H is for Heuristics


I’ve written before on the left brain-right brain conundrum, but I didn’t really offer any solutions. Today’s post is all about solutions.

The left brain is the conscious, logical side. If you’re a writer, this is where your Inner Editor resides. All writers have an Inner Editor—that’s the voice that tells you everything you write is garbage.

shakespeare's inner critic

The Inner Editor is a bully.

The right brain is the subconscious, creative side. That’s where the Muse lives hides.

There’s a bridge between the two sides (the corpus callosum), but most of us struggle to get across it, because smack in the middle of it is the massive barricade commonly known as Writer’s Block. No matter how hard we try to shut up the Inner Critic and no matter how persuasively we try to reassure the Muse that it’s safe to come out, the obstruction hinders communication between the two sides.

Heuristics are like a set of tools that can dismantle the roadblock piece by piece.

Here are four heuristic strategies you might want to try:

1. Mind Mapping: Pretty much everyone these days learns to do this in about the third grade, but by the time they hit college, they’ve largely given up on it as a kid’s kind of thing. Bring it back out.  It’s useful.  Really.

Start with a topic or an idea. Write it in the middle of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it.  (This is a great opportunity to go wild with colored pens and pencils.  The Muse loves color!)  Draw a few radii out from the center circle and define a subtopic for each one, again with a circle around each.  Then give each subtopic its own set of subtopics, etc.  Don’t censor yourself.  Sometimes ideas that look like crap at first can turn into very useful stuff indeed.  And if an idea doesn’t pan out, you simply won’t wind up using it in your story/article/novel.  No sweat.  The point is, nobody’s ever going to see this but you.

In writing fiction, one strategy you can try is to start with the title of a story in the center (Level A–see the sample below), and then the elements of fiction in the Level B subtopic areas (character, setting, plot, symbolism, theme, point of view). You can then give each of these a few radii and new bubbles of their own (Level C), and each bubble will then continue to branch further and further out (Levels D, E, etc.).  Some ideas will spider further out than others, and that’s fine.

Here’s a sample mind map:  sample mind map structure


2. Directed Freewriting: Ask yourself a question. It might be about a character, or about the relationship between two characters. It might be about motivation (either yours or a character’s), or a particular conflict, symbol, setting, or theme. Just keep it narrow and focused. Something like “Why does Sammy shut the door in Paul’s face?” can be a good question, or “What’s important about the rain in this scene?” Just make sure you’re not asking a yes-or-no question, or an either-or question. Try to use Why or How questions, since those lend themselves to more useful exploration.

Now write down the question, set a timer for five minutes (or ten, but I like five), and write nonstop in answer to the question.

Don’t stop writing for anything, not even to think about what to write next. Just write whatever is in your head. If you’re thinking, “this is stupid, I’ve got better things to do,” then that’s what you’re going to write. The idea is to get in tune with what’s in your head and get into the habit of writing it down. This is a great strategy for opening the communications between the brain and the hands. In particular, don’t stop to fix typos, and don’t stop to reword anything. Just write until the timer goes off. This isn’t getting published. Nobody’s going to see it but you.  Anything useful that you produce during these sessions can be crafted later.

Freewriting all by itself can be useful, but it doesn’t really become a heuristic activity until you start looping.


3. Looping: When your freewriting timer goes off, finish the sentence you’re on and stop writing. Read what you wrote and highlight anything in it that looks potentially useful or interesting. Set the timer again and do a new freewrite on one of the ideas you just highlighted. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Looping forces you to go deeper into a topic than your initial ideas might otherwise take you, and it’s a great way to overcome writer’s block.


4. Fact-Idea List: Divide a sheet of paper (or a word document) into two halves. On the left side, list all of the facts about your topic that you can think of. (This is a good place to list details from your research.) Then, on the right side, list all of your ideas.

Now look at the list of facts and see if you can combine any of them to create new ideas. Add the new ideas to the Ideas side of the sheet.

Then look at each idea on the Idea side, and try to take it apart to determine what facts led to it. List the new facts on the facts side.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

A fact-idea list uses both inductive and deductive reasoning to force its creator to come up with new ideas, and it also draws attention to facts that might not previously have seemed significant.


Have fun crossing the bridge!


Have you ever tried any of these?  Do you have other strategies that work for you?  I’d love to hear about them!


Source for Shakespeare’s Inner Critic cartoon:  http://tr.pinterest.com/pin/3870349651834271/

WIP: Out of My Mind(s)

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I had a professor in college who was amazed that it was possible for Wallace Stevens, arguably one of the best American poets of the twentieth century, to have worked for an insurance company by day.  “An insurance company!  Probably the most unimaginative, un-poetic career on the planet!”

(We can split hairs here if we choose, since Stevens was actually an attorney who eventually wound up as vice president of The Hartford, but the point is well taken.  No offense meant to anyone who actually works for an insurance company, though, since I know firsthand that such jobs can be fascinating.)


Regardless of what he did for a living, Wallace Stevens the poet was fascinated with the workings of the imagination.  In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” he writes,

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.  (lines 4-6)

I’m not going to get into an analysis of the poem, but I thought of those lines tonight as I was pondering the differences between academic writing and creative writing, and the two minds that produce them.  A fellow writer, to whom I had jotted a note saying her work ethic and word-count successes had inspired me, wrote back and said, “You’re a writing teacher!  I bow to you!”

I got a giggle out of that.  Please . . please . . don’t bow to me.  I don’t deserve it.

