Divine Madness

Years ago a very weird thing happened.  Because of it I wrote Sword And Blood.  (And have the two planned sequels outlined safely in notes, with key scenes in longhand.)

First of all let me say that when I started out writing, I didn’t outline anything.  I tried outlining a novel, because I’d read one should, but then I didn’t want to write the novel.  My subconscious thought it was done and simply wouldn’t budge.

So I learned not to outline.  Just write it.  However I was young and novels are complex things.  I’d start out with an idea of where it started and where it ended, but what happened in the middle often went “wrong.”  As in, I was incapable of imagining to the depth or realism or detail needed and took the easy way out – coped out, in other words.  And then it didn’t feel right, and I either ditched the novel or spent two months trying to back up to where it had gone wrong.  It made the whole writing process difficult and protracted.

And then I got ill while trying to write a book.  To make things easier, I outlined it at a very high level, then did ten chapters at a time at a detailed level.  This time it worked.  For about ten years, I became a plotter and outliner.  Heck, I used to outline short stories.

Then strangely my old complaint came back.  I couldn’t outline.  If I outlined, I betrayed the story.  I can’t fully explain it, but when I outlined, I wrote in the “easier” option.  Easier to see and easier to endure.  Carefully outlined novels became somehow shallower, not as deep.

Writing some scenes is like falling on your sword.  You see the metal there, you know it’s going to hurt like a bugger before it does its job.  And you do it… once.  Now imagine our Roman who fell onto his sword magically reanimated and healed and doing it again… on purpose.  I doubt anyone could.

So when I outlined I flinched from the painful scenes and instead of falling on my sword, I gave myself practice cuts on my skin.  And then – because with me an outline has that effect – when I wrote it, I stayed at that level.

And then I broke.  This was now almost five years ago, also known as the year when I homeschooled and wrote six books.  Oh, yeah, and attended a bunch of cons.  I remember at a con in March telling someone I’d just finished my second book of the year, and having her look at me like I was nuts.

Round about June (four books) I realized I couldn’t turn my mind off.  I know this sounds silly.  I know you’re going “Why would you want to turn your mind off?”  Because I’ve found “turning off” as in, spending a day or two reading and absorbing other people’s ideas, or going for a walk and enjoying the mere sensory experience, or any of a half dozen similar things are needed for me to keep writing without getting ill or entering a sort of total, deadly silence.  (Though I’m finding having an office and working on different stuff on the weekend is enough to provide a break.  But I’m not doing six books OR homeschooling either — okay, it might turn into six books, but they’re not six books under contract and to specs.  It’s different.)

Normally the surefire way to turn off my mind is to go to Denver overnight, go for a walk by the duck lake, or hit the museums or the zoo.  Being away from home/work is enough.

But five (almost) years ago I couldn’t do it.  Going away helped… for a week.  And then I wanted a vacation again.  Because the mind never fully went off track on the current novel.

That’s when I found my escape…  Which involved doing … more.  That is, it involved my starting art classes. While I was concentrating on that, I couldn’t think of writing.  More, it was a different mode of thinking: all tactile and visual, not words.

And it was while coming out of an art class that I got all three (to be honest six, as there’s three sequels with a character yet unborn in the first three.) books… the best explanation is “downloaded” into my mind, completed.  Even the wording was there for key scenes.  (Mind you, it’s been a while, so in writing the second and third, I’ve found I’ve lost stuff, and “getting it right” involves a tuning process, much like turning a radio dial.  I know when it’s “right.”)

That it was vampires didn’t surprise me.  I run to horror when I’m near snapping.  That it was that detailed, that complete, and… well… like it had come from someone else’s head, did shock me.

Around that time I was talking to Walt Boyes and he recommended the Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral mind.

While I think the man has something there, I think his thesis is fundamentally wrong.  We always like to think we invented things over our ancestors, but thinking we invented consciousness is really one step beyond the pale.

