Monday, May 30, 2011

One Year Later - Paris & The French Open

Those who follow my rants on Twitter know that last week I was on a business trip in Paris.

Couple of cool things about that:
(1) It turns out that exactly one year ago I was also in Paris. So this was an anniversary of sorts.
(2) It was on that trip where the idea for my novel, Aces, bubbled up to the surface

This trip gave me an opportunity to snap pictures of the "things" that inspired the opening chapters of Aces.

I am elated that my third most popular post on this blog is the chapter 1 excerpt of Aces. So, I thought I'd share what I "saw" with you.

As I've mentioned many times before, Aces was born in Paris, at the Pullman Hotel.

It so happened that the French Open had just started... French Open? No, that's not like a swap meet or an open house. That's one of four major tennis tournaments (grand slams) that happens during the year. Both last year and again this year, many of the pro athletes stayed at the Pullman.

While on the elevator, headed to the 23rd floor, I met Dominika Cubilkova.
It went something like this:
     Me: "Hi"
     Her: "Hello"
     Me: "Good luck today"
     Her: "Thank you"

Okay, it wasn't that pitiful, but it was not more exciting than that either. She did win that day, so I'd like to lay claim to her winnings for that day. Anyway, we were both headed for breakfast at the hotel's Le Montgolfier.

While I ate breakfast I saw a young guy staring at her like a love-starved pup. I wondered what he did? Was he a tennis player also? Maybe he was a young executive... or maybe he was there with his mom and dad :)

As I ate breakfast my writer's mind started to work quickly... by the way, the prosciutto ham, sharp cheese, fresh baguettes and everything else is to die for! As are the single serving Nutella packs... (excuse me while I clean my salivating mouth)

As I watched him, I thought, what if two people from very different, yet challenging worlds, fell for each other? What if all they wanted was happiness? And what if they had to choose between personal happiness and professional success?

In the opening chapter there is a scene with the individual thermos containers of coffee... this is what they look like. They are boiling hot!

The waitress that carried them had this determined look on her face. Dominika's huge tennis racket bag lay on the floor, but the waitress maneuvered around it with grace. So I thought, what if she hadn't?

You can see from these images that the view of central Paris is really pretty from up there.

I went to the office and all day this idea brewed. Thoughts of an opening scene populated my jet-lagged head. That night, when I returned to the hotel, I went to the bar. It has a very creative name... "Le Bar"

I melted into those plush seats. I sat with my iPad and started thinking, drawing, mind-mapping. I thought this bar deserved a scene or two as well.

That was one year ago.

Until then, I had not been able to finish a novel-length story before. There had not been enough for me to want to continue writing more. I lost interest and gas. But not with this one. I wanted to know what would happen to these two.

You never know when inspiration may strike. But when it does, we need to be in a position to jump all over it and bring it to life. Everything has the potential to evolve into a story. It's our job to find the story that lives in everyone we meet.

Fight the good fight.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tools for Brainstorming - Part III

It seems that everything needs to be a trilogy. Why not my tools for brainstorming? The wait is over. The final installment is here...

Method III - The Mind Map

Let's start with Wikipedia:
"A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and writing."

Well, if Wikipedia says so, then it must be true. And it is. I've used mind maps for years and I have to say that it has become my tool of choice for generating ideas, brainstorming, thinking out processes, and improving comprehension & recollection.

Let's talk about ideas. I start with the premise that you already have great ideas. Don't argue with me. I believe in you. We are stuck and struggling for ideas not because we don't have the capacity to generate ideas. The ideas are trapped in your head. Trapped. All your day's challenges and work have a dampening effect on your creativity. You are too busy thinking about work, or that term paper, or paying that bill, remembering to call mom, you name it. I say that "We" are creative creatures by design.

Furthermore, I argue that we are less than six degrees of separation from problem to solution. My experience is closer to three. Said differently, the path from your starting point (the challenge/question) to the brilliant idea/breakthrough can be solved in less than six hops.

So what we need is a mechanism to help us extract these ideas. Let me stress this. You need to believe that your mind is infinitely more powerful than you give it credit. I never enter any situation believing that a solution may not be in reach. So please, please, please, do not be a defeatist. Believe in yourself and amazing things will happen

"Things are only impossible until they are not" ~Patrick Stewart as Cpt. Jean-Luc Picard in Start Trek the Next Generation

How do I do this mind map thingy?

The mind map starts with the central node -- the central idea. Think of it as the central question, or problem you're trying to solve. For example, let's say you are Ara eighteen months ago and really wanted to write. You are committed to this path. You stand on your desk and yell, "No more excuses!" Except that you have an excuse -- and it's a nasty one -- time. I have a demanding job. I travel. I have a wife and two boys and two cats, and, and, and.

