Monday, October 19, 2009

Wallowing in Conformity

As some of you know, I've stopped working on my novel, Rooster, for a couple of months now. I can still think of ways to make it better, but I also think the project deserves a rest. It captures a time, and that time is over...for now. I've started a couple of other projects, but both of them are still in the highly experimental phase. Because of that, I've felt trapped in a sort of writing limbo.

Along comes NaNoWriMo, a month dedicated to the completion of a new novel. I figure what better opportunity to try something new. So, I've decided to go out on a limb, scribble outside the lines, step out of my comfort zone and...conform.

Yes, yes, as artists, we often challenge ourselves to be original. And, truly, I think this is an important (though not strictly essential) concept that all artists must confront. But, I think there's also something to be said for being able to imitate the classics.

The downside to conformity, even temporary conformity, is that we may never be able to scrub that unoriginality out of our brain cavity once we squish it in there. But, I subscribe to the idea that knowledge is power. I'm up for the challenge of breaking out of tradition rather than never knowing what tradition is to begin with.

Thus, for the next few weeks, I'm working on a novel structured traditionally, with traditionally sympathetic characters, and traditional primal conflicts. In homage to Scott G. F. Bailey, I'm spending the rest of October in the outlining and researching phase. I've been reading Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. And, tonight, I'm arranging colored index cards into a three act structure after having spent the first part of the weekend reading Save The Cat. November will be devoted to writing this new book, currently titled The Collectors. And, if I hate it, I figure I've only lost a month.

I'm hoping, through this experiment on non-experimentation, to pick up some good story-telling habits. I'm also hoping to direct my creativity into other areas of the storytelling process. By fixing certain elements, like structure, my creative energy will flow into other avenues, like scene building and character traits, that will force me to think in a different way. As Icelandic superstar Bjork says, "The less room you give me, the more space I've got."

What do you think? Is it worthwhile to be traditional? Should we master the old ways before we step out in new directions? Is conforming on some elements a good way to force creativity on other elements?


  1. For me, inspiration comes from many places. The most potent is the actual process of writing, but sitting in traffic ranks a close second.

    I try to maintain a diverse portfolio of writing habits to keep ideas from slipping through the cracks. Once the stockpile of ideas is built up, it becomes an issue of time management to execute on them. Coming up with an idea for a story and executing on that idea are different exercises (for me).

    The idea for your story is like a seed. If it's an excellent seed, it can take root and grow strong even given an unfamiliar growing environment. If the seed is weak, only the exact mix of nutrients will make it flourish.

  2. Like you Davin, I've been working on a novel for the last year. I finished it in July, and then immediately started on revisions. After reading it 748 times I had to put it down. I had to put it down otherwise I knew I would have revised it to nothing.

    I then started on another project, something that is so far from my comfort zone I scared myself. But I knew I had to do it otherwise I knew my regular writing would suffer.

    I am a panster, always have been, but with this new work I decided to, like you, break out the index cards, create characters on paper, make a plot chart, in otherwords, conform temporarily to a way of writing that is completely foreign to me.

    I KNOW that this has helped my writing in other areas, some I didn't even know I needed help with. I picked up my revisions and sailed through them, now so much easier because I know what I'm looking for. I see where the holes are, what needs to be fixed.

    So yes, I believe we should all take a break from what we know, to do something different, challenge ourselves, our creativity to attain new heights, new goals. Even if it just means an index card instead of a napkin at a coffee shop.

  3. Is it worthwile to be traditional?

    For me . . . no. I think when we become too comfortable with our lives, our writing, and everything, then we begin to stagnate. We need to test our limits, soar just a bit higher, and try new things.

    I try to do that with my writing, more and more so lately than ever before. I have no idea why. I just seem to be pushing the limits of experimentation latley.

    You know what? I love it. I love trying new things and seeing where I'll go with them.

    Have fun with writing . . . differently!


  4. Here's a brain twister for you, Davin.

    Because you've decided to conform, you're actually breaking your mold of not conforming, thereby stretching yourself outside the comfort zone you've become accustomed to.

    So you see, by being traditional to what others believe, you're being nontraditional based off your typical modus operandi of being nontraditional.

    Hopefully that didn't sound too confusing. It made more sense before I typed it out.

