiction uses the same basic writing elements, but instead of being about persons, places, and behaviors familiar to all in the conversation, it adds a number of elements, some more obvious than others.  It’s not “real” in the sense of accurate portrayal of actual individuals (except in some historical fiction), events, places.  If it’s contemporary fiction, it’s closer to real, but still the characters, situations, and sometimes places are made up.  But many forms of fiction stray from accurate depiction of contemporary life in realistic locations.  These range from being set in former times–historical fiction, sometimes heavily researched and sometimes not–to imagined futures, imagined worlds other than this planet.  Every step away from nonfiction requires that writerbrain to do more work.  Even shoddily researched or thinly imagined, it’s much more complex than writing about some item in the news, or an actual event at your workplace or a fishing trip you took.  The writer’s brain must be able to hold two realities–both the world the writer lives in, and the one the writer writes about–at the same time, while ensuring the that imagined one contains all it needs to seem “real” to readers.  The longer the story the writer tells, the more challenges the writer’s brain faces.

Characters: the writer must imagine one or more invented people (non-humans count!) and include enough complexity in them that readers find them interesting (or they quit reading.)  Numerous devices are offered novice writers to help them make up characters, but they’re useful only when learning.  Like the character sheets for role-playing games, they’re usually superficial (hair color, eye color, favorite food, height, weight, main fear, etc)  and don’t offer the needed connection to a fiction book’s real engine, motivation, without more thought and development by the writer.   And the physical aspects– hair color, eye color, beauty/plainness, etc– are not what interest most readers, especially adults.  They want to know what kind of person the character is.

Here comes the vector calculus, because real people have multiple (and often competing) motivations.  They have desires and aversions, some stronger than others.  Which ones will align to become the motivation for any particular action?  They have history (unless, as in Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen, you start with the fetus and the rest of the book is the character’s life…which still leaves you with the motivations of the evil count, his dead wife, the orphanage staff, a beautiful woman related to a former Byzantine emperor, etc, etc, as young Anthony is born, dumped in the orphanage, and eventually ends up across an ocean or so…)   For protagonists and backing characters, the writer’s brain must hold not just a note-card or computer note of the stuff easy to forget, but a vivid image of what character a character has: whether it’s an honorable person warped by threats against his/her children, an honorable person who hasn’t yet been tested, a person warped from youth by some trauma…kind, cruel, casually unthinking, easily led or fiercely independent.  What kinds of mistakes come from what kind of background?  What kinds of trauma leave what kinds of scars?

Behind the motivational energy that pushes characters to act is the complex vector calculus of their histories, their entire package of traits, skills, education, ignorance, inabilities, every element pushing and pulling…and the writer’s brain has to hold that, *feel* that.   And feel it for all the major characters and those with whom they interact–because what ultimately happens is the result of everyone’s motivations and actions.  If the imagination is strong enough, the writer’s understanding of the characters accurate enough, even the writer cannot force them to do what they would not do.   And the writer brain must always hold that possibility and stop to ask “What WOULD this person do?”  (I’d planned for Esmay Suiza and Brun Meager to become friends right away…but no.  Neither one was ready to see the other’s reality. )  And then the writer’s brain has to figure out how to show enough of the complexity for readers to grasp the logic of the characters and their actions–what can be shown in action, and what in internal dialogue, and what in conversation (argument, fight, calm conversation) with other characters?   But not too much, in the case of my books, because too much psychological evidence is just as distorting as too much violence, sex, atmospheric description, cultural description.

As the actions develop during the course of the book, the writer’s brain must keep track of the flow…the pull of the various vectors, to be aware if it falters and leaves part of the book slack in the water…a ship becalmed.  Stories keep going.  They jump from character to character, place to place, subplot to subplot, but they must have what horse people call impulsion and others may call a current or a pull.  And if the story does have the larger transitions–changes in point of view character, large changes in location or time–these transitions must be made clear so readers are aware of the current that connects them to the rest.  In an article on Philip Roth and a new biography of him in last week’s The New Yorker, David Remnick said “Writing a long novel, carrying in your mind an extended imaginative text, is a feat of memory and concentration for any creative soul.  It is especially taxing as one ages.”  I agree, but it’s also the kind of intellectual work–varied and requiring doing new things–that can keep a brain working better if not pushed for speed or a type of work that the writer doesn’t want to do.  Energy does decline, but the desire to write need not.   And experience–both direct and secondhand from reading, internet research–all sources–offers additional understanding of people and new knowledge to play with in constructing the work.    (You can probably guess I was never fond of Roth’s work; I had Portnoy’s Complaint shoved at me in college and never got past the first chapter.  My loss, no doubt, but I found plenty of other books to admire and enjoy.)   The concussion did my writer-brain far more damage than age alone.  Roth quit writing in 2009 when he was 76.   I’m 76, and if I can finish one more publishable book, a book I think my readers will enjoy, I have more I’d like to do.  Stories and books both.

And now for the decorations:

  A view out the west door of the barn.

Texas Buckeye

Alfilaria (geranium family: winter annual)

  Missouri Evening Primrose, spring annual

Tradescantia, Spiderwort



11 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on WriterBrain, First Rock (with a few decorations)

  1. The flowers are lovely and the horses you starve are eating the grass in haste before you take it away. I do hope you continue to write – as hard as you now find it I think you do enjoy it.
    And the article is well written as always.

    Stay Safe and Stay Sane.

    Jonathan up here in New Hampshire.

  2. Non fiction writing is essentially 3 dimensional. Creative writing is infinitely dimensional – one dimension for each character, each place, any developing technology, and each local to national entity.

