Friday, December 07, 2012

Let's Hear It for Laziness

The topic of discipline often comes up here in one form or another. I wish I could claim to have discipline. I have none. I do generally write every day, but that's because my day job requires me to communicate with students and colleagues and to write about my research. There are days when I do nothing at all in the way of mystery writing. Sometimes even weeks go by.

And even when I plan to work, I am sometimes immobile during the time I have set aside. Yesterday morning for example, I had planned to get up and get some work done on the new book. Character bios, perhaps, or work some more on the outline. Useful effort toward getting to the stage of putting words on paper. Yesterday morning, instead of rising and going briskly to my computer, I got up, turned off the alarm and got back into bed. The room was chilly, my bed was cozy, and I was still groggy from having been up late the night before doing research for an academic project. So -- instead of getting up and using the time I had set aside for mystery writing -- I got back in bed, reached for the remote and discovered Turner Classic Movies was broadcasting Barbara Stanwyck in that wonderful pre-Hollywood Production Code movie, Baby Face. I had seen the movie several times before, but I watched again. And wasted the two hours I had planned to use to work on my new mystery.

As Barbara was vamping her way to the top, I was admiring her fashion sense and found myself considering the role of "material culture" --e.g.,  furs and jewels -- in the film. I mentally outlined a chapter that I could submit with my non-fiction book proposal about clothes and crime. Nothing to do with the mystery novel I had planned to work on. But proof of the usefulness of sloth.

Laziness also worked well for me last weekend. On Saturday, my computer was idling on the desk while I sat curled up in an armchair watching HGTV. I happened to surf by as one of the renovators-to-the-rescue was viewing the basement that the husband had been trying to get around to finishing for some time. As I was listening with no particular interest to the discussion about the clutter in the basement, I had a revelation about one of the characters in my new book. Nothing to do with the man on the show or his lair, other than the fact that I suddenly realized my character -- the victim in my new book -- liked to play games and collected them. That concept of playing games is turning out to be central to the plot.

Laziness also works when you get other people to help you do your work. This evening, book outline in hand I met a friend for dinner. This friend is my go-to person for plot testing. She can read my outline and spot the holes in my plot. She can tell me when she stops believing because it doesn't make sense.Tonight she did it as she was reading my outline and eating her salad. Not only found the weak motivation of a character but suggested how I could fix the problem of his relationship with the victim by introducing a third character. Odd thing was I had actually mentioned this character to her the first time we were discussing the new book and then I forgot him when I came up with a character that I thought was more interesting. But, as my friend pointed out, if I added that character I had discarded to the mix, the plot would right itself. The relationship between my victim and the other character would made sense. She talked. I nodded, thought aloud and made notes. And then I went home and revised my outline.

Lazy writer getting help from friend? Maybe. I could have struggled with my outline, gone back to the notes that I probably had somewhere on my computer about my first idea. But why put myself through that when I have a friend who I can ask to read my four and half page outline and who will remind me of what I have forgotten and point out what I don't see. And the good part is that this kind of laziness really isn't cheating because my friend captures my scattered thoughts from earlier conversations. Without her input, I would spend much more time making false starts. Not that I don't do that anyway. But the false starts have more to do with the writing itself than with the plot.

And what sometimes happens, as it did tonight, is that I outline and then find that an idea discussed with my friend can be made to work even better because something else about one of the character occurs to me.

So I speak in praise of occasionally lounging in bed or curling up in an armchair to watch television when you should be "working". And if you don't already have one, I recommend finding a trusted friend who you can meet for dinner and a session of plot therapy. I say three cheers for making maximum use of strategic laziness.

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