Some Thoughts on WriterBrain, Second Rock

Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote some of my favorite books, also wrote essays I’ve found very useful, especially her writing on the doctrine of the Trinity and its relation to creative writing and the kinds of problems that result from what she called “Scalene Trinities.”  For the non-Christians (which I wasn’t when I first read this) it’s not necessary to accede to any Christian theology to grasp that it makes sense of certain problems in books you’ve read (or quit reading) and plays & movies that don’t work.   Sayers felt that all creators have to have three different abilities in order to create something that works:  an Idea, some Energy, and a connection between the person and the Idea that in some sense is spiritual…it means something to you.  You can’t just look at reviews of last year’s books, and decide to write a book sure to grab the market by combining column A and column B, when you don’t care, at any depth about A or B.

So the Idea is the creative urge that crystallizes into something definite (but not always immediately definite, in full, to the writer.)  For me, the Idea starts with a character, usually visualized in my head already definite in age, appearance, and “feel.”  Paks was nothing like Ofelia; neither was like Heris or Lou or Ky Vatta.   Immediately the character tells me/shows me that they’re in some kind of mess.  The general setting is there too.  Character in setting both physical and personal.  It may not be the start of the book (Paks wasn’t in Three Firs when she first showed up; Lou wasn’t in that psychiatrist’s office, but in his apartment.)  But they’re a character that wakes my interest…a character I want to know more about.  The characters–all of them–have multiple layers already, motivations of all sorts growing out of their basic selves combined with their individual histories, and where they are already has a feel, both physical and social.  Books have been written without a strong Idea, and they show it…by starting and out continuing as scattered bits of action, characters that don’t do anything because they don’t have any purpose.  I’ve started a few books that I thought had an Idea (but didn’t) and they’ve all died before 50 pages.

Waking my interest pulls up the writing skillset and my own history–my experience of people, places, things, from the basic sensory (smells, tastes, textures) to memories more concrete or more abstract to conflicts won, lost, unresolved.  Soon after the character/setting/situation show up, I’m starting to write a little, feeling my way to see if this Idea is really connecting for me.  I’m now actively pushing it around like a kid with a pile of blocks, or a musician messing around on a piano.

And that’s what Sayers called the Energy of creation…the actual acts it’s going to take to bring the Idea into existence.  It’s more than just sitting here and typing–it’s thinking, making the connections, bringing the perception of what the story should be into the reality of what it is on paper, how it works with a reader, doing research, looking back and ahead at the same time.   It’s looking at a chapter and being able to see that this paragraph *here* doesn’t belong here but five paragraphs earlier, so it makes clearer the motivation of a tertiary character with a walk-on part…but a walk-on part that can connect in another character’s mind to get that character to challenge the protagonist exactly as the protagonist needs at this point…so the protag walks off the necessary cliff and has to climb up the other side.  It’s knowing that you need a particular sound you’ve never heard that the characters are seeing…and then there it is, in a weird looking little Twitter video clip…and because you were open to noticing it, there it is, and. It’s all the work it takes…and in that work are physical and mental energy, memory, learning, reasoning, intuition, and everything else that plays into it.

A writer who’s sick long enough to lose energy, who’s had injuries that require long recovery, who can no longer (or not for a time) concentrate, think clearly, keep attention focused on the ‘pull’ of the plot, the shape of the story…will not make good progress.  Both physical and mental limitations limit the energy available for the task and can make it impossible.  (It’s a bigger task the longer the work because there’s more “stuff” in there to remember and make use of.)  The deep logic of the setting (what kind of place it is) and characters (what kind of people they are–how they’ve acted before and why) begins to fray and thus–since these are both foundational to the story–the story thins.  Stuff happens–it’s not clear why.  People say and do things without reference to their real character.    Worst case,  injury or illness or some other catastrophe can cut the connection between the writer and the original Idea.

The third side of the triangle (which should be more equilateral than scalene (those leaning triangles, unbalanced) is  the Spirit…the connection of the writer to the Idea through the work.  When someone’s in the first stages of a project, before they’re really committed, what they’re feeling around for is the internal CLUNK that comes when the Idea and writer/composer/artist fully connect, when something deep inside the creator and the work have been shown, through messing about with the materials, to be part of each other.   If you don’t have, or lose,  that connection, the original Idea is not manifested in the work and in worst cases it’s flat, blah, without flavor, without any sense of purpose or even connection to the writer…it’s like throwing words into a computer that knows some basic grammar and has a very simple plotline program.   The best example I can think of offhand is the later books in the Black Stallion series, written by hirelings in the syndicate who clearly had no connection to horses, but were mining details from other horse books.  The spirit of The Black, strong in the first book and still there for a couple more, disappeared when all that mattered was getting that name in the title.   They were full of action (horse races, bad guys doing this, good guys doing that) and certainly the writers had energy enough to put that many words on that many pages, but…it was busywork.

Series books and multi-volume books can be written where the writer’s connection to the Idea remains strong.  In my own field I’d say C.J. Cherryh’s “Foreigner” series is fully alive throughout.    Her several-book groups are the same: she always has a firm connection with whichever Idea she had up front.  Tanya Huff’s Confederation novels about Torin Kerr and her three additional “Peace” books with Kerr are absolutely alive and connected to their Idea.  The stronger the writer–in skills, in energy, in conceptual ability, in concentration–the larger the work that can hold together.  But we are all mortal, and we all age (which eventually lowers energy levels) and we are all subject to random events, from COVID-19 to concussions.

And it’s almost midnight and my energy for this day has run out completely.  And I have the awful feeling I left my camera in the barn.