  5. Matt has an excellent point, Davin. You're being traditional according to what's traditional, but for YOU, you're not conforming to your own standards. That's what will help you grow.

    This post is important for me, Davin. It helps me see why I write the things I do - why some things are more commercial, some things more poetic, some things more literary. It's all experimentation, but at the same time, it's all sliding into little slots I've created. I can excel in each one, too, and that's comforting! Just because you're writing something that conforms to the majority doesn't make it any less well-written or less important to you or your readers. It's just different than what you wrote before.

    I knew Scott and I would somehow get you to outline and map things. My guess is you'll love it. Keep me posted on your progress. I think this is one of the most exciting things you've ever done with your writing!

  6. I've written more genre than literary. Fantasy and horror readers have certain expectations which are achieved through traditional models for the most part.
    Nothing wrong with giving the people what they want, bread and circus, so to speak.

    Following tradition/rules/status quo for a spell will make breaking the mold or rebelling that much more delicious later on.

    Like dessert.

  7. Loved this post, particularly this quote: "By fixing certain elements, like structure, my creative energy will flow into other avenues, like scene building and character traits, that will force me to think in a different way. As Icelandic superstar Bjork says, "The less room you give me, the more space I've got."

    I can't help but think about Mozart and Beethoven; they "conformed" to a traditional sonata structure for most of their works, but in doing so, they produced some brilliant and original work. Sometimes, structure provides the best foundation for originality. Best of luck with Nano!

  8. I say if it inspires you, go for the traditional approach. Why not? Lots of artists start out copying the masters. And you will always be writing through your personal prism anyway, so it will be Davin Malasarn traditional.

  9. Rick, A shower beats traffic as far as thinking spaces go! I've never really found myself with an overabundance of ideas, so working on three projects right now is a bit unusual.

    Anne, you're like a glimpse into my future! Thanks a lot for telling us about your recent attempts to do this same thing. I'm happy to hear it worked for you. I have a feeling it will help me too.

    Scott, Yes, I'm impressed to hear all the new techniques that you've been trying. Honestly, it's quite inspiring!

    MattDel, No, I completely understand you, and I do realize that's what's happening. I'm looking forward to seeing the results, and more importantly, I'm looking forward to learning new things.

    Michelle, the outlining has indeed been fun! I was up until after midnight with my index cards last night. The thing that I was afraid of was that the later drafts of the book would be boring because I already knew what happens. But, aside from the fact that the outline is flexible, I also realize that having an outline allows me to focus on other things when I do the later writing. So, it's still challenging and new.

    Rebecca, well said! And, I do like my dessert!

    Thanks, Christina! I have always found this sort of thing to be true. Having certain guidelines forces us to be creative with our creativity.

    MG Higgins, well said! I am definitely excited about this new project. I've been having trouble sleeping because I want to work on it. That's always a sign that I'm moving in a good direction.

  10. I think that creativity is in us, not in the types of stories we write. Like Christina said of Mozart and Beethoven, it's what we do with the forms that matters, not the forms themselves.

    I also think that working within a defined set of parameters is harder than working without guidelines. It forces you to be disciplined. But having some directions constrained by tradition lets you push harder in other directions. Which is fun.

  11. Ooooh! I'm excited for you! It's great to start a new project.

    I think so many writers bend themselves into pretzels trying to come up with something original, but all we really have to do is write a good story with our own unique slant.

    I know you're going to have a great time with NaNo! Enjoy!

  12. Davin: I agree with Scott and Christina. Your own creativity will shine through no matter how "traditional" the form you choose to work in. The novel is as flexible a form as the symphony. Just think how different Mozart, Stravinsky and Philip Glass wrote within the same "traditional" format.

    Go for it!

  13. And! Since I worked at Disney/Pixar for so many years, I will share a quote from Andrew Stanton that has always stuck with me. Andrew wrote and directed Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E. I was lucky enough to attended a seminar on storytelling/writing he hosted at Disney a few years back. He said:

    "All the great stories have already been told. All you can bring to them is your thumbprint, your unique point of view."

    I believe this 100%. All we have to offer is our own creative DNA -- and that's enough to make something unique and special.