I think what he’s forgetting is what any anthropologist or literature critic would take into account.  What he’s using to evaluate a whole culture is the output of a few people – shammans, playwrights (in Greece) or bards, all of which claimed divine inspiration.  The thing is, we have no way of knowing if they believed in what they claimed, or if this was their way of gaining credibility with their tribesmen.  Beyond that, we don’t know if they were typical, or if they were as different as authors are today.

Look, it’s a secret we don’t tell everyone, but the thing is that there are very few writers whose story doesn’t escape them in ways that baffle non- writers.  I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t sometimes say something like “And then the story twisted” or “The character just wouldn’t die” (or live.  Even when you try to save her.)  Get a few writers who trust each other together, and there it comes.  Mode of speaking?  Maybe.  From my experience, though, it’s sometimes the only way to describe what we go through.

That these incidences of experiencing what seems like someone else/something else in your mind tend to happen when we’re tired/frazzled/on our last brain cell is probably significant.  Julian Haynes description might even have something to do with what happens in our minds.  (Though I doubt most of us think it’s gods or even characters dictating.  We just talk about our novels like they have minds of their own, like this “Damn thing wouldn’t be written third person!”)

In my more grandiose times, I imagine there’s something in fiction writers’ brains that is designed to communicate with/catch communication from parallel universes.  But that’s probably because I am a fiction writer.  In my everyday thinking, I assume those novels that show up fully formed are in fact hatched by our subconscious.  Or at least mine.

Whatever the truth, I’ve found that after Sword and Blood, the novels refuse to be outlined.  And are deeper and stronger without being outlined before – not even a vague outline, though I know in my mind how they’re going to end, all along.  It’s the way there that can feel like someone else drew the map.

It is very hard for me to give myself over to this sort of shamanistic trance, this divine madness.  I’m a rational woman.  I’m more than a little bit of a control freak.  And I’m fairly sure I have a consciousness.

If my job were anything else at all, I’d just claim that this never happened.  I’d scoff at people talking about it. And I would SERIOUSLY doubt the stuff written this way is better.

But I am a writer.  And the divine madness seems to work.  And so, I force the rational woman to close her eyes – or, as seems to work better, to be short on slep and beset with other work – and then… I jump in.  And I let the muses guide me.

36 thoughts on “Divine Madness

  1. This is the intersection of three of my pet theories. Well, “theory” is far too generous, since they’re based only on my limited experience and some layman’s reading of psychology research. Call them ideas. But they make sense to me.

    Idea 1: My brain seems to do better under moderate stress or adversity. In high school I once won a math competition while suffering from a 101 degree fever. The next day, I wasn’t sure how I had ever solved some of those problems; but at the time, they were easy. Under moderate stress, I seem to notice connections that I otherwise miss.

    Idea 2: Mental work is like stoking a furnace. The more you do (up to a point), the more you CAN do. I get these frenzied, almost manic periods where the ideas come faster than I can act upon them. And usually they come in multiple fields at once: programming and writing and music and math all jumbled together.

    (Note that both Idea 1 and Idea 2 can be carried too far, and can become self destructive.)

    Idea 3: I once heard a psychologist discuss plasticity in our personalities, the idea that we can temporarily be a little bit someone else. She said this was a core element in empathy, our ability to see the world from another person’s point of view. She further said that writers and artists tended to have a little more plasticity, and hence their ability to create from other points of view.

    So it would make sense to me that there is a certain creative power in kicking your brain into high gear, adding a little stress to provide focus, and letting your sense of viewpoint for characters guide you.

    Ironically, I write that after just producing my first novel outline ever. It’s a pretty broad outline — just one or two sentences for each of five acts — but it gives me an “aim point” as I write. This novel (well, to be precise, this series) is the first thing I’ve ever started without a character in mind. It started with a setting, and a back story to explain that setting; and then I laid out the broad outline for the first book. And when that was done, a character walked up to me and said, “Hey! You’re telling my story!”

  2. The problem with Idea 3 is that I’ve never met a pyschologist or a pyschatrist that was playing with a full deck. I always figured that’s why they went into the field in the first place, to either be able to explain that they aren’t really crazy and/or prove that everyone else is as crazy as they are.

  3. It’s interesting that the word “genius” originially meant a “spirit” that influenced/aided a person.

  4. I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t sometimes say something like “And then the story twisted” or “The character just wouldn’t die” (or live. Even when you try to save her.)

    In one of the Lensman books, one of the main characters is undercover as an author, and he attended “writers’ teas,” where he cursed his characters for not cooperating with him. I had always thought that, since his method of operation was to badger people for interviews and stick his nose in everywhere, that he meant the people he was interviewing were not cooperating. It wasn’t until several years later that I learned that writers have incidences where it seems like their characters take the story a run away with it. I’ll probably never understand that, but it is certainly fascinating.

    1. Oh yeah! Do they ever take off and run. I had a minor character in a fan-fic sort of thing decide that no, he was not going to put up with that, thank you, and he became a catalyst for 1) a set of 15 short stories, 2) a complete back story that changed the universe into something much more original, and 3) married the main character! Oh, and forced me to rewrite Earth’s history starting in 1860. None of which was planned by the hapless author, I might add.

      Jan Karon said that she couldn’t get the Father Tim/ Mitford books to come into being until a large dog and a young boy showed up in her imagination, unannounced and uninvited. Only then did she have something to start writing, and the rest is two series plus a cookbook.

  5. I’ve had the experience of a story “writing itself” as if I’m taking dictation — but more often I’ve had to grind through the sucker with sheer intellectual brute force.

    The Muse is a great lay, but her sister The Outline never flakes out on you.

    1. Uh. The outline does. Or has been doing for me. She cheapens out. Let me tell you, though, that this is one of those things. Even five years ago I’d have agreed with you wholeheartedly. It’s just that writing is like a fatal illness where your body gets used to a treatment and it stops working. So you have to keep changing things on it. Right now I have to trust the fragging muse. And it’s not something I like doing. Ah! I shall put up The Muses Darling in the free short I forgot to put up yesterday!

    2. I’ve ground through things with brute force — without an Outline. 🙂 (Thus far, the Outline is worse than the Muse. She flits off and doesn’t leave me with viable word-count.)

  6. I’m working on my first novel-length work. It started out as a “twilight zonish” short-story with what I thought was a profound twist, but an author friend convinced me to take the plunge. I wrote the first three chapters with nothing more than a top-down sketch of the immediate setting and a list of names for the members of the combat team involved.

    After three chapters, I realized that the supporting material (the why’s of what was happening) had taken on a life of their own and I was having trouble keeping them straight in my poor, non-flash memory-capable bio-noggin. Then I realized the society I was invading was simply too much fun to just talk about it in cursory detail, so I dived right in with an outline and was rewarded with details and sub-stories I didn’t know existed back when that first short-story twist occurred to me. Now I’m fighting what a game developer would call “feature creep”, in that I have to keep a lid on all the “super cool, awesome, someones-got-to-read-this” fun stuff I want to put in to avoid overloading the potential reader. After all, “Dune” has already been written 🙂

    The use of an outline has allowed me to zero in on the details I want to breath life into while staying absolutely consistent across three major story arcs (four if you include the Big Bad Guy). Consistency, at least to this sci-fi consumer, is paramount. You cannot create a set of rules for your universe and then disregard them to overcome conflict, right?

    As well as a completely informal outline, I went to 5″x8″ index cards, one per chapter. There’s a big, Sharpie-created title on each one, but there’s ample room underneath to add notes and reminders. Those index cards are up on that cork board in front of me and have provided more than a couple of linked inspiration from one portion of the story to another.

    Honestly, while I had fun doing the first three chapters just writing, I found myself circling back on the story, oroborus-style, constantly changing things to sync with something I’d just written. I imagine trying to do a whole work like that would be full of holes easily spotted.

  7. The thing I have that pulls bits out of nowhere for creative writing efforts seems to me to be very similar to what gives me stuff out of nowhere for other types of thinking.

    A lot of my other jumps are in areas which can be analyzed using linear thinking, like math or physics. In these cases, I’ve often found that I have the information to reverse engineer a train of reasoning. I am reasonably sure that these are simply intuition. I don’t entirely rule out divine inspiration, but I’m arrogant and fanatic enough as it is without letting myself assume that.

    I figure that creative writing leaps are simply intuition that is more difficult to reverse engineer because of depending on feeling and subjective measures of fitness. Also a confounding factor is that different people may have developed intuition in different areas to different degrees.

  8. This is me. I live with characters who refuse to tell me anything until I’ve done enough research to suit them (Vlad is a right bastard for this), who change their minds, and mostly operate on need-to-know (I don’t).

    My “outlines” such as they are consist of notes that keep track of things I need to refer back to (like who is where when the supporting characters are scattered across the bloody landscape), sketch biographies, key dates I have to watch for, and – for the ConVent books – who dies, and how.

    The rest? Well, there’s a reason I wrote the Extreme Pantser’s Guide posts over at Mad Genius Club (www.madgeniusclub.com). My subconscious knows what’s going on a whole lot better than I do.

    We won’t go into how “interesting” it is to find out which remnant byzantine nobility was hanging around Rome in 1477…

  9. As you know, I work in Scrivener. It works for me — so far — because it allows me to let my alleged mind to work the way it works.

    I can outline a story to death and it will always go off the rails. And then where do the unrelated fragments go? I have the world’s worst memory, and it would make me insane — barking at the moon, Ophelia from Shaillot, Marty Feldman-plays-the-Mad-Hatter nutzo — to lose a story because I couldn’t get it written down fast enough.

    But my mind works like a magpie. Or a chipmunk. Or a hamster who’s lost his wheel. Run like hell here. Hop-pop-jump over there. Run like hell there for awhile. Then further along… and so-on.

    So I can do the metaphorical 3×5 index card thing by scribbling down the disjointed bits that come into my mind all seemingly unbidden, and then connect the dots later.

    I can’t exactly say it works, because — check it out — thirty (hyperbole) novels, none finished — but still. It feels comfortable.

    1. What I do, in rewrite at least, is porcupine my desk with postit notes. “Don’t forget x in chapter y” Witchfinder will need a lot of this because it went off rails chapter four, I think. :/

      1. This is where the big bulletin board helped. I had a regular-sized (2’x3′) filled with standard index cards, but it wasn’t enough and, at 42, the ol’ peepers ain’t what they used to be. I commandeered (can you commendeer something from yourself…yes…if one half of your brain is at war with another) the workbench in the garage, took all the tools off the wall, cleaned everything off the bench except writing-related schtuff, and put up the big board with 5×8 cards for chapters. It has helped immensely, though my woodworking has suffered 🙂

        1. Okay, anyone in Colorado, within driving distance of the Springs, Re-store has 5×4 corkboards for $25 and 6×5 for $35
          Yeah, I bought two for the new office…

          1. Awesomesauce. I’m walling in the area I’m currently writing in so that I’ll have a 10×12, heated/cooled, vented (for the odd pipe or two), and with enough wall space for another corkboard and some floor to ceiling built in shelving. No rugrats allowed. Spouses…maybe.

      2. I have ten cats. Who LOVE to play with Mom’s bulletin board. Lord knows what they’d get into with Post-It notes.

        1. I was going to ask if anyone had thought of using an electronic version of Post-Its, but then I remembered your first comment, so I went and looked at the documentation for Scrivener, and apparently it can do that.

          Glad I looked before making myself look like an idiot.


        1. well… the secondary characters were supposed to be a lot quieter, and YES, that includes Gabriel. He wasn’t supposed to have a story line AT ALL. AND we were supposed to have at least two more rescues of coming-of-age witches. SIGH.