11 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on WriterBrain, Second Rock

  1. Hi – hope you are still safe and sane. Very good article. Your reference to Ms. Sayers and Ms. Cherryh strike home – read the best and those two are definitely the best. I have not read Torin Kerr but will look at her books now. I have found many good books from the mention by authors I have been reading. I hope that you are not writing that your energy has left the building and you no longer have what you need to write. Ever since I found your first effort – Sheepfarmer’s Daughter – at a local bookstore that has long disappeared I have sought out your works and have enjoyed them ever since. In many ways I am thankful that I have an opportunity to thank a living author for both her own work and for the work of the many deceased authors I can no longer thank. So take your time, and if you fell you should retire then that’s all right too. I feel you have a body of work to be proud of. And enjoy the spring and the horses.

    Jonathan up here in New Hampshire

    1. Jonathan I had problems in multiple areas, brain-wise and thus in writing. At first I simply had no ideas. Then I had vague sort of shapes in fog. So the Idea engine was knocked out for awhile…and also the logic function in reading…I could not read a paragraph and grasp “the main idea” or how supporting ideas supported it. Did I mention it was scary? It was scary. That gradually resolved. The Energy engine was kaput for sure for awhile; I could manage only the simplest tasks (and writing isn’t) for short periods. The flop down and stare at the ceiling again and fall asleep. Energy gradually came back, and with it attention span, focus, all the things you need Energy for. But it’s not all the way back. I remember what writing was like before the first of the two most recent brain injuries. It’s up to where I can write again, and the two first-readers agree that it’s come to life, but we have to find out if I can sustain that for the length of the thing. I know I can write a short “silly” piece of fiction (I did a short story for an anthology of western-themed SF with aliens. It sold; the perceptive editor pointed out a section that needed a change and *bingo* a good change popped into my head. Very encouraging. It’s not a *great* story, but it’s good, workmanlike, and fun.) The thing is, even at my best most short work took much longer, for a given word length, than that much of a long work.

      Even though I’m not up to 100% of what I was (and I don’t know how close to 100% you can get at my age…not physically, and the brain is, after all, a physical organ.) But even so…all the component parts appear to be functioning, just with little hitches here and there. There are no big plot-bombs opening up new vistas (yet) but there have been the sudden appearance of “cool bits of business.”) One happened today. A person of ill intent threw something away, and it was found, and…what a cool object *that* was (not a nice cool object but a suitable thing for that person to try to plant in the shrubbery.) This is very encouraging. And it feels now that the story is “taking” me…which is how it always felt before. I hope this is the last full revision that I’m working on, but if not…I’ll keep at it until it all feels right.

  2. Fingers crossed for you and the “clunk.” It’s such a large part of who you are.

    Realized today I can’t yet do day job and write, and it’s frustrating. Still too many limitations and there’s a finite number of decisions I can make in a day / sequence of days. So I push and overheat and try to cultivate patience. The pandemic isn’t helping at all, either. Your recovery gives me hope.

    1. No, the pandemic doesn’t help a bit, nor does (in our country) the persistent nastiness of the adherents of the former president. I believe you’ll get back to writing, but maybe not with a day job. We have less energy as we get older.

  3. I didn’t know that the Black Stallion series was a syndicate, it does explain why there are some glaring contradictions in continuity and logic. Hopefully your healing will continue and the book will decide to develop more impulsion but not so much that you don’t have time and energy to focus on other things that are important like your horses, family, and land.

    1. Stratemeyer Syndicate–it ran a lot of the series books that were popular when I was a kid and before: the Nancy Drew books, the Bobbsey Twin books, Hardy Boys, Rover Boys, etc….they’d get one writer to start a new series, usually under a pseudonym they owned, and then if they thought that writer was getting too independent they’d assign the series to someone else (the writers had to forfeit their copyright.) Nancy Drew had one writer quite a long time and girls liked that one but the guy in charge thought he knew better what girls *should* like (sound familiar??). The first 2-3 Black Stallion books had a continuity, and a feel that I now think means Walter Farley wrote them, but about the time of The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt things were going downhill, and The Black Stallion and the Girl was…ick.

  4. It has been too long now since I read the original Paks books, but as I read about your struggles to recover I keep imagining you needing to rest in Master Oakhallow’s preserve, with the faint hum of bees in the background. So many of the details have gone fuzzy for me now, but the sense of this scene in my imagination, as with so many others that you painted, is as strong as ever.

    1. I would absolutely like to spend a week with Master Oakhallow’s Grove. Or of course in the Elvenhome in Lyonya, though I fear it might withdraw in distaste from my too-modern brain rather than grow it better.

    1. Leslie: Yes, I watch Footluce Eventing, also Life on the Left Rein, EMD Eventing (all part of the Virtual Eventing team last year) so I did indeed see Lucy’s horse “fail” at racing a racehorse. Poor Laragh Lee–that mare loves to take off and in her head she’s the fastest. I could tell she was annoyed/dismayed to find the TB sailing off with apparently little effort. Years back I’d have been floating 10 feet off the ground at the chance to ride on the Newmarket gallops. Now I know better than to try that…I’m just not the rider I used to be. I’ve ridden a few TBs fast–it’s *different*. I’ve also been watching jumping racing this year–found it by accident–so I got to see both the Cheltenham Gold Cup (and other races that week) and the English Grand National. My memory of Dick Francis’s mysteries that involved steeplechases is now informed by seeing some. I also watch Holly Lenahan’s channel–the one Meg visited last year, before Holly left for Australia for six months. Holly’s mare Welbeck just had a foal. Holly’s now a vet (qualified last year). And every once in awhile I look at Blob the Cob just to go back in its history and see Nero (the Dark Emperor) levitate over jumps like horses near twice his size.

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