Fighting my addiction to Brain Crack…

Posted on | December 17, 2013

I stand in a cold, basement room painted that most banal of industrial beige-yellow with brown faux wainscotting, the institutional-quality rug thin and worn from years of feet, the brown, unupholstered folding chairs arranged in a circle with an opening toward the door. “Uh, hi. I’m Elf Sternberg. And, uh, um, I’m here because I have a problem. I’m addicted to brain crack.”

(This is where everyone else says, “Hi, Elf!” in tones of ritual unspontaneity.)

Brain Crack is Ze Frank’s memorable phrase for an idea you love so much that you’d rather enjoy thinking about the outcome than working on the project. I have a terrible brain crack problem, both in relationship to storytelling and to software, that manifests itself in lots of little ‘starter’ files filled with ideas and sketches and snippets and quotes, none of which add up to anything at all that I could show to other people.

I go through these phases regularly where I think that my work doesn’t matter to anyone and that nobody is paying attenton. I follow too many great writers who produce work regularly, and I think back to my heydey when I was putting out some 2000 words a week, a new story every month. These days, I can’t even manage 2000 words a month.

Part of that is simply life. In September, my wife fell and broke her shoulder. We forget how big we are, and how tall we are, and how much we weigh, but when you have an uncontrolled fall it’s the same physics as if half your weight fell on you from your full height, and 50 pounds landing hitting your shoulder after falling five feet will do a lot of damage. She was hospitalized briefly, and then spent weeks in bed before being able to get up and move. It was eight weeks before she was well enough for me to travel on business again. Meanwhile, I still have two teenage daughters, and if the older one’s declaring her complete independence the younger one is right now at the height of her need for strong parental support. I have a full-time job and my commute sucks, and the job definitely keeps me more occupied than during the recession. Even my weekends are full.

I did have one story, Honest Impulses, which I’ve written about before, and this story was pure-grade Brain Crack. I have almost 130,000 words of it, and it doesn’t add up to a decent story at all. So instead of just re-reading it, and cackling over how brilliant I was about it, I started taking notes of every major turning point in the story, every darling (you know, the ones you’re supposed to kill), every lovely moment that I wanted to keep Some were in direct conflict with each other (a character can only come out of the closet to one other specific character about that thing she’s closeted about once; I had that scene three times in different settings and at different time points in the original), others just didn’t have as much impact as I’d originally thought.

But when I was done, I had 61 of them. Many of them were crammed together into a single scene. If I parceled them out instead, carefully kept them separated so that each would build on a prior, allocated 1200 words per each of them, I’d have a 72,000 word story. And with that much work I’m sure I could find other things to complicate the heroines’ lives even further.

So I tried that. One “point” per chapter. Organize them according to the story I’m trying to tell.

So far, it seems to be working. I’m 10,000 words into it, and well into chapter five, so I’m over quota and the story seems to be working.

I’ve never outlined before. (Well, okay, I had chapter cards for Bloody Beth, and Aimee, and Pyu Rika.) Usually I’m a pantser type, the kind who just gets an idea and writes the story out and it comes out pretty good the first time. I can’t do that with a novel, apparently.

More practice is needed!

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