Hamburger vs. Steak: Notion Potion #3 by Jordan Castillo Price

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Jordan Castillo PriceHello from Jordan Castillo Price! It’s that time again—time for another sip of Notion Potion. Hopefully you’ve dissuaded your inner creativity-bully (like we talked about last month in Don’t Make Yourself Hurl) and you’re ready to ramp up your creative endeavors. To take your projects to a higher level, consider shifting your focus to quality.

Imagine the following scenario: you sit down to a dinner that’s been lovingly prepared for you. All the cooking’s been done. All the cleanup will be handled. Your host emerges from the kitchen with a silver dome-covered platter. It smells like food, and though you can’t quite place the aroma, given the surroundings, it’s almost sure to be something completely fabulous. Your host places the platter in front of you—and up close, it’s even bigger than you imagined. Your stomach growls. You’re salivating. You can’t wait.

The dome is lifted, and you behold….

grossFive pounds of fried ground beef. Plain.

Yes, you could choke some down—and really, since it’s free, and the cleanup is being handled, and you’re pretty darned hungry, if you’re not a vegetarian you might swallow a few bites to tide you over until you can stop for a milkshake on the way home. But what would you remember about this meal, other than its freakishness, and your utter disappointment in the whole experience?

Nothing good.

yummyNow imagine the dome had been lifted to reveal an exquisite medallion of tender filet, pink in the center and crusted with peppercorns, perched on a crispy triangle of fried polenta, garnished with fresh sprigs of herbs. (Or a tiny little artsy fartsy portion of whatever it is that really makes your tastebuds go “hooray!”) You might finish it and be hungry for more…but at least your evening wouldn’t be a disappointing exercise in blandness.

I was journaling the other day in preparation for my writing time, and I was just about to jot down that I wanted high wordcount that day…but then I stopped myself. What I realized in a brief but intense “a-ha moment” was that I actually didn’t want to produce a large quantity of work. What I wanted was to write a really memorable piece of story.

Not words. Story.

So how did I go about shifting my focus from writing lots of words to writing a really cool scene?

PLAN
It’s surprising how many creatives show up without a plan. (Have you ever been in a band and heard the dreaded words, “Let’s just jam!” Ugh. I hated that.) Think about setting an intention for your next bout of work. There must be a few things you need to accomplish to get that project to its next stage—what might that thing be? To move the current scene forward in your novel? Get better at a certain passage in the music where the song usually falls apart? Figure out why the foreground of your painting doesn’t quite work with your background?

Having a specific plan about which element you’d like to handle right now helps you utilize your time much better than simply showing up at the computer, guitar or canvas and telling yourself to “just jam.”

DREAM
The subconscious mind will come up with new routes for you to get around your creative impasses, but you need to stop forcing a project that’s not working and switch to another activity that doesn’t hijack your brain. A shower, a nap, exercise, and mindless housework are all good ways to let your brain keep chewing on your project while you do something else. (Watching TV does not work for this.)

Here’s another technique to try. Set the intention, “Tonight I’ll figure out how to solve ___.” In the morning, think or journal about the solution to your creative problem. For me, often it seems either very obvious, or very at least very different, first thing in the morning with a fresh brain.

FOCUS
Many people brag about being able to “multitask” as if that’s a good thing. According to researchers at MIT, what they are doing is not performing tasks simultaneously, but rather switching back and forth between tasks rapidly. With all this rapid switching, you open yourself up to a greater margin of error. So when you’re doing your creative thing, turn off the phone, TV and the email and see if you can zero in on only your task. Go somewhere else to work if your family is always pestering you. (Families tend to do this for a variety of reasons. The minute they see you’re engaged with something they try to pull you away.) You’ve set aside the time to do this project, so don’t sabotage yourself by depriving it of the focus it deserves.

CARE
Going back to the food analogy, can you imagine that perfect little filet charred like a hockey puck rather than cooked to perfection? Or how about seeing it strewn on a dirty plate? Sometimes in the flow of a creative project, it’s tempting to ignore a stray, sketchy line, or a clunky sentence, or a sour note. In getting your initial project started, that’s fine. But when it comes to the point where you’re honing it down in preparation of presenting it, make sure you’re not sloppy with your final touches. Don’t gloss over those clunkers and tell yourself they’re “good enough.” Ask yourself, “How can this be fabulous?” It’s phenomenally gratifying to take something that sorta-worked and tweak it until it’s amazing.

Quantity is not an inherently bad thing. Sometimes cranking out big volumes of creative stuff is useful, especially when you’re in a practicing stage, or you’re working through a rut, or you’re doing something for fun. But ultimately, quantity is not a useful focus in every stage of a creative endeavor.

Many artists fill with anxiety at the thought of the writers who write 5000 more words per day than they do, or the bands with more gigs, or the painters who can squeeze out a painting a night. But which would you rather write—the 100,000 words that your audience read and promptly forgot, or the chilling (or romantic or epic) story opener that was so vivid, your readers are visiting that mental image for the rest of the week, highlighting the passage in their ereader, and seeing the scene play out behind their closed eyelids as they drift off to sleep?

