A bear of small brain

Alas. I had just thought of something interesting and insightful to post and I was distracted by the sight of the dog we’re baby-sitting having a staring contest with an Australian magpie on the porch. My mind, ever ready to say ‘oh, squirrel’ got involved in the staring match… and now I can’t remember what it was. I did go and look up Australian Magpies.

Chasing different threads of thought and a mind that really is all over the place is both a curse and near-necessity to a writer. I now know a lot more about Australian Magpies than I did previously, and in that chaotic network of semi-logical trains of thought that passes for my brain it’s going to co-mingle and curdle with all sorts of myriad other pieces of information and apocrypha. Other fields require you know a lot about them. Writing (especially sf and Fantasy) it helps you know at least a little bit about everything. You have to be a bit of a magpie, you might say, although perhaps dive-bombing pedestrians and cyclists, while understandable, is not strictly necessary.

That’s what I keep telling myself anyway, as I try to check one of my various bits of errant knowledge and end up several light-years away and twenty-seven web-pages later, and half the afternoon gone. Fortunately, I do remember a great deal of what I read, which tangles itself into other stories. Generates them even. Anyway, that is my story and I am sticking to it like glue (which can be made from an amazing number of things. Trust me. Animal, Mineral and vegetable, flesh, fish and fowl – even magpies).

The downside with all these ‘asides’ is that a 2 minute check can end up being a 3 hour digression and the book does not move forward. The other downside is… well, I actually write very complex books. I go to a great deal of effort to keep them simple to follow and easy to read, but they can be rather labyrinthine from the inside – lots of little moving bits that have to interlock (and can be swallowed by small children – mostly by them distracting me). And I need to keep that entire maze of interconnected facts I am going to use in my head. Being me, I start foreshadowing early. You can (and I do) insert foreshadowing later, but to make feel like an organic part of the plot, it does help to weave it in very lightly from the start. You have to have reasonable idea that Chekhov’s rifle on the mantelpiece will be fired and start building reasons for it being there and being used, or it doesn’t matter that you put in the first scene. One of the few arguments I had with Eric Flint (who generally left me to write the books and editorialized them later) was where he wanted me to take out an early section of a book and put in an entirely different ‘block’ of scenes. I had so many threads of foreshadowing already running through the section that made the later parts make logical and natural sense for the characters to say and do. I do not assemble a book out of ‘blocks’ that can be interchanged easily. Other people do.

This means this bear of very little brain has a lot of his very limited processing power tied up in keeping all those threads and details straight. I have copious and chaotic notes (sometimes longer than book). I have been known (particularly with the Heirs of Alexandria series) to draw vast wall-spanning interlocking diagrams in different colors (for each thread and character). It looks like a cat got into a fight with a lady’s entire embroidery-yarn collection. Maybe it helps…

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m curious about your methods. I have found the only thing that does help is instead of following up immediately on trivia I put a # mark and continue rather than going back and searching. But really, I still end up keeping most of it in 4 dimensional outline in my head – and this is a process that needs streamlining.

And no magpies.

Image from Pixabay No attribution required.

27 thoughts on “A bear of small brain

  1. Actually, though, I do either say something like [insert description of bridge here] or drop a footnote telling myself to go check for something like what I’ve said someone looks like in a different book. Or even that I’ve checked and X is correct because there are always certain things that I’ll question the accuracy of on review.

      1. I don’t actually have a story bible so much as a separate document in which I keep the cast of characters and their descriptions, the purported plot, the day’s pre-writing, word count, research, and the list of bald facts for what I actually wrote that happened on Day 1, Day 2, etc. Then, when I start the next book in the series, I copy and past the cast of characters.

        The cast list is getting long.

    1. I do something similar when programming in a hurry:
      // NOTE: this is a temporary hack. Fix it later (ha, ha!)

      1. Aristilius (book 2) has this happen. While the spaceships are trying to land, the navigation system displays: “interrupt 0x7aa: WTF? TODO: Fix this later.” Reminds me to write a review…

  2. I go back and put in scenes as I realize they are needed, but it’s better to write them in sequence if only so I don’t remember it’s needed four different times.

  3. I write out of order and jump around weirdly. I have discovered that if I don’t I can’t straighten out the resultant mess later. (Not do not wish to: Cannot without breaking the whole thing.) So, if I need to know the details of what kind of horses the roman equestrians would use, I have to look it up there and then. I usually set a timer to make sure I DO get back to the story rather than rabbit trail too crazily.

    For me there is no revise. There is only do it right the first time. I can do quick edits of details (what I’m doing with Whirlwind of Stars) Swapping out whole sections of story? That would mean trashing the draft and starting over. So I guess it’s ‘There is no revise, there is only ‘do it right’ and ‘start over’.’

    1. This is intriguing. Do you not re-read the ms at the end? I always find problems when I do that. I guess you just start over?

      I need to steal your timer idea.

      1. I do re-read, but since I’m jumping around while writing I tend to re-read here and there. Most of the problems I find are 1-2 word fixes. “Oh, her name went from Sarah to Susan” or “I switched tinman and Scarecrow here.” (Yes, that last is relevant to the current work in copy edits) Switch the names around and it’s fine. I’ve run into more issues when I go in with the idea of re-writes than if I just do things as I think of them. It may just be how my brain works. (I never pretended to be normal.)

        I usually catch issues as I go. All I can figure is my story-brain is smarter than me.

  4. I generally don’t write in real world settings, or focus very closely on the science in my science fiction, which helps. The black hole in Shadow Captain probably was the biggest holdup in terms of actual research I’ve had from a writing POV. The next biggest ones were in the last two Ancestors of Jaiya books, where I had to figure out what a not-Webley revolver would sound like and what a not-Soviet tank would look like. Most other rabbit holes were more about me not wanting to write and looking up something tangential in order to not-write.