I’m not sure what Stevens was actually referring to with his “three minds” –and I’m not going to get into Freudian theory or Taoist possibilities here—but I am going to guess, simply because he was a writer, that I know what two of them were, because writers in general are of two minds:  the “Me” and the “Muse.”

That is to say, the mind of the conscious writer (aka one’s “Me,” the Left Brain, the logical side, driven by one’s Inner Editor) and the mind of the subconscious writer (aka one’s Muse, the Right Brain, the creative side, driven—one hopes, anyway—by one’s imagination).

Stevens may have been an insurance agent (or a lawyer or a vice president or whatever) during his working hours, but outside of work, he was a poet.  And his fascination with the imagination—where ideas come from—is something that turns up in a lot of his work.

In “Study of Two Pears,” he was frustrated because no matter how he tried to metaphorize them, they stubbornly remained pears:

     They are not viols,

     Nudes or bottles.

     They resemble nothing else.  (lines 1-3)

I would argue that when he wrote that poem, his Me was in control.  But when he wrote (the much later) “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” his Muse could barely be contained:

     These lozenges are nailed-up lattices.

     The owl sits humped.  It has a hundred eyes.

The title tells the story:  He didn’t even know who was writing it.  That’s how the Muse works.

I understand that.

My “Me” is a well-organized sort of person, at least where her work ethic is concerned.  For instance, she likes to have all her ducks neatly in a row before the semester begins.  I could tell you, right this second, precisely what my classes will be doing on any random day you pick during the coming fall semester.  November 6th?  Yep, it’s already planned.

But that’s work.  And it works fine for academic writing as well, where one must be linear and methodical.

In contrast, as a creative writer, I’m a pantser, which means I tend to write by the seat of my pants, i.e. with a minimum of planning.  This is because my creative writing—my fiction—is driven by, and on good days is mostly written by, my Muse, and my Muse does.  Not.  Like.  Planning.


When I go back and read material I wrote yesterday, I’ll be able to tell you, with no trouble at all, whether my Muse was at work, or my Me.  My Me tends to be pedantic and detail-oriented.  My Me insists on explaining things, and she’s also overly fond of Telling, rather than Showing.  She Tells every single boring detail she can think of.  A character pours a cup of coffee, puts the pot back where it belongs, walks to the door, turns the knob, opens it, steps outside, closes it . . . You get the idea.


My Muse, on the other hand, leaps all over the place like a dragonfly or a hummingbird.  Zip, zip, zip.  When she’s off and running, it’s all my fingers can do to keep up.  Stories go in directions I’d never thought of before, much less planned.  Characters take on lives of their own.

Trouble is, she isn’t all that reliable at showing up for work.

One of my toughest jobs as a writer is to learn to get in contact with my Muse, to convince her that when I place my fingers on the keyboard, that’s a cue for her to show up and get down to business.  But this week, for instance, she’s been off zipping around somewhere else and has barely stopped by even to say hello.

I’ve been told that it’s only after you get the first draft down that you should let your Me step in and do any editing.  I’m just now beginning to understand the reasoning behind that rule.  There are two very different minds at work.  The Muse gets the draft down.  It’s spotty and flawed and it makes my Inner Editor cringe.  But she’ll get her turn too.


Assuming I don’t lose my mind.

WIP: Working at a Snail’s Pace


This week’s been a bit of a struggle, WIP-wise.  I guess that’s what I get for being so smug about last week’s accomplishments.

My deal with myself is supposed to be that I will write every day—write new material without getting lost in revision and without scooting off into Google-land every time I have a question.  The deal is supposed to be “No research, no planning, no revision, just writing.”

But I didn’t do so well on that this week.  I did a lot of revision.  I did a lot of planning.  And I spent a heck of a lot of time in Google-land.  But actual writing of new material, not so much.  Only four days of actual writing for a total of less than 2500 words for the whole week.  I console myself with the knowledge that I did work on a different story every day, and that most of that work was actually pretty useful.

Writing-wise, the first draft of Eddie’s story is now finished, and I’m truly happy with it.  It was for this story that I spent all that time in Google-land (it’s set in Belgium during WW2), but the time spent was well worth it.  The story wound up taking a couple of twists I wasn’t expecting (don’t you love when that happens?), and they set up some great potential for Chatón’s (his daughter’s) story, which up until this week I had barely even begun to think about.  Now I can’t wait for her name to come up!

Planning:  I did scene cards (a Holly Lisle tactic that my Muse usually balks at) for Emma’s story.  Emma’s and Chatón’s stories are the only two I haven’t even begun drafting yet, and this is the second time Emma’s has come up in the past couple of weeks.  Last time, I did a lot of character and story development, and now, with the scene cards, I think I’ve reached a point where the next time it comes up, I should be able to pound out a good couple thousand words on it–or maybe even get the whole draft done, who knows?  I’m really excited about this one, too.

I also got some revising done on Amelia’s and Tanna’s stories this week, but not as much as I would have liked.  Amelia’s in particular needs some serious cutting.  So now that my Muse has decided she’s willing to do the scene card thing, I think I’ll go back and re-plot Amelia’s story and see what can come out and what just needs tightening.

And finally, John’s story underwent some serious re-conceptualizing this week based on another of Holly’s methods, the Shadow Room, which provided me with a couple of surprising conflicts I hadn’t originally planned on.  Those are going to be fun to write, too.

So all in all, it looks like I’m still on track to have the novel’s entire first draft completed by September 15, as planned.  I may be working at a snail’s pace, but slow and steady wins the race.

Looks like it’s been a pretty productive week after all!

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