Saturday, February 5, 2011

Writer's Troubles: The Pensieve Predicament

"This?  It is called a Pensieve," said Dumbledore.  "I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."
"Er," said Harry, who couldn't truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.

I never knew what Dumbledore/J.K. Rowling meant either, until I started writing.

I’m a planner – in my writing, that is. Though my real life/bedroom/organisational skills are pretty chaotic, I’ve never had so much as an inkling towards pantsing a story. I like detail, foreshadowing, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots. For me, planning is the only way to go.

A story as intricately plotted as the HARRY POTTER series requires a lot of planning. So, I could always sympathise with J.K. Rowling on her Pensieve idea/wish, even if – like Harry – I’d never quite felt the kind of idea-overload that inspired it. And then, when I started writing for myself, I began to empathise, too. With the main plot and the sub-plot(s) and the villain and the hero and the love interest(s) and the mother/daddy issues running around in your head, things get a little crowded. And confusing. And sometimes just thinking about plotting leaves you needing to lie down.

J.K. Rowling, with her seven books, innumerable sub-plots and entire magical world, clearly understood the agony of the Pensieve Predicament (and so she created one for Dumbledore, that lucky, brilliant bastard). Often, you’re so focused on the main storyline, or the protagonist’s relationship(s), or your latest genius addition to the plot, you forget to add the key details necessary to get your heroes from (A) to (B). Other times, you’re so mentally exhausted by your plotting and planning that you just want it the heck out of your head – but not gone forever.

Enter the Pensieve… if only it was for real.

I’ve tried to overcome the PP without magical intervention. I write down every idea; I’ve got flowcharts galore. I keep a paper and pen beside my bed at night – because if I don’t get it out of my head, I’ll never sleep. I’ve been through 10 notebooks, 20 computer files, and a ream of A4 paper. And that’s only notes – I type every WIP.

Every little bit helps, even if it’s just to chart the evolution of your story. But, just like with her Pensieve idea, it’s JKR who has come up with the best solution I’ve seen so far – as evidenced in her HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX mindmap.

I can’t lie – it’s pretty friggin’ amazing. Not to mention helpful. JKR lines up her main plot points with their simultaneous sub-plots in everything from the Order, the Prophecy, Harry’s love life and Hagrid’s giant problem. It’s a fairly early, rough draft – almost none of the chapter titles are the same, and Umbridge’s first name is Elvira (also, there’s something called “‘Missy’ shipkiss” which sounds amazing) – but the major plotlines of the novel are all present. Mostly, though, it’s an awesome example of thorough outlining. It’s also particularly handy for setting out each plot in their chronological sequence, and for visually mapping every simultaneous action.

Creating your own is even easier on a much-more-manipulable Excel spreadsheet, and I definitely recommend it. Outlining is also handy for breaking through writer’s block, working through plot holes, or – like the Pensieve – just getting it out of your head. Writing is more than a full-time enterprise; the words never quite go away. But this – and the following tricks – can help you clear a little headspace for the other important things in your life (like sleeping. Also, work/study, friends/family and significant others, but mostly just, you know, sleep):

-       try meditating – just clearing your head. Sit/lie down, focus on your breathing, and try not to think. (Especially helpful before bed.)
-       write a to-do list, with everything you want to accomplish today/tomorrow, and plan your time accordingly.
-       write down every idea as you think of it. That way, you won’t forget, and you won’t waste half of tomorrow’s allotted writing time trying to  remember it.
-       invent a Pensieve. Or at least ask Steve Jobs to give it a crack. (iPensieve, anyone?)

I know, JKR. I wish I had one too.


  1. The mindmap is fascinating - much better than the way I do it. I use a page per date which means a lot of flip-flapping when I'm checking back n forth.
    Very interesting post.

  2. I stick post-it notes all over my wall, which works fine until the winds gets up!