    If I realize I need to change something already written (or check continuity) at a plot/POV level while writing, I add a comment in brackets, and try to keep going.

  5. I find that I’m easily…rabbit hole! But anyway, what I was saying was…oooh, that looks interesting. Back to the topic at hand…where’d I put that thing-a-mabob?

    There was a time when I was on the top of my game dispatching that I could carry on a phone conversation, have a conversation with my partner about what was going on, follow and respond to our radio traffic, while following two other radio channels as well. And then when everything slowed down, my partner and I could pick up right where we left off with our own conversation. Alas, and especially since chemo and my surgery, I can barely follow one conversation at a time now.

  6. My foreshadowing started almost by accident. The protagonist in Dr. Z is a very curious fellow. He wonders about things constantly. Some of those things have been revealed. A lot more have not. Untangling those threads, going back and replacing a section? Oy. That sounds like work. Or a complete rewrite, considering how tangled up those plot threads are getting.

    I just fixed a potential plot hole in chapter 20. It makes no sense to have a space suit that can only be used actively for 20 minutes at a time to have a catheter. You can hold it that long. Since our protagonist had the wrong idea about that, I can use the situation to illustrate how the Doc doesn’t know much about space suits. Even though he lives in space, he mostly lived in his lab and never left.

    The plot thread is getting girthy. I can see it becoming novella sized by the time I get this thing sorted. It will need editing once it is done, there’s a lot of not-polished crap in there. Probably typos. Okay, definitely typos, grammar mistakes, and plot holes I am currently missing.

    For all that, there is a lot that *isn’t* in the plot that makes it into the story, too. There was a major change that popped up around chapter 12 that the reader won’t and can’t see until later in act II. It’s actually the reason there *is* an act II, if I’m being honest. It didn’t require rewriting the early bits. But it does paint them in a much different light once it is revealed.

    Time will tell if I can pull that switcheroo off successfully.

    1. Those sort a of things are fun. I misunderstand something, so a character reacts to it using the misunderstanding, then I realize I’ve got the base facts wrong, but it’s ok, because the character can be wrong about that too! I just need to go back and update the other characters’ reactions to the misunderstanding, and now I’ve got a hook for a other set of character interactions. (“How can you not know this? Congrats, you are now my personal project.”)

  7. Actually, you helped me understand my own process better, as I read this post.
    In college, on my school newspaper, I learned to write [tk] for missing information (to come), with an explanation of what is needed,following that reminder.
    I still tend NOT to follow the rabbit. I’m much more easily distracted today. However, I’m also awake in the middle of the night, and often find that my best writing/plotting time. No distractions – the dog is even asleep.

  8. “I do not assemble a book out of β€˜blocks’ that can be interchanged easily.”

    Ah yes, modularity. The notion that everything is the same as everything else, and you can just change stuff to suit editorial whim. Sure, make the main character a girl. No problem. But how is she going to lift that engine block in chapter five, editor? You know, the one they drop on the monster’s head in chapter eight to save the MC’s -girlfriend-?

    Modularity is good in electronics. Not so good in writing, IMHO. My characters often indulge in lazing around at the coffee shop, playing kissy-face and chatting. Sometimes those scenes appear tedious, so I think about cutting them out. But then I discover that the first mention of [MAGUFFIN] was at the coffee shop, and the second mention was some other seemingly superfluous scene, and if I want to take them out then I have to re-write whole chapters. It’s a spiderweb. You can’t pull just one thread.

    This is the problem with seat-of-the-pants writing style. I have -no- idea how the thing is going to go. I don’t know how they are going to solve the problem. Use of force? Intimidation? Bribery? Helping hand? Burn it with fire? No idea. I only know the people involved and their intentions.

    When you think back over your life about events, like that time you went to the concert and it was amazing, that narrative is only apparent AFTER the event. At the time you don’t have a clue. That’s what it is like to write in this crazy way Dave is talking about.

    The one advantage we have with the writing is we have time to stop and look up every damn thing about how brake disks are cast, as a random example of what bat was flying through the Phantom belfry this morning. Then when you need a car accident, you know all about how the brake disk on the right front wheel might grab and send the car into a spin because the lazy factory dude left it in the oven too long. Or not long enough, that’s why I need to know every damn thing. Details are important. ~:D

    I don’t need a car accident scene right now though, so looking all that up would be a “waste of time” as Normies like to say. Never know anything you don’t need to, sayeth the Normy. Just-in-time saves storage space, uh huh. You might need those idle brain cells for something important, like remembering your social security number.

    1. You may not need it YET. I started learning latin a while back because I was trying to read things like Pliny the Elder and having trouble finding good translations (a transient problem it seems) Now, I’m still fiddling with Latin, and I have a displaced roman centurion in a story teaching Latin, at least for a bit. You’ll need the brake info sooner or later. Story Brain is devious.

    2. Never know anything you don’t need to…

      My previous dept had the training manual for the officers split up into 1. Things you need to know and 2. Things you can look up.

      So things like traffic law and the threshold of when a DUI moves from misdemeanor to felony status you need to know, but something like the Licensing of Amusement Games isn’t something that is going to come very often so you just need to know where you look it up.

  9. I have a character list, and at the end of each scene I have [things that are to come; plot goal]. I also have [end point for climax] at the bottom of the document, if I know where it will go in rough terms. That helps me remember where the muddled mess has to point to.

    I have a gift that after I stop for the day, usually 15 minutes or so later, I know exactly what I needed to put in for foreshadowing and character conflict in order to make something work. Grrrrrr.

  10. Ah Dave, how can you be a “bear of small brain” when you’re a monkey? [Very Very Big Crazy Grin While Running Away Very Very Fast]

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