Thursday, November 11, 2010

Things you can do in the absence of a brain

There is a point in the course of a workday when you look down and realize your brain has liquefied and leaked out your ear.

Depending on what you do for a living, you may continue to function with no discernible change in performance.

When you’re writing though, brain liquefaction can be treacherous.

It’s been happening to me more often lately as Daylight Savings Time jolts me awake at 4 a.m. and suggests this is the ideal time to make sure I remembered to disable the sprinkler system.

Fortunately, I’ve come up with a list of writing-related chores I can perform sans mental function. When my head turns fuzzy, I turn to these tasks:

Mess with mechanics. My editor recently sent me the style manual for Sourcebooks. Many of the rules revolve around formatting stuff like the proper use of ellipses and em-dashes and scene breaks. Not tough, but time consuming and a little brainless. Perfect. Style guide or not, there are always little consistency issues in formatting and punctuation that you can fix in a manuscript when your brain isn’t up for anything more creative than chewing gum.

Brainless research. I’m not talking about complex stuff here. I’m talking about the scenes you ignore when you’re writing them because you don’t have time to go research the preferred method for spitting wine in a tasting room or whether the Iditarod uses the northern route or the southern one in odd-numbered years. When you’re brain-dead, it’s the perfect time to use the Internet for something besides searching for naked pictures of Daniel Craig.

Find & replace war. We’ve all got ‘em – those annoying words and phrases we overuse. I’m particularly fond of “just” and anything that involves the raising or quirking of eyebrows. Even with a minimum of functional brain cells, you can search for overused words and replace them with something a little less tired.

Rename places and characters. I know most authors put more thought into character names and and geographic locations than I do, so this might be relevant only to me. I tend to use names haphazardly, always intending to go back and put more thought into the decision when I have time. Brain-liquefaction moments are the perfect occasion to peruse phone directories, baby name books, or even the employee roster at work to find more suitable names for hastily named places and people.

The brain-dead brainstorm. I’m not a plotter, but I do keep a Word doc of random thoughts on future scenes and plot twists. When I can’t muster the brain capacity to do much more than clip my toenails, it’s a surprisingly good time to add to this document, usually in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Fatigue can spawn some surprisingly useful ideas…like this blog post, for example.

What do you do when your brain gets too tired to function creatively? Do you keep pushing, take a break, or find some other way to put the few remaining brain cells to work? Please share.

I have to go scrub the gray matter off my desk before the dog starts lapping it up.


broken biro said...

I love your list (maybe because mine is broadly the same, giving me a warm 'I'm doing this right' feeling!).

I've just started reading my work out to myself - it really does expose clumsy phrasing, dialogue that doesn't run true etc - and it's a great excuse (if one is needed) for talking to yourself!

Sarah W said...

There are naked images of Daniel Craig out there? How about David Tennant?

I mean, um . . . sometimes I go back and outline what happens in each chapter, plot and subplot and make sure my timeline is right.
If I'm brain dead, I don't get confused by the subtleties - supposing for a moment I wrote any - or what I'd intended versus what I actually wrote.

I just make step-by-step notes and sort it out when the brain cells come back on line.

Christine said...

Love this--made me laugh. And perfect timing. The time change couldn't have come at a worse time for me. My brain is dead and I have to revise a full. Ugh.

Linda G. said...

I'm sorry. I'd like to help, but my brain liquefied when I read the words "naked pictures of Daniel Craig."

Unknown said...

I periodically print whatever I'm working on and put the completed chapters in a binder. Then I go through, make notes to myself, on hundreds of post-its, and leave it. The brain-overload moments are perfect for my binder. I go through the notes I've made and follow my own instructions to the letter. I can edit and not worry about doing anything stupid because the notes were made when I was lucid.

Jessica Lemmon said...

I'm just relieved (I overuse "just" too by the way...) that I'm not the only one who can't think of a single interesting character name when I'm writing my draft. And everyone is always raising and eyebrow or "looking" or giving "looks," while I haven't employed the find & highlight feature for that yet, you gave me a great idea. WILL DO. Thanks, Tawna!

