Tuesday, June 24, 2014

China Writing Inventory


As of Sunday morning, I am back in the US after sixteen days in China. The visit inspired a myriad of thoughts around family, high school, cultural differences, racism/racial profiling, and the importance of traffic regulations.

I may explore some of these topics in later posts, but today I'm taking inventory of my creative output during the trip. Spoiler: there was a lot.

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In my sixteen days, I used up 33 sheets (=66 pages) in the orange notebook--the space between the two sticky notes, pictured above. That is about a third of the notebook. It averages to about two sheets, or four pages, per day.

What did I write on those pages?

First, I wrote a lot of poetry. I set myself a challenge to write a poem every day or every two days, and I found that it's actually easier to do something daily than to skip a day. It becomes habit, automatic. I haven't kept this up since I returned, because I've been working on other projects, but writing that much poetry in a short amount of time was a challenge I'll consider repeating.

I wanted to write more substantial poems than I have traditionally, so the poems run longer. Theodora Goss's post about writing poetry happened to drop in the middle of the trip, and when I read her admonishment that you shouldn't start by writing freeverse, I took that as a challenge to explore different forms. I ended up writing two sonnets, one Petrarchan and one Shakespearean, and a new sonnet, no matter how bad, is more of an accomplishment than another bad freeverse poem.

In total, I wrote fifteen poems. Some were, indeed, awful freeverse poems. Others I kind of like, and after polishing some more will post on this site. (By the way, I'm in the process of updating this site as promised, and have created new Novels and Short Works pages for your perusal.)

So much for poetry. The bulk of the pages I wrote hosted prose-related planning--no actual prose, because in the early days I got stuck when I tried doing prose and so I ended up making a bunch of mind maps and other such things.

I intended, from the start of the trip, to plan out or brainstorm many stories. My tendency to do long projects means that vast tracks of my mental space remain unmapped, and I have a lot of loose ends hanging--stories with a handful of characters and a vague idea of a world or conflict.

In total, I did work in eleven worlds, some including multiple stories. As I went on through the trip, some practices began to emerge from the work. Here are some of the forms of work I did on stories:

  • a mind map to get out all my preexisting thoughts, characters, etc.
  • a mind map to identify topics of research
  • story bones noting background (initial conditions), inciting incidents, main conflicts, climax, resolution, and denouement (I saved this one for stories that are already pretty far along)
  • story atmosphere including a half-page mindmap on what kind of "feel" I want the story to have, with the rest of the page devoted to synthesizing the nodes generated
  • family trees
  • straight-up imperative worldbuilding and plotting (this is how some structure works in this story)
  • character studies/character ensemble studies


I didn't do every single one of these for every single story, of course. For many I just did a mindmap, or a mindmap and one other thing. But for my major stories, the ones you'll find on the Novels page, I would do more, with the mindmap/story bones/atmosphere/character-oriented thing combination yielding a solid grasp on what kind of work I want, eventually, to produce.

Working on this many stories over such a short time gave me a broader, work-spanning perspective I rarely get to see (because, as I mentioned, usually I'm bogged down in the middle of one long piece). I noticed some trends: my typical protagonist is young, innocent/idealistic, and powerful; I'm moving toward more stories set on the American continent; and I really like alternate history.

The broader perspective was useful in another way, which may be more subjective: it made me more optimistic about my writing future, because it proved that my mental landscape doesn't just end at the borders of my current work. Also, a lot of the stories I plotted out are novella-length and operate over a short, continuous time frame with one main character. I hope I'll be able to devote more mental space toward higher-quality writing craft on these simpler stories than I have done for past works.

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The rest of the notebook pages I filled up with more personal thinking-on-paper: mindmaps for who I want to become in the future, for what my strengths/weaknesses are, that kind of thing. Unlike with my creative work, the content of these musings probably won't show up here (though, who knows? I overshare online), but I still recommend doing such self-centered thinking. You are important.

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What allowed me to achieve this level of productivity?

First, I had loads of free time. When your relatives don't need your help with chores, which is all the time because they think you'll do it wrong, you're left to do your own thing.

Second, I only rarely had Wi-Fi and when I did, Google-based sites and Facebook weren't available. (I did develop an attachment to Hacker News, but I won't lament that too much because the articles are often thought-provoking.) Thus, my usual distractions were nullified.

Third, I kept a log of the trip in my small notebook. If the box for "writing" or "poem" was unfilled, then the whitespace bothered me and I wrote, story-related or verse, so I could fill the box.

Fourth, in the middle of the first week I made a list of the stories I wanted to work on, so if I ever ran out of ideas for what to do next, I could check the list. It did lead to some choice paralysis, but having the list meant that I didn't have to worry about forgetting which other stories I wanted to hit.

These points are listed in order of importance. Free time was definitely the key factor.

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Is this level of output sustainable? I haven't kept it up since coming back, because things like mindmapping and poetry-writing don't scale very well. Instead, I'm working on longer-term projects, such as writing Ubermadchen, because that requires continuity and dedicated time. Scattershot early-stage planning is something to do when you're in a distractible mood, as I was on a vacation where we traveled every few days (side note: taking the train >> driving).

Some may see as implicit in that statement the assumption that long-term, words-of-story-on-page writing is superior to big-picture planning and idea exploration. That's not quite what I mean, though: I'm glad that I got this work done, and I did need a break from the writing trenches to strategize.

If a story is a vector, then the strategizing is the direction while the words are the magnitude in that direction. You need both parts.

As for the increased poetry output: we shall see.

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