  14. I hope you don't also feel like you're conforming to NaNoWriMo! I know more and more people do it every year, so maybe it just looks like a bandwagon.

    This will be my 6th NaNo, and I'm outlining this year too, which is something I've never done. I started yesterday and had way more ideas than I thought I would. I also will plan as I write, instead of just charging through to get the word count, and I think this will create a more solid draft instead of characters just standing around going, "What do we do now?"

  15. Scott, I agree. I'm having quite a bit of fun, and it's making me see how I can make a better product using this strategy. I feel like it gives me the energy to be creative in more parts of the writing process by breaking things down. How long does it usually take you to outline, by the way?

    Jill, I'm excited about Nano. I have a feeling it's giong to be harder than I anticipate...but for now ignorance is bliss.

    edithroad, maybe your right. Just by being ourselves we end up being original, whether we try to copy something or not.

  16. Davin, you have absolutely nothing to lose.

    Writing more will only make you better, even if it is something totally different.

    I will be interested to hear how it all comes out!


  17. I think it is very much so worthwhile to study the traditional way of doing things. After all, how can one learn to break the rules (and especially to break them well), if one does not know what the rules are.

    I do think that Matt has a point, in that in this case conformity will cause you to think out of your box. So, no matter the result of the book, you'll grow.

  18. Davin: How long does it take to outline? I have no idea, mostly because I have a couple types of outlines going, at different levels of detail. The outline for the book I'm putting off writing took a couple of days to write, though in some ways I was thinking about that story for months, pulling the ideas together. The outline for the story I'm writing now took about a week for the story idea to become a story/narrative arc, and then about a day for the sort of chapter-level broad outline shape to come together, and it takes me anywhere from five minutes to several days to map out a paragraph of summary for each chapter. So the answer is: it depends.

    The outline also changes as I write the prose; it's a fluid, not a solid. How long you take to outline depends on how much detail you want to know before you start committing things to the page. When you reach the point where you're actually writing scenes instead of making notes, you're ready to just sit and write. Maybe you're ready before that point.

  19. it's what we do with the forms that matters, not the forms themselves.

    Scott, that's a great point. Working on a chapter book has been a neat experience. I grew a 500-word picture book into a 12,500-word chapter book, and it has a kid-friendly story but I tried to write it with a literary edge nonetheless. I hope I succeeded.

  20. Davin, as others here have already said, more than conformity, you are stepping outside of your box. That's a wonderful thing.

    I believe that every writing experiment we do, teaches us something about writing. Eventually, it all adds up.

  21. Good luck, Davin! I'll be anxious to hear how it goes, and how the experience works or doesn't work for you--mostly the pace, not necessarily the more traditional writing. As for the latter, I'm sure your voice and creativity will find their way in.

    On a separate note, Alexander Chee has a link on his blog to an article by Junot Diaz--it really spoke to me, and I think anyone who is struggling with a piece (as I am!!) might take heart in reading it.

    It begins: "One night in August, unable to sleep, sickened that I was giving up, but even more frightened by the thought of having to return to the writing, I dug out the manuscript. I figured if I could find one good thing in the pages I would go back to it. Just one good thing..."

  22. I think it can only help your writing, in the long wrong. If know what a traditional structure is, how to write it, and dissecting what parts of it work for you and your writing--I'd guess you would have a much better grasp on how to construct stories and branch out from "traditional". It's like that quote about knowing the rules before you break them... and I think actually writing in a certain way or structure to learn how to do it is very helpful. :) Hopefully knowing (through writing) how it works in comparison with traditional structures will strengthen your writing and give you a better idea of how you work?

    (And yes, it's only a month so that's a definite plus if it doesn't work.)

    Basically, I see nothing wrong with writing traditionally if that's what you like, or experimenting in other things if that appeals to you more. ;)

    Traditional stories have been around for awhile because something about that structure works and people keep coming back for more.

    (The novel I recently finished in September is one I don't think has a "traditional" structure, but the novel--a different one--I'm prepping to revise has a very traditional three-act structure. It'll be interesting to see how this goes.)

    Ultimately I think we learn a little more the more we write and try new things, whether they're considered traditional or experimental by other people. :)

    Best of luck with NaNo, Davin!


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