Latest News

Taming the Cheetah Brain

Eager cheetah is eager.

Sometimes it’s hard to be patient. An idea arrives, wearing its shiniest hat and its brightest tutu, and it says, write me. Write me now. And when you ask it to wait, it laughs at you and tap dances all over your brain, and you want to forget cooking dinner and showering and talking to people, and even planning how it will work. It’s so ridiculously awesome, and it has to be written immediately. There are characters you suddenly love desperately, and places you want to visit, and lines of dialogue that sing like nothing else. And the whole thing hangs around, like a secret you desperately want to tell the world, one that sits around on the tip of your tongue. One that makes everything explode. That sort of secret. And whenever you think about it, you go between staring slack jawed into space, and racing urgently around the house at ten times your normal speed. If you don’t start writing, you fear you might start to disintegrate or something.

And sometimes, setting off there and then is exactly the right thing to do. Other times – and for me other times basically means almost always – other times, it’s important to slow down. Because the thing I want to bring into the world is big and complicated as well as bright and shiny, and if I go racing off into the sunset with it, I risk leaving a trail of broken pieces behind me where the story has slowly been falling apart from all the stuff that’s not working properly, the stuff I didn’t really stop to think about before racing off full tilt into that sunset.

So recently, I’ve been working on making myself slow down. There are many different ways to do this. Some of us write outlines and tidy, organised plans with all the events laid out in chronological order. This doesn’t work for everyone though. For me, it’s about giving my runaway cheetah brain a different job: it gets to make lots and lots of messy notes in a notebook with a scruffy cover, of random details about the characters and their world, of all the things that could plausibly happen in the story and how these things would work, of everything that drew me to the story in the first place, of how it all fits together, and all the gaps where stuff doesn’t quite make sense yet. Then, when I find the gaps, cheetah brain gets another job: it gets to work out how to fix them. After a while, everything comes together and, knowing that I’ve got a map to bring myself home if I get lost, I can run off chasing that story to my heart’s content .

It's often hard to slow down and be patient, but sometimes waiting makes things even better.

Do you like to dive into projects straightaway? Or do you prefer to plan first?

Cheetah image courtesy of
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

Posts by Leila

tumblr twitter

  • Blogger Comments
  • Facebook Comments


  1. I've done both the diving straight in and the planning. Diving straight in works beautifully for shorter pieces. Diving straight into a novel tends to end in tears and 20k words wasted. I try to rein myself in and do some more planning with novel writing. It seems to be working better.

  2. I used to dive straight in before I was married and had more brain bandwidth to sort out the details. These days, with limited bandwidth, I have to capture those great ideas in my Story Shopping List. It's not really an outline, it's just a list of Cool Stuff. Each new story gets its own directory and list. Eventually, the list becomes an outline, and the directory gets story chapters. (Nanowrimo is great for giving these cheetahs room to run.)

    Of course, the outline evolves as I write, and the characters have better ideas than I did. But that's another ball of wax.

  3. Awesome post. I too like to plan a little before I write, mostly character sketches, setting research, and major plot points, but I don't like to outline the chapters and plan everything out. I like to leave some fun/headache for the actual writing.

  4. I plan them first (characters, setting, a bit of plot), but sometimes if a scene comes to my head, usually from a dream, I quickly write down the basics of it. Sometimes I linger, sometimes I go back to the project I'm supposed to be working on. It really depends on how much I love it. But there are those times where I do SO much planning that it's basically like diving right in because I'm investing so much time in it, even though I haven't written a single word of the MS.

  5. I have several stories like that. Right now I have two major stories poking at my brain... and both of them are way later in a series of 28 books. I'm currently on book four.

    What I do to help me "prepare" for those books (rather than write things down) I day dream the scenes over and over again. They get better as time goes on and change as the characters change. I always feel that if I write something down, it becomes too permanent. If I just keep it in my head, I can change it as I see fit.


Comments are moderated on posts two weeks old or more -- please send us a tweet if yours needs approval!

Item Reviewed: Taming the Cheetah Brain Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin