Sunday, March 15, 2015

The power of the free-write

The first time a teacher asked me to free-write, my reaction was fairly typical—you want me to what? Why? 

It’s very counterintuitive. Sit and write, even though you don’t know what to sit and write? Even if you’re just writing ‘I don’t know what to write’? No matter what, keep going? What good can that possibly be?

Ah, young Padawan. I had so much to learn.

Since those days, I’ve learned the power of the free-write, and it’s now one of my most valued tools—it’s my life-line, in fact. And I believe it answers at least two of the big questions that all writers get repeatedly pelted with.

“Don’t you ever get writer’s block?”

I no longer believe in writer’s block, and free-writing is one of two reasons why (the other is NaNoWriMo and how it gave me permission to turn off my internal editor). When I find myself sitting staring at a screen, I instantly start to free-write. It usually goes something like this: 

“Argh, why can’t I think of anything to write here? I can see the scene in my mind with all the trees and the water in the background, but for some reason I just can’t figure out what the two characters are gonna do here while they have their conversation. It feels stupid to have them just stroll by the riverside, but maybe I could have them find a tiny path or something…”

…And next thing I know I’m writing about a path that has an interesting hut at the end, and I’m off and running. Sometimes it happens almost immediately, sometimes not, but I’ve never had a free-write take more than four or five minutes to bring up an idea I can latch on to. It doesn’t have to be a perfect idea—I can adapt it later, but usually I don’t have to. Either way, it gets the writing flowing, and I have a productive session. The key is DO NOT STOP, keep writing until you get something you like. In the two years since I started doing this, I have never had it fail. 

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

Generally speaking, I’ve found the whole plot-bunny thing to be true: once I have one or two, they multiply, and mostly I just have to jot them down before I forget them. But there are still times when I have no ideas, or none that are appropriate for what I need to work on that day. 

For example, I just started a writing challenge for March (#MarWritingChallenge), and need to write 500 words each day for each day in March. But, I am at a revision-heavy place right now, so hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into what I’d write during the challenge. After knocking out the flash fiction ideas I had sitting around, I thought I’d start writing my fourth book, which I’m hoping will be a sequel to the last book I wrote. Only problem: I didn’t have a central murder plot.

So I sat down and and started a free-write; when I do this sort of free-write, I also make generous use of the ‘What-if-Yes!-And’ technique. (I don’t know who originated this because I’ve seen it in several places and couldn’t find the answer when I searched for it; if you know, please tell me so I can credit.) How it works is, ask yourself ‘What if’ questions, and always answer with ‘Yes! And…’, no matter how ridiculous the questions or the answers seem in the moment. So it might go like this:

“What if Semarra got hit in the head with a fish? Yes! And she turns around to see who threw it at her, and it turns out to be this guy she went to high school with. And what if she’d had a crush on that guy in high school? Yes! And it turns out he had a crush on her, too. And what if he’s in Cypress Grove to try to find his biological parents because he just found out he’s adopted? Yes! And they live there but then when he goes to meet his mother, he finds out she died that morning, from what looks like food poisioning? Yes! But of course it isn’t really food poisoning, and…”

(I literally just wrote that right now, trying to come up with an example for this blog post, and I love the idea it generated--I’m going to tuck it away for future use!)

Again, it doesn’t always happen so quickly, but I’ve never had it take very long. When I did my free-write the other night, I came up with a plot I love and a basic skeleton for how to turn it into a book--in fourteen minutes. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a LOT of work to be done even just sorting out the basic plot, but I now have a good, solid idea I didn’t have before. All because of a free-write.

And in the example above, I came up with a new idea I like—someone searching for their biological parent discovers the parent was recently murdered—a mere three sentences after starting out with a completely ridiculous starting premise of getting hit in the head with a fish. Why did I start with the fish? No idea, other than fish was the last meal I cooked, so I had fish on the brain. Imagine how much better your free-write will turn out when it starts off with a decent, if hazy, first question?

So what happens if you start writing and you follow your path and it leads to a dead end? No dead ends. Keep writing that next sentence, even if you think it’s complete nonsense. 

And what if you come up with a better idea while you’re answering one of your questions? Hey, let’s not get crazy now. Go with the better idea, of course. That’s what this whole thing is about—to allow your brain to come up with a good idea. Grab it, run with it—write it. 

So why does it work?

When you sit staring at the screen, your brain is, essentially, freezing up. Or worse, you’re putting all your energy into telling yourself you suck. That just activates the self-loathing part of the brain, and who needs more of that?  But when you start to write, no matter what you’re writing, each word activates related words and concepts in your brain. These then activate others, and start to play around with other words and concepts and anything else you’ve been thinking about recently, making this awesome word/concept/idea stew. So the more you write the more things you can think of to write, which activates more thoughts, which then activates a bunch more. It’s sort of like when you’re browsing in a library or bookstore; your eyes flit over different books until one captures your attention, and you pick it up and page through it. Something in it reminds you of a book you saw online the other day, so you go look for that. Next to it is another book that looks really cool, so you pick up that one, and so on—only during a free-write, the ‘books’ you’re picking up and considering are ‘words’ and ‘concepts’, which trigger ‘ideas’. The first ones may not be very helpful, but before too long, you’ll find something you want to check out.

So the next time you find yourself with a precious half-hour to write and your brain seizes up, don’t shake your fist at the universe in frustration. Start writing about how you want to shake your fist at the universe in frustration…and before you know it, something good will be popping out in those words of yours. 

Happy Writing!


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