The Writer’s Mind: Laser vs. Soup

Soup - the mind of an authorI would guess most non-writers think that the minds of writers pretty much operate all the same way: you get an idea, you write it down, expanding as you go. Years ago, I might have thought that myself, but my last few books over the last couple of years have completely disabused me of that notion. Every project has illustrated to me in ever-greater detail that my mind can work in vastly different ways when doing this singular yet very complex thing – writing.

Generally I get the kernel of an idea, jot down somewhere between five and ten major plot points, figure out the chronology of what happens when, and start writing. As I’m writing, I go back and forth between the work itself and the story bible, adding details like the characters’ names, descriptions, background, and psychological make-up as they are revealed to me. (Yes, I’m as surprised by these things as my readers might be.) The story itself grows organically out of all this back-and-forth, stutter-step writing. There are times when the story leads me in a different direction than I had planned, and then I have to go back and amend my story bible, maybe reorder the timing of events. It’s not an exact science by any means. At least not for me.

Then in 2013, a story idea flashed inside my brain like a supernova. I mulled it around in my head for a few days, letting it evolve, but then it became too much and I had to start writing it all down. Every evening during my down time (watching TV, doing the dishes, etc.), I would get more and more ideas, more details, so every morning I would be pounding the keys to get it all down before it evaporated. I needn’t have worried. The story flashed out sudden, clear and concise, like a laser beam darting across the page. In 39 days it was done.

Whoa. How did that happen? I was as amazed as anyone I told about it. I’d never had a story come to me so fully, so clearly, so completely. And because I wrote it so fast, I just knew I’d need to go back and do some major editing, put more meat on the bones. But — no. It was about 95% done. It just needed a few tweaks here and there.

Now this is a form of writing I could get used to. No sitting staring at a blank page; no lying awake at night trying to figure the relationship angles, the story arc. Ideas filter down into the brain, put ‘em down on paper and — BOOM! — done.

Had I entered into a new phase of my writing life? Had I reached some pinnacle of efficiency? Was I going to be a writing machine from this day forward?

I wish.

The next book fell comfortably, if not happily for me, into my old process. Well, okay, I can live with that. This one had actually been about half-done and I had put it aside when that laser hit my brain. It only took three months to finish it and get it out there on the shelf. No speed freak, but not bad.

Enter my latest WIP. Back in April of this year, I got this idea to write about a female archaeologist who, while surveying a site, connects across 1,000 years of time with an ancient Sinagua woman who lived at that site. (I wrote earlier about doing some research for this.) Here it is the end of the year and I’m only on Chapter 3. Who turned off the laser?

This book, I’m finding, is more like a simmering pot of soup. It’s on the burner on low, quietly bubbling away, and every once in a while I add something to it. I’m volunteering at the archaeology center and actually learning artifact cataloging. I’ve completed one class on making cordage with local plant fibers, and the next class will be learning how to survey a site. All this goes into the soup. My husband and I periodically prowl the local sites near our home. We examine the pottery sherds we find (but put them back where we find them), and note the layout of the pit houses and cliff dwellings. More substance for the soup. I’m also reading everything I can find on the Anasazi (or Pre-Puebloans) and the Sinagua, the local north central Arizona line of that culture. More seasoning for the soup. The pot on the stove continues to simmer, the new ingredients melding with the original, the tastes and smells mingling as they assimilate. On a good day, I might get a paragraph or two written. The soup is just not ready yet.

It boggles the mind how one action — writing — can have such different processes and yet lead to similar conclusions. Obviously, story-telling uses many different parts of the brain. I suppose it’s all part of our human nature that this “simple” task can be so complex, so hard to pin down, and so surprising.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

19 thoughts on “The Writer’s Mind: Laser vs. Soup”

  1. Isn’t it interesting how our writing doesn’t have a predictable pattern. Even withing the same story these shifts happen. Laser days are wonderful – soup days are OK. And then there are the trudging through molasses says. those suck.

    1. LOL, Yvonne, you’re right about the molasses days! I guess I was just thinking of REALLY slow-bubbling soup for those days. But it is interesting to notice how the brain works so differently. I’d love to have a cat scan of my brain during the two separate periods.

  2. I’m more of soup kind of guy. Some days I don’t even have much of an appetite for consommé. It is neat though when those inspirations do hit like bolts from the blue. Never had a whole story though. That’s very cool. The archeology sounds like it would be fun regardless of the plot.