So you start at the center node: I need more time to write

Now draw a branch from there and brainstorm options. Don't judge them -- not yet. There are no judgements when you brain storm. Get yourself out of the way. Be objective and belive that a solution is somewhere out there. Maybe early in the morning? write it down. Then draw another branch form the central node. How about during work? write it. Next, what about at nights? What if I quit my job? These are all options.

As you write these branches, you may find that your mind immediately generates an association and wants to develop that option. Let your mind roam here. Don't stop inspiration.

In my case when I wrote "At Nights" I drew a node and wrote "When?" Which then led to three new nodes: a) When I get home from work, b) after dinner, c)After the kids are asleep

I can not stress the power of writing it down. Succinct, crisp phrases. Many will add drawings as they do this. Do whatever feels write. But commit it to paper.

The brain opens up secret doors when you commit things to paper. But I don't have to tell you this, do I? Have you noticed how a story unfolds when you actually write it?

Ara, are there tools for this?

There are a lot of great tools out there. And I've used them all. Here are some:
Click to enlarge image

Pen & Paper

Nothing more powerful than being able to get a piece of paper and solve a major problem while waiting for a venti iced caramel machiato with an extra shot and some cinnamon powder.

Here I've shown a simple example. The issue is the same as above "How do I make time to write?" In fact this is a recreation of the real mind map I created nearly 18 months ago. In the real one I have some things that are "Personal" so I recreated it here for you.

You can see that I am thinking up of anything and everything.

iThoughtsHD for the Apple iPad

Say what you will about the iPad. It is a mobile tool that has phenomenal apps for almost anything.

Here's a screen print of this fantastic tool.

When I bought it, it was $5. Now it's $10. And worth every penny. In fact. Pay them extra.

Here I show you a bogus scene in a story. The point here is that I am able to quickly create a mind map, then add comments and images to my thoughts: Thumbs up, thumbs down, etc. I can even create links to show potential associations.


There are other tools like Novamind, which I also use. It's a great application. You can do amazing things with it. Very intuitive but also a few hundred dollars depending on which version you get. In fact, with the iPad and iThoughts HD, I don't see a need for any other tool.

Below is a screen print of a complex mind map I created for fleshing out ideas. One of my reference books is "James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. JSB explains the LOCK framework (Lead - Objective - Challenge - Knockout Ending). I created a template in Novamind so that I think of these items as I develop the concept.

A final word on the concept of "solution." Sometimes the solution is a painful one. It does not change the fact that it is a solution. In my case, in order to write I had to give up the concept of seven hours of sleep. So when I say that I believe we can find a solution to anything, there is a caveat that says, if it matters to you, you will be more excited over doing what you love and not be too concerned over what you have to give up.


And for sticking with me, I share this video by Stephen Pierce. This video shows you a very simple method in using Mind Mapping to accelerate comprehension when reading. I guarantee that with minimal effort you will be able to retain information better than ever before.

The key is that when you read something or you attend a conference, you need to have a goal, or a purpose for what you hope to learn. Get that etched in, then start mind mapping while listening. I guarantee better comprehension and recollection.

I use mind mapping when I read an article of interest. When I go to conferences and I want to get the core message with all the rest set aside.

I shared my mind map for JSB's LOCK framework. You guessed it. I created that when I first read the book. I wanted to make sure I understood and internalized it.

Fight the good fight.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tools for Brainstorming - Part II (redux)

[Because of the Great Blogger debacle of 2011, I lost my original Part II post along with the comments. So Here is my attempt at recreating the genius I had committed to pixels - Editor]
I've decided to break this segment out into three parts. Why? Because this is my blog, and I can do whatever I want. How you like them apples?

Too heavy handed? Okay fine. How's this: I have so much information, such an avalanche of insight to share, that the only appropriate move is to give each technique their due time.

Or, something like that...

Method II - Sit on the Couch

This method came to me after I read the great James Scott Bell's "The Art of War for Writers." In it, he describes the Voice Journal, which is a great way "get to know" your character. You write in first person, and lay out the character's attitude, way of talking, answering questions that pop up. This is a steam of consciousness type of journaling.

I've used this method often, but I have a bit of a spin on it for the purpose of breaking through when I hit a rough patch.

When I'm revising, I will sometimes hit a spot that just doesn't feel right. Why did my main character (MC) do that? Why would he say that? Does it sound believable? Hundreds of questions come to me.