I’d love to hear what sorts of things you tell yourself to encourage quality in your creative process! How do you keep yourself reaching for the steak instead of caving in to the temptation of serving up a bunch of hamburger?

Find out more about Jordan at JordanCastilloPrice.com or check out her latest serialized adventure, Turbulence, at jcpbooks.com.

15 thoughts on “Hamburger vs. Steak: Notion Potion #3 by Jordan Castillo Price

  1. Dev Bentham

    This is a great reminder. Your analogy has me thinking of cooking shows where the last thing the chef does is put a little garnish on and wipe any drips from the plate. Working sloppy is fine (at least I hope so, since that’s what I do) as long as you bring that critical eye to the final project, garnish and swipe.

    1. Jordan Castillo Price Post author

      It seems like some people could benefit from being more detail oriented and others could benefit from loosening up. I know sometimes I’m one way and sometimes the other.

      I was hoping to express those points where the author/artist/musician is thinking, “Yeah, that one little part kinda sucks but maybe I can get away with it.” I think those parts are huge opportunities to be fabulous!

  2. Jordan L. Hawk

    Great points! I’m big on planning, so by the time I sit down to actually write it the words come fast because prepared all the ingredients beforehand and just need to cook the meal.

    Showering and exercising are my two most creative times of the day. I’m sure the other mall walkers think I’m constantly texting, when I’m actually frantically making notes so I don’t forget anything. :)

  3. Val Kovalin

    Jordan, this is a great post! Something I try to do to create the filet mignon rather than the ground beef is to come up with sharp detail. I’m not saying I’m always successful, but I try.

    As in two stories I read recently about boxers. One said about the character, “He worked the bag,” and that’s it. Was it the heavy bag, the speed bag, the double-end bag, or what?

    The other story got into details like the duct tape put on the boxer’s gloves and the handwraps beneath the gloves. It was a terrific story because it sprinkled in just enough sharp details to bring the whole thing into vivid focus, but not overwhelm us readers with too much detail.

    BTW, it’s nice to hear what the people at MIT have to say about the much overrated concept of multi-tasking (which I’m terrible at!)

    1. Jordan Castillo Price Post author

      Detail is an excellent way to add finishing touches! I think detail is precarious because, as you say, you don’t want too much because it can bog a story down. (The go-to phrase for this is “she pulled the Bakelite handle” in a historical, where I honestly don’t remember if I read the book or read about the absurdity of the detail. Because the character wouldn’t know or care if the handle was Bakelite if Bakelite handles were typical of the period!)

      What’s hard about details too is that sometimes you can write [the thing] and come back to it in edits…but sometimes knowing what the “thing” is will impact the whole rest of the scene, so really you do need to drop what you’re doing, go research it and make a decision.

      By the way, when you said “boxers” and “he worked the bag” I didn’t associate it with the sport of boxing initially–I am so not sports-minded. I had visions of underwear and nutsack scratching dancing in my head :shock:

      1. Val Kovalin

        LOL! Sorry, huge boxing sports fan here. I should have given context. What you initially assumed makes much more sense in our genre! :D

  4. Finn Marlowe

    I would much rather write 300 words of steak than 5,000 of hamburger, it’s just damned hard. It’s wonderful when the words come together just right and the scene unfolds on paper (okay computer) exactly how you see it in your head. That’s such a rush. I call it being in “the zone”. And I think readers can tell those times when the author was in the zone – those scenes are the ones that your breath away. Thanks JCP for reminding me that it really is quality over quantity.

    1. Jordan Castillo Price Post author

      It’s really hard to not get caught up in the “everyone’s writing more words than me” self-torture, I think. (It is for me, anyway.) We all need to try to tell each other sane things so that hopefully they can sink in :-)

  5. Ingrid

    Better still for you writers to do all this and make your next book a novel.

    Wanting to write quality is no excuse for writing only novella’s or :grumble: short stories.

    1. Jordan Castillo Price Post author

      My take on story length is that the pacing needs to be appropriate to the story concept. Some concepts are small and it they were stretched beyond their few thousand words, they would feel like a bunch of padded filler. I’d be sad if these stories were never written just because they weren’t novel-length concepts. Some of my favorite images are from short stories–which, I find, often contain a very iconic image or climactic scene. I used to read Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine (all shorts and novelettes) every month…actually I think I’ll go back to doing that.

  6. Ingrid

    “My take on story length is that the pacing needs to be appropriate to the story concept.”

    True but good novels are hard to find. And I love to set my teeth in thick novel which will keep me entertained for several days instead of 2 hours.
    So find a concept that will take longer. Your psy-cop series are an excellent example.

    I don’t believe for one minute that readers only want novella’s and shorts.

  7. Josephine Myles

    Thanks for this shot of inspiration, Jordan!

    I’m really trying to work with these ideas and get away from excessive word count goals, as they were making me stressed. Having a daily goal related to the story content is a far more sane way to create a work of art. Numbers hurt my muse, I swear. He must hate maths as much as I do!

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