©2011 Hampton Bush (Visit’s Hampton Bush’s Home Page)
The following article is based on a presentation I made somewhere, but I can’t remember where it was.
Brainstorming for Writers
Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a best friend to sit with and brainstorm your tough writing questions whenever you get stuck?
How great would it be to sit with someone who totally understands your problems, someone who will patiently allow you to explain what you’re trying to do? Who won’t keep looking at the clock, as though they’re bored to death?
I tried using my wife for this purpose, but she kept jumping up, saying, “‘Scuse me, be right back. Gotta check this or that. Each time she left she was gone a little longer than the time before.” So, I gave up on her.
I then called several of my friends to see if they would like to help me brainstorm a solution to the problem.
Most of them said something like, “Uh, how long will this take?”
I said, “I dunno. Couple of hours, maybe.”
They said things like, “Uh, well, I gotta go shopping.” Or “How ’bout Saturday afternoon two weeks from now. I—”
“But—but, I need help right now!”
“Sorry, gotta run. Later!”
So, I gave up on friends, too. Hell, they all think I’m a little nuts, anyhow, wanting to write novels.
John Steinbeck’s Solution
And then one day I ran across a paperback of John Steinbeck’s posthumously published book Journal of a Novel, aka The East of Eden Letters. They were written to his friend and editor, Pascovici on the left-hand pages of the notebook in which he wrote East of Eden.
The letters were written in the period between January, 29- October 31, 1951.They were his way, he said, of “getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.”
What struck me about the letters, which were in my opinion, more a diary of his thoughts, was that he used them as a sounding board to talk about the things he wanted to do in the novel and the problems, the blocks he was having. I read the book cover-to-cover and came away more confident in my own prowess as a writer.
To myself I said, “All I have to do is get a great editor like Pascovici, and then I, too, can write an East of Eden.” Then suddenly reality set in. I didn’t have an editor, great, mediocre, or even lousy. I only had myself.
Suddenly I had a flash of brilliance. I’ll write letters to myself to warm up my mental arm, to plagiarize Steinbeck’s characterization. Following is my very first journal entry. As you read it, you’ll quickly realize that I was inexperienced at novel writing and at journalizing, but not at writing.
December 19, 1993 – 6:30 AM
Current Writing Problems
At the moment, I have spent 4 days working on the Tunney chapter, trying to make it work. As I wrote, I continued to find problems with previous Tunney chapters, particularly relating to FBI procedures, equipment, attitudes, etc. For example, I found that I had left out assigning an agent to watch Philip Masters, who is the main character in the story. This was easy enough to repair.
Then I discovered that I had not considered how my multiple agents would get around the County. How in the hell can you follow someone in a car when you’re on foot? Then, of course, how the hell can you watch a subject continually, if you have to drive back to base to turn the car over to your relief? Ergo: need two vehicles to maintain two agents working one shift each. With six agents working the case. By my count, that adds up to six cars, two to watch Philip and Nolly; two to watch Courtland; two to watch Jessica. Crap! This is an undercover operation. All of a sudden I need a damned garage to hide my vehicles. And, don’t forget the van.
Okay, this is stupid! I don’t need six agents. I’ll just overwork two. That means only two cars: Tunney’s and the other agent’s. Yeah, that’s easier anyhow.
Next, I suddenly realize that I have field agents using “hand sets” (walkie-talkies). This is probably somewhat obsolete technology, and, considering the seriousness of Tunney’s assignment, the latest technology would undoubtedly be used. Problem: what the hell is the latest technology?
December 22, 1993 – 6:30 AM
Well, just finished (yesterday) a chase to find a source for latest in communications technology. Hit a gold mine when I called Opamp bookstore in L.A. Guy named Robert told me to check out “Jane’s Security and Counter Insurgency Equipment”, a $300 reference book. Yikes! Then I called libraries around Orange County and couldn’t find the thing. LA County Library has it, so I can go down in a few days and check it out. But this slows me down some. I also discovered that I don’t know crap about weapons. Had an agent named Feinman shooting a 30-30 with scope. This is probably laughable, but I understand that Jane’s has everything for security and counter insurgency. Wish I had $300 and could bring the book home and browse. Have to be content with Xeroxing what I need at the library.
December 22, 1993 – 8:45 AM (went to watch news)
Back. As I watched the news, I realized that a field unit nowadays probably would be using a portable satellite uplink the way CNN and other news agencies do. Question: how big are they? What do they look like. Do you need a van or are they really portable? Etc.
And re the comm units: are they using voice activated mikes, and ear receivers, all invisible to the outside world. What’s standard? That means a call to the FBI. Have to prepare for that with a list of questions ahead of time.
Anyhow, the gist of this report is that I was going along like a bliss-filled idiot, thinking I had it all under control, when I really was living in a dream world. I probably don’t need too much detail, but I need to know what’s possible, so I don’t do stupid things and create plot turns on obsolete concepts.
Another major problem I may be having in this chapter is that of UNITY. I keep trying to have Tunney’s base approached from the POV of a roving enemy scout. Is this really necessary to the story? Or do I only have to have Tunney learn: that Philip may be friendly with the enemy, that Jessica is leaving town and Cable Mathis is following Philip.
Will I use the problem of the scout later or is it just window dressing to avoid moving on with the story. If I throw it in, what will I really do with it? Maybe it’s just an irrelevant red herring. Bet it is. In that case, I should just dump it altogether and get on with the story. Forget the bs.
December 25, 1993
Well, I didn’t do much writing today. Or yesterday for that matter or Monday, the day before. On Monday I went to LA City Library and Xeroxed a bunch of pages from Jane’s. Got just about all I need to cover the technical side of Tunney’s communication operation. The gist of the research is: there are comm packages to suit darn near any requirement, so I can invent whatever I want and it will be plausible.
Got weapons: pistols, machine guns, sniper rifles, scopes. Got communication equipment: head sets, underarm harnesses, voice activated, leg harnesses, helmets, etc. Got security equipment: to keep out listeners, etc, create magnetic field around unit. Got bug detection equipment, etc.
So, now I just have to make some decisions: do I want to use ear stuff in California? Probably not. Hand units are okay.
What do I want to use in Arkansas? Probably Tunney would insist on covert surveillance communications harnesses, due to the possibility of surprise attack; also, since the previous teams disappeared without a trace, he will want all members voice activated, so all they have to do is speak to give input; plus this leaves them hands free.
Sounding Board Problem Solved
The examples given above were my first, quite naive efforts at writing a journal, but they taught me a couple of things.
- Talking to myself about my problems, in lieu of someone else, works. I figured it was like programming my subconscious with the problem. Quite often I found that my subconscious popped out the solution before I got the problem programmed in. That’s great.
- Writing down my writing problem helped me see clearly what the real problem was, and showed me other problems I had.
The result is that I have solved almost all my writing problems including things like the craft of dialogue, the craft of description, the craft of story, the difference between character and characterization, etc.
All of those things are now in my soon-to-be-published book, Quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling.
So, happy journalizing to you!
Go write something!