Juggling Scarves

Oct 26, 2015

Today I sat in the sun at my desk working on a new novel idea, just at the stage of building the story, deciding what subplots to pursue, what clues to plant and return to, and which characters would undertake what actions. I love this part of the process in which all things are possible and I get to consider every wacky “what if” I can dream up. It’s a little like brainstorming, except when you’re all alone there’s no one to scoff at any suggestion your brain comes up with, no matter how unrealistic, sappy or clichéd.

Anyway, at this stage I always know that I’ll think up far more ideas than I can use. Then I write and ponder and finally decide which ones are playing nice with each other and which ones clash, and I consign back to the ether of imagination all those that aren’t working.

On this particular day it occurred to me that generating these what ifs is like mentally tossing ideas up and letting them hover there, ready for use. And though I’ve never tried it, I imagine it’s a lot like juggling scarves. The ideas, like translucent pieces of the finest chiffon, hang wispily in the air, and as they do I consider the strength of each one. My imagination keeps them suspended, slowly revolving, like dust specks in a sunbeam, so I can examine each from all sides for its suitability. I can toss into the mix whatever idea scarves I think up, then grab one already hovering there and bring it back into the story focus.

I love the feeling of launching a potential idea and trying it out as I twist and fold it in and around the others. Sure, sometimes it’s a disaster, a tangle of scarves—some gaudy, others of scratchy wool—that eventually drop to the floor in a garble of mediocre, unusable notions. But the adventure of seeing what works and what doesn’t reminds me a little of what a certain animated elementary school teacher used to advise — Get messy! And for a recovering editor/control freak like me, that is good advice that’s not always easy to follow.

For me, sometimes careful planning is confining. Sometimes you just have to toss the plot scarves in the air to discover how rich and interesting your literary tapestry can be.