Thursday, May 19, 2011

Revision City: Using Our Whole Brain

I started a new novel on Sunday morning. Over morning coffee I read a fascinating news article that got the right side of my brain clicking on all cylinders. I grabbed a notebook and started brainstorming the story line. I had not been this excited about writing in weeks.

But here's the problem. I am deep into yet another revision of my historical novel. I had printed out some chapters and was editing for pacing and dialog. But it had been a dry week when nothing imaginative seemed to be coming forth. In all this deep revision work, I was using only my organized left brain to improve (ahem) my story. Last week I had also heard back from my agent that, sorry to say, my science book project still wasn't ready to send out. Even though I had emailed her with my new revision, insisting that I just couldn't do any more work on this. Couldn't we just send it out, even if it got a few rejections?

So by Sunday my right brain was screaming for attention and thus the desire to start a new story. This is not new for me. Over twenty years of writing, I have folders full of research and half completed stories. For me, revision is the hard part.

Recently I have been reading a lot about all this left brain/right brain research, including sections in two writing books. There seems to be a resurgence with new studies appearing every day. I am not going to try and explain it here. But you probably know the basics: organized left brain/freethinking right brain. After reading brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor's book My Stroke of Insight about her recovery from a stroke, and the power of the right brain, it finally sunk in.

My revision work had been flat because I was only using the left side of my brain. No wonder I wanted to start a new story. I made some notes about it and put it away - for now. My right brain will keep composting the story, I am sure. But more importantly, I made a conscious effort to let the right brain be more a part of my revision process. I considered my agent's comments and enjoyed trying them out - right brain style. l let my right brain help me figure out sections of the novel that weren't working and solutions that might. Not only have I been having more fun with my writing, but it's working. Using both sides with intention produces better writing.

This seems to be my new thing, so I have a feeling I'll be returning to the topic. Let me know. How do the two parts of the brain work in your revision process?


  1. I don't know if this is a right brain/left brain thing, but I've noticed that sometimes I'll really be focused on writing, and then other times I just want to kick writing to the curb and do nothing but go on these huge reading binges.

    One of my friends is all revised out on her novel that an agent is waiting on, and she, too, is turning to another story that she's excited about. It sounds like what you're doing is just what the doctor ordered.

  2. Thank you Claire for bringing this up. Such a fantastic topic. I, too, had been feeling the lack of inspiration for revision and wanted to simply write. A number of thoughts about why came to me-slightly different but still left/right brain issues. I went to the SCBWI NEw England Conference and was immersed in the urge to SELL my writing (for many logical and emotional reasons) but boy does that way of thinking zap the process. And as I made this realization I read Naomi Kinsman Downey's essay about play. Play had been forgotten by desire. (I've never been good at blending play and competition. Start keeping score in a game and my creative brain dries up like dog barf on a sidewalk). SO now what. I've identified my issues...what next? I mean I really need to revise. What does creative revision look like? Hmmmm.

  3. Molly, I, too, know the dried-dog-barf feeling! I'll see an ad for a contest and think, "I could write something for this," and then I don't. I have to write for the pleasure of it.

    Shelley Carson's YOUR CREATIVE BRAIN is good for learning about the different "mindsets" we use when being creative, from what Carson calls the "Absorb" (taking in loads of information without judging it, as we do during research) to "Stream" (improvisation) and "Transform" (using emotion as a catalyst to create). It's a teensy bit self-helpy but Carson is good at explaining the neuroscience her ideas are rooted in. Worth a look!

  4. Andy, thanks for a book referral that now I must get. I believe that writing for a particular purpose can be pleasurable if it is truly what I want to be writing, rather than just to get published. Ah.

    Molly, yes, thinking about writing for publication is left brain, but necessary. Just not at the same time as the creative flow. What I have found is that I am actually utilizing my right brain for revision (and first draft) writing during other parts of my day - hiking, hanging laundry, chopping vegetables. I've known this for ages. But being more aware and intentional about it, I can put it to better use. I am also trying to be aware that when i am dragging, to say okay - what would the right brain be thinking right now?

  5. Thanks for the recommendations and thoughts. I'm particularly struck by what you said Claire in your first post. "I considered my agent's comments and enjoyed trying them out - right brain style. l let my right brain help me figure out sections of the novel that weren't working and solutions that might." I'm so curious. What did you do differently? How did you shift over. I know that I have done this, and will do it again, but I am curious how you did it.

  6. Molly, on Monday I will post in more depth on right brain revision, especially in fiction. Thanks for your question. For now, before I go work in the garden, I want to say that in regards to the revision of my NF project, my right brain told me to stop protesting and give the new structure suggested by my agent a whirl. My agent suggested a different structure that would appeal more to kids and let them experience the science, rather than read it straight through. Using all the research I had uncovered over two years, I have a new outline now and I have to admit that it is stronger, even though my left brain had tired of all the rearranging needed.

  7. Just want to add a loud shout-out for the book Claire mentioned, MY STROKE OF INSIGHT--it's a terrific writing manual/inspiration, though unintentionally so.