Danica Avet said...

Um, I play solitaire and brainstorm. I can't even count how many times I'll find myself pulling up the solitaire window, play a couple of hands, and then think, "Oh! Idea!" and I can write again. It happens almost at the end of every scene, but it works for me.

If I get really bad though, I'll read what I've written and clean up, drop words, tighten up the prose, etc.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I'm sorry, I am also completely stupified and distracted at the idea of naked pictures of Daniel Craig. Was it in Casino Royale where he was so hideously abused? I still want to kiss it and make it better...

(shakes head) What were we talking about?

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm not the kind of writer who forces it. I write when the inspiration takes me, which is not every day.

Maybe I should try harder.

Laura Maylene said...

Uh, yeah. When my brain flatlines, I totally do productive stuff like this rather than playing spider solitaire or watching dumb Youtube videos. *shifty eyes*

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Just found your blog and became a follower! Great post. I love the list and especially the "find and replace war" which is a terrific way of describing it. Find and replace is so helpful. I'm one of those guilty of having every character raise an eyebrow at some point.

Patty Blount said...

I read when I am too tired to write. Last night, my eyes were closing as I worked on my NaNo project, but I hadn't met my goal yet.

I took a quick fan-fiction break.

I am a horrid abuser of "She sighed." "He sighed." "We sighed" "They sighed."

Jeesh, in a previous project, I used the Find/Replace feature and found 495 instances of "sigh".

In my spare time, I now Google body gestures and facial expressions.

Anonymous said...

LOL my characters do too much eyebrow raising and glancing and shrugging...they are some very twitchy people. I have to calm them down.

And change Daniel Craig to Alex O'Laughlin, and I'm all about it. :)

Nicole Zoltack said...

I tend to abuse 'just' too. Usually each new story I write has new crutch words, but 'just' is one that hangs around.

Sierra Godfrey said... had me at style manual. What! can you please tell us more about this. I didn't know publishers had this, and I'm guessing it varies between publishers. This is fascinating!

Wait, how sad is it that I'm more into the style book than I am Daniel Craig.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I usually drink a lot of caffeine, which wakes me up. And yet being in a coffeehouse, away from my desk, calms me, and somehow it's easier to write when I'm there. Or I'll start making a list of things that I'd like to write about that I haven't written about before. That way I'll have something to fall back on for next time.

Jan Markley said...

I'm a big abuser of the word 'just'. FB is good activity for the brain liquified!

The Novel Road said...

I used to blog when felt a bit o' brain freeze, but e-mails would show up inquiring why I wasn't editing my work. "But I'm improving my social network" I reply... Which was answered by an e-mail of a Youtube video of a lion roaring.

Reading classic novels does help to re-center me. Edits finished, I blog, for the most part, in peace. But I know I still use blogging to "excuse" lack of insight.

I'm lucky now. A new segment on my blog has allowed me to put work on a back burner till December.(hint-hint) :-)


Elizabeth Ryann said...

This list is awesome. I also admire the work ethic behind coming up with it, since when I reach that point I generally just go ahead and clip my toenails then call it a day.

Dr. Goose said...

I do want a hug.

Nate Wilson said...

My problem is that whenever I find myself without a brain, I start writing about lions and flying monkeys and the Wizard of Oz and it always leads to a whole new series of copyright lawsuits, and I'm struggling enough to pay the bills as it is.

Therefore, when I'm feeling brainless, I'll just stick to watching Fox News, thank you very much.

Claire Dawn said...


I happen to be really good in bed.

Good head or not.


Michelle Miller said...

when my brain goes numb, I go somewhere else. If I'm at home, I drive to the bookstore or the library. If I'm in either of those places, I go to the other or home. None of them are more than 15 minutes away from each other with a minimum of six stoplights, and the drive and wait sequence seems to be perfect for getting my brain back in gear.

My characters like to pause for a moment or think about things for a moment with alarming frequency. They are a dramatic bunch.