    1. Pence: The way I feel about it, it’s more like a complex piece of music, orchestral music. A composer can start on any note, a note situated (in Western music) in some key, and that one note can be played by any one instrument or group, or the entire orchestra…and end on any note played any instrument or combination. In a long composition (a big symphony, say) the music can transition from key to key, instruments to other instruments, including melodies, motifs, fragments reminiscent or foreshadowing other melodies in other movements. But for the composition to make sense to the ear, it must have an overall shape, and a level of complexity, that goes with that length. Simple melodies acquire harmonies, sometimes melodies interlock (in Borodin’s _The Steppes of Central Asia_, for instance, where I hear one as the landscape…the spaciousness, the shape of the land rising and falling, the skies overhead….and the other as the string of travelers moving across it. At any rate, the longer pieces give more “room”–time, measures, notes–to make richer and more complicated patterns of sound.

      Same with writing fiction. The same elements of fiction–character, plot, theme, etc.–and language are found in short stories, novellas, novels, and groups of books that form large entities. Some composers don’t “hear” big pieces, long pieces, of music, and others don’t write short ones. Writers are the same way. But in the long forms (which is where I’m most comfortable) there’s time to build layers of characterization and plot, to choose which will move when. I remember running an analysis of my own first book and finding (to my own surprise) that it has at least seven layers. Plus of course all those characters that interact and create opportunities for the main character to reveal herself. As with music, where there should be no extraneous note, in a good work of fiction there should be nothing that does not contribute to the whole.

      This doesn’t mean that “spare” writing is always good or that characters should be all one thing inside…just as I revel in the lush passages of Bruch’s 1st violin concerto with its fiendishly complex violin parts for the soloist, so I enjoy the same qualities in some writers’ slower paced handling of a scene. Not all stories are the same, or need to be, in terms of writing style, how a given element is handled. Fashions come and go among readers; the writer is free to ignore them if willing to accept losing some potential readers. The writer can choose to have the main melody carried now by a cello, now by the brass, then by all the strings, then woodwinds, if desired. But the composer must have the whole thing in mind–if not from the beginning, then by the time it’s handed to an orchestra to play. It must have a unity of some sort…without being just a repetition of the same thing for a half hour. So in a book that’s going to take a reader hours to read, it must have a unity that satisfies the reader’s desire in reading it…whatever kind of book it is. If it’s a mystery, the mystery offered must be solved. If it’s a thriller, it must contain “thrills” without killing everyone the reader cares about. And it must not be too hard to follow…because readers, as they go co-create the book in their heads, and if they get too confused they quit reading and pick something else. (Here I confess that I never finished either Moby Dick or War and Peace. I did finish Anthony Adverse, which is as long.) With music, it must be coherent enough that musicians can play it expressively…it’s not enough to just hit the right notes at the right time at the right loudness and for the right duration. If you’ve ever heard someone play music with perfect accuracy but no feeling…when imagine a reader who can read every word (and define it) but those words not lighting up their imagination with mentally visualized scenes and mentally imagined sounds.

  3. Thank you for the amazing explanation of how fiction and non-fiction are different. Now I know why I haven’t ever been pleased with any fiction I ever attempted to write. From childhood I was encouraged to write factual reports rather than fiction. In high school, they allowed us to select our own preference for English classes and I took journalism and public speaking where the concentration was on factual reporting and I little literature and no creative writing. In college I majored in biology and chemistry and only the required English courses and didn’t do well with creative writing at all. I remember my senior year in college my English class was called “Writing for publication” and the instructor was perfectly happy to let me continue to write factual report type things instead of encouraging me to attempt to develop the ability to write fiction. Apparently allowing my imagination to run free and develop characters with their own motivations is a bit beyond me. But I love reading fiction. My first ‘big books’ was a set of eight of the 14 Oz books by L.Frank Baum that my parents gave me for my eighth birthday. Thank you for sharing your skill and talent, you have greatly enriched my life.

    1. Leslie: I started writing very early (and badly!) School primarily wanted “reports” of some kind, and by college I was avoiding English classes that weren’t required. But I read widely, and characters and bits of action kept showing up in my head so I tried to write them. I did well in English classes, but hated dissecting fiction into what I saw as artificial categories (I was probably wrong about that, but I wanted to *read* the fiction, soak in the Story, and react to them in my own way.) I could do it, and got through freshman English that way in college, but the creative writing class was all about literary contemporary fiction, and attracted earnest young artistes who thought having a plot meant not having anything but action. (Action was very out.) I wouldn’t say that you lack the ability to write fiction, but if you haven’t exercised those mental muscles, it’d be a strain at first. If you want to try again (since you say your attempts haven’t satisfied you) we can talk about possible approaches that might help.

  4. Looking back on my life, I can see where writing was in my blood at an early-ish age. I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, but in high school, I joined the yearbook staff and had a blast. In college, I majored in Journalism & Tech Comm while an editor of the university newspaper. And now, after more than 30 years as a Tech Writer, I find myself wanting to write fiction. I find most of my stories tend to be short-ish and concise, just like my tech writing was required to be. Thank you so much for explaining how the writer’s brain works. As I read your post, I could “see” what I need to do to make my characters more real.

    1. Jae: So glad you found those posts useful. And I’d think, if you were happy as a tech writer, you would naturally tend towards shorter form fiction. But if ever get bitten by a book that wants to be written–just go for it.

  5. As of 11 April my Mo. evening primroses were still asking for coffee. They’re well up now but they won’t bloom til next month. (I’m in NW AR, they’re native here)

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