    1. Thanks, John. I think the archeo story will be a good one, even if I don’t have all the ingredients in the pot yet. But the bolt from the blue–yeah, very cool and amazing. I kept thinking one day I’d wake up and it would all be gone out of my brain, but it just kept downloading day by day. Wish every story would hit like that. Can you imagine NaNoMoWri every month of the year?

  3. I’m the same way when it comes to writing blog posts. I’ve not yet written a full-length novel (or even a novella), but I’ve two in the works.

    What is meant to be will be.

    1. The full books will come for you, Lorraine; we both know that. And I also am the same way with blog posts; sometimes an idea hits me and I throw it down immediately, other times I get the tiniest essence of an idea, set that down, then let it simmer for a while. With blog posts, I’ve also found that sometimes I’ll jot down two or three different directions for the idea, different flavors if you will, and then later come back and figure which one I really want to concentrate on.

  4. My stories are definitely more the long-slow cooking type. I may get a flash for a scene or chapter that fits for several thousand words and gets written in one sitting, but the overall story has to simmer away gently. I started a book many years ago – a story that just kept niggling at me to write it – but written in chronological order it didn’t work. I shoved it in the furthest file within a file and even shifted it off the desktop to an archive file. But it kept niggling and in the end I had to get it out again and reformat it into memories and dreams to make it work. The characters took their time to let me know what they wanted but they do. I wish they would do it more often and faster though.

    1. Isn’t it funny how a story keeps nattering away at us? It may refuse to reveal itself right away, but it sits in the wings and just waits, breathing. I have one book that I began work on, oh, maybe 20 years ago. I have tons of files of research, tons of notes, but it’s still not ready. It may never be. But it’s interesting how some stories wait quietly while others come up and sit on your head. As for wishing characters would tell us who they are and what they want sooner–I’m with you on that.

  5. I want to know how you tap into that laser energy, Melissa. 😀 I’ve had whole scenes handed to me by my subconscious — particularly with the Pipe Woman Chronicles — but never a whole book!

    1. Lynne, if I knew that, I’d bottle it and be a zillionaire. No such luck. Inspiration happens when it happens and there’s no corralling it. I guess the only trick is being open to it and being able to respond at the moment, before it takes itself somewhere else!

  6. You could look at it like an artisan wood worker. Sure the concept is the same every time but the medium is unique to the trees you work with. Our words evolve and flow around the idea in different ways based on what we are working on at any given time.

    1. Jon, I think you’re right. Slightly different medium, harder or softer wood, the way of the grain, etc. Whatever our creative bent, we have to accommodate the medium and go with the flow.

  7. This is a brilliant article, and from it I have finally derived what I need to do about my writing if I want to get into writing fiction – turn on my mind!
    Until now almost all my output has been memoir, well with one small exception, a novel, but I’d really like to get into fiction. Previously all I’ve had to do is turn on my memory, and look in my piles of old notebooks. Now it seems I need to use my mind as well. Very daunting!

    Watch this space.
    WARNING: It may be like watching paint drying!

  8. Ian, why do I think that your mind is NEVER turned off?? But I agree, writing memoir and writing fiction are totally different processes, as I found out when I wrote my aunt’s biography. With non-fiction, we are constrained by the truth (as we know it), and have to stay within those boundaries, but with fiction–the sky’s the limit. But hey, you’ve already written one novel, so you know how to set your mind free. Go for it, and we’ll expect a report back when you return from your flight.

  9. Inspiring post, Melissa! I so wish the bolts would come more often. It’s such a fantastic feeling! My last novel was like chipping away at granite, but to me it was worth it (and believe me, I celebrated “The End”). Even so, there were enough aha moments and tiny bolts from the blue to keep me plugging along. I’ve just plotted another novel in a different genre than I usually write. The plot and themes came easily (the idea has been percolating for some time) but I’ve decided to keep going with both my current series and work on the other when I get stuck or frustrated or whatever. I think that’s what keeps me so interested and motivated in writing–no book is ever the same.

    Thank goodness 🙂

    1. Thanks, D.V. You and me both. To get more of those bolts from the blue, I’d gladly stand out in the rain all day. But I think you have an excellent process going when you can switch back and forth to keep things fresh and interesting. I do that fairly often, as well, until one story knocks the others out and takes over completely. Good luck with the new genre. I’m assuming we’ll be notified when that’s ready, right?

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