            1. Gabriel AND Caroline AND the dowager AND apparently the guys’ father AND… well… I think rescue will play a great part in the denouement. After the fight-through-hell. And I’m still not sure about Gabriel’s… er… friend.

              1. That, my dear, is because Witchfinder is full of characters that have ‘real’ and interesting lives in their own right. It is a compliment to the author that her characters have spark to the reader. But I can see how this can wreak havoc on the story intended.

                I had wondered at Gabriel, and figured that he formed of parallel and contrast to Sheraphim. A buddy picture meets the classic adventure romance. I will admit that I have found a desire to know far more about both Caroline and the dowager, particularly now that they are in Fairyland.

                Possibly some of it just, sadly, needs to be paired for the sake of the initial story. You could write side stories — kind of like Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci world? (More stories, please, ma’m, I am liking this world muchly.) Then again who am I to tell my dealer how to prepare my fix. 😉

                1. No. I think it’s just when it’s finished it will be a LARGE book. Unfortunately since I’ll be bringing it out through makespace, that means the paper book will be pricey…

              1. At least for myself I have found that rugged individualists make great short stories, but they wrap up entirely to fast to make novel length stories. Unless you do like Edgar Rice Burroughs and have them have to overcome a whole series of problems that all tend to look the same after a while.
                Also in an attempt to make secondary characters not look like cardboard cutout caricatures, I end up with multiple story lines verring off on tangents.

  10. Outlines work fairly well for my nonfiction, when I have real-world facts that have to be set out and connected in a certain order. Transitions and connections flow more smoothly if I outline at least on a chapter and sub-section level, if not every paragraph. Outlines do not help me with fiction, because I need the process of writing in order to bring up ideas to give me a hint as to where the story is going to go. Note that 90% of what I write are short stories with a very limited cast of characters. Novellas end up with a page-a-day calendar page covered in character names and ranks/markings/positions, for memory’s sake.

    That said, I have a novella, possibly novel, that may get outlined just so I can keep track of the cast and chronology. I’ve already had to come up with a print-out of characters and their markings so someone doesn’t shift from blotchy-brown to green stripe to tan over the course of the story.

  11. That’s when I found my escape… Which involved doing … more. That is, it involved my starting art classes. While I was concentrating on that, I couldn’t think of writing. More, it was a different mode of thinking: all tactile and visual, not words.

    You know those art works that flip between one thing and another — like a vase which becomes two faces gazing at each other, or the crone that turns into a well-dressed young lady — or those 3D things that became briefly popular in the 90s? They seem to rely on the ability to relax one’s attention, to defocus the mind. Doing art likely works like that, occupying enough of your attention to let your subconscious work freely.

    Famously, Robert E Howard claimed the Conan stories arrived fully-formed and writing them was like taking dictation. Too many writers report similar experiences for it to be imaginary.

    I blame demonic possession.

      1. Ah, what you do not understand is that if it frustrates or discombobulates you then that is sufficient unto the task. We tend to look for the snake in the grass when the irritation of the swarm of mosquitos will work for the purpose just as well.

  12. Outlines are what happens _after_ the story’s written. Then you can see the plot holes, the scenes that need to be writen, rewriten, stuck in a better place.

    And try, just _try_ to find the pefect man for your Female MC. Ha! She kept rejecting them and ran off with the guy I was planning to kill . . .

    1. Pam,
      That was my first phase. Now the da… Darn things require remarkably little revision most of the time. I think Witchfinder MIGHT require more because of he protracted writing manner.

      1. I started off just writing like mad. Never, never, publicly claim that you have control over your Muse. Mine immediately set out to prove other wise. So I had this huge mass of wordage and had to break it into serving sizes and pick stopping spots for one book and starts for the next book and . . . well, outlining at that point really helped me see what did and didn’t belong in any given story.

Comments are closed.