Think of yourself as the psychologist with a finely tuned truth detector that in the course of a conversation can pick up plausibility, believability and reasonability. You, the therapist, are asking the MC questions. You want to see why he did what he did? What was his "motivation" for acting that way, behaving that way, and saying the things he said.

As a consumer of entertainment -- be it books, TV, or movies -- I don't like it when others insult my intelligence. Picture this scene:

The Hero and Heroine love each other. But they have not expressed their true feelings, yet. The Heroine misunderstands the situation. The Hero should explain and resolve the misunderstanding. Simple. Just say it. JUST SAY IT. But he doesn't. The result is that they break up. Then that silly misunderstanding spirals into more challenges. And approximately 150 pages or so later, they realize they made a mistake. Sorry saps! 

Are you kidding me? If you've watched Telenovelas (Spanish/Mexican soap operas) you see this all.the.stinkin'.time. Please! What do you take me for?!

What? Oh, do I watch telenovelas? Em... well, you see... sometimes... umm, it's my wife, not me. It's her, I tell you!

Back to the couch. I imagine the MC trying to justify his decisions. It needs to make sense to me. I don't want to insult the reader. I don't my MC to insult me either. I need to make it plausible and realistic. In other words, would real people behave that way? As my reader you need to stay on my roller coaster, otherwise I risk losing you.

So when I find a scene that doesn't seem right, I sit my character on the couch and ask questions. I write fast and furious. In first person, with all the attitude that is appropriate for the character. He may even reveal things that are part of his unwritten back story. In other words, he tells me "why" his experiences and perceptions of the world have caused him to behave the way he has.

In practice, I usually find that my main character can not justify the questionable behavior but in this stream-of-consciousness writing, my character reveals new things that I can layer into the scene.

I find that my characters, when given the opportunity to tell me who they really are, I find a goldmine of information. I find more material than I could have imagined.

To those of you who write in earnest: has it happened that as you write a scene, your character does something completely unexpected? You pause and think about this behavior. You consider changing it. You tell your character, "That's not what I wanted you to do!" But if you're wise, you honor your character and let him show you what's really happening.

Sometimes the best way to have a breakthrough is by getting out of the way. Your job is to tell your character's story. Not your interpretation of the story.

So far we've discussed how to get focused (Part I) and how to let your characters speak up (Part II). In Part III, I will introduce a great tools -- the mind map.

Fight the good fight!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tools for Brainstorming - Part I

I was stuck.

It happens more often than I care to admit. But it does happen. And when it does, I turn to my tired and true "techniques" for breaking through.

I have two methods which I will separate into two parts/posts.

Method I -- Sunflower seeds

Don't laugh! Brainstorming is serious business. What? You'd rather I gnaw away at my poor finger nails?

Okay, so maybe Part I is bit less "serious" but the fact remains -- this is what works for me. For anyone who's walked this line, you can understand when I say this is an addictive and focused activity. My mind becomes singularly focused on that stinkin' seed. I become myopic in that all other thoughts get flushed. And this is an important first step.

When I'm stuck, it's because clarity is alluding me. Things are muddled and the issue at hand is bombarded with so many other thoughts that I can't actually focus on the issue. Instead my brain is running in multiple directions.

I found that any action that forces focus, cleanses my head and allows me to start again.

Part II, will touch on mind-mapping and "on-the-couch" writing. You'll have to come back to learn about those methods :)

Okay, so back to my friends, the sunflower seeds.

The Process

Step 1:

Seeds! Get a bag, any bag will do.

Unfortunately, they are typically way too salty. What's a suffering writer to do?

Step 2:

Water! That's right. Apply water to sunflower seeds. Rinse 'em out a couple of times. Don't go crazy with this step. Just rinse, then pat dry. We're not making soup here.

Step 3:

Toast! Warm up a pan and drop them seeds right in. If there's still some water on the seeds, that's okay. The heat from the pan will cook it away.

Toss it around a bit. Move them seeds around so that they don't burn. Remember this, toast is good, burn is bad. Repeat it after me: toast is good, burn is bad.

Step 4:

Consume! Eat them like there's no tomorrow. As you crack, withdraw, chew and toss, think about the problem at hand.
The carnage!
The Method Behind the Madness

I'm sure you've heard of the saying, walking and chewing gum at the same time. This method is a take on that saying. You are focused on seeds and the problem -- nothing else. The seed is a physical process. Remember that a physical process that isn't automatic takes over both mind and body functions.

Focus and concentration are key elements in brainstorming a solution. Eliminate all thoughts that are blocking you and then start at the start -- the problem at hand. Nothing else.

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” ~ Albert Einstein

Fight the good fight!
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