Reinventing the Writer’s Notebook

At some point we’ve all been told we need to keep a writer’s notebook and been given vague instructions to record ideas and bits of overheard conversations in it. We may have even been forced to keep one for a creative writing class and been graded on it. (So guilty.) pen-994464_640

Let’s face it, whether or not we choose to keep a moleskin journal handy or a note app open on our phone, the best ideas usually happen when we’re running, taking a shower, or pooping in a public restroom–all times you don’t want to be lugging around a notebook.

Now, how many ideas come to you in a day, how many snarky comments does your barista really make, that need to be written down or recorded immediately? And how many of those ideas do you really go back and use? No one working at Starbucks is that interesting.635873577289442989-257407846_starbucks-barista

If you look at your writer’s notebook right now, I bet you’ll see a lot of empty, wasted pages just screaming to be filled.

There are better uses for it that will benefit your writing than just some random scrawlings.

1. Reflect on the Day’s Writing

As a teacher, one of the things I teach students is that writing can be used to figure out what you think. If you’ve ever written a first draft only to go back and make a major change, you know what I’m talking about.

Journaling works much the same way. How many times have you journaled about something, starting off with a specific viewpoint, then find out it’s changed by the time you’re done writing? It was through that process of uncensored writing you were able to try on different viewpoints, view ideas through different lenses, and come to different conclusions.female-865110_640

You can use this technique with your works-in-progress much the same way. At the end of your writing session, reflect on it in your notebook. What reservations do you have about what you wrote? What feels off? Where do you feel resistance and why do you think so? Conversely, what victories did you achieve? What went well in today’s session? Did you finally figure out who your killer is? How will this change the rest of your story? Elizabeth Peters once wrote in her notebook that someone needed to be murdered because the story was getting boring.

Reflecting on the day’s writing will allow you the space and freedom to explore new ideas without starting all over again or going down another dead end.

2. Write About What You’re Reading

When I was in grad school, I kept a catalogue of every YA novel I’d read. I included not only the title, author, and general plot summary, but also lessons I learned from either the author or the story. These lessons could be on things I thought had been done well, like how characters were described, how the story was structured, or how mood was achieved. They could also be about things I hated and never wanted to do in my own story. I explored these lessons through writing about them to better understand how they could be applied specifically to what I was working on at the time.  narrative-794978_640

By writing about how you can utilize other authors’ techniques in your own work, you come to understand what it is you actually want to achieve.

3. Keep Track of Your Revisions

First drafts are meant to be shitty. They are a place for your mind to figure out what it thinks, where it wants to go, which ideas it wants to keep. First drafts are also meant to be written quickly without regard to grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc. Those are all things that can be fixed in revisions. You may also find you need to make more substantial revisions because you story has progressed to a place you hadn’t seen coming. For instance, you may need to go back and introduce a new element, change a character, or foreshadow an event. To keep the first draft flowing, fight the urge to revise every time you sit down to write.

Instead, keep a running list of revisions in your notebook. I make notes by chapter that I will revise later. Things like, “Better transition into the figure on the moor and make more dramatic.” Or sometimes, I’ll ask questions: “Chapter 5–Should this be the first encounter with K? What was the function of seeing him earlier?”

Keeping track of things you want to revise while you are writing alleviates the need to constantly tinker and stall any forward momentum.

4. Decide Where You’re Going Next

Speaking of first drafts, Hemingway gave this advice, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”  No doubt you’ve found yourself ending a writing session because you’ve run out of ideas, only to kick yourself the next day as you stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor.ernest-1097984_640

To avoid this, take time at the end of each session to write in your notebook where you want to go, what you think the next scene should be, and how you think you can get there. This is the time to scribble down ideas without censorship and see where they lead without committing them to your actual document.

Deciding where to go next in your story follows naturally the process of reflecting on the day’s work. At last, you’ve come full circle and without that pesky procrastination rearing its head.

Of course there are a dozen more ways to fill your notebook: making notes about a setting you’ve visited, documenting area-specific sayings and their origins, creating more backstory, scheduling writing times and goals, etc. But above all, it will only help if you find how it works best for you and your current project.

How successful have you been in keeping a writer’s notebook? Do you use a physical or digital version? What other ways do you use it?

 

 

Advertisements

Sunday Inspiration: Neil Gaiman

Working on stories was something I did for fun. I didn’t have any grandiose aspirations of becoming published or being a best selling author. (Well, I did, but those were dreams I never thought would actually come true.) I just loved to create characters and send them on exciting and often dangerous adventures. I particularly remember feeling excitement and joy at the prospect of working on my stories during the summers when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree because I worked full time and went to school full time, which didn’t leave time for anything else.

Somewhere along the way though, specifically after graduating from my MFA program, I lost that feeling of excitement and joy to write. I had adopted the mindset that my writing had to perfect, it had to be “of publishible quality” (like they taught in grad school or you wouldn’t pass). I believed my writing had to be perfect not just after months and months of revisions but on first drafts too. After all, I’d been on a schedule of both revising 30 pages and writing 30 new pages every 30 days for two years, which was a ridiculous schedule and did not lead to writing “of publishible quality.” I’d effectively lost my joy.

That mindset of perfection and never being able to achieve it eventually warped into thinking and feeling that writing was hard and laborous and torturous and something to be avoided at all costs (to, you know, wash the dishes or clean the litter box). Of course, not writing just perpetuated feelings of guilt and shame (especially when my mother asked me if I was working on anything) because that was all I knew how to do, that’s all I really wanted to do, and I had let my higher or my younger self down.

I needed to get back to that feeling of excitement and joy, and it needed to start with accepting that first drafts are not meant to be perfect.

Say it with me, kids, “First drafts shouldn’t be perfect.”

The belief that writing was fun and easy naturally followed, and guess what? It is.

I actually look forward to my days off now when I can sit down with my novel and play. My writing hasn’t changed (it still takes me hours to write a scene), but my mindset about it has. And that has made all the difference.

So I invite you to honor your higher self or your younger self who used to get excited to write and felt joy while doing it–not because she was trying to get published or land an agent but because it was fun and that’s what she did.

You are on the cusp of change and your brilliant future awaits. Get excited and get inspired for it by watching Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.

Now go out there and “Make Good Art.”

 

 

Just Another Dead Body

I know it’s tempting, but don’t let the victim in your murder mystery fall prey to Just Another Dead Body syndrome. This is when your victim becomes a means to the plot’s end. Meaning, you only killed him to create a mystery for your detective to solve.

crime-scene-30112_640

Victims are not props. They are characters.

And the more you can breathe life into them before they’re dead, the more compelling they’ll be after they’re dead.

So how do you begin? Just as you would with any other character.

Start by asking the hard questions:

  • What are his hope and fears?
  • What does he live for? Who would he die for?
  • What great and terrible things has he done? Will he never be able to do now that you killed him off?
  • Who loves him? Who hates him?
  • Who can’t live without him and who would kill to save him?

You may even want to get super creative and have your victim speak in his own words. It can be in the form of a monologue, a stream of consciousness, a letter, or a dialogue with someone important. It could even be a beyond-the-grave tirade to the murderer after being killed. (Seriously, dude? Wtf?)

Take this a step further and start interviewing important people in the victim’s life (even if they turn out to be suspects themselves) about what they thought of him. Avoid cliches like “everybody loved Jamie.” Instead, offer a scene, a vignette, or a personal anecdote involving the victim to show what he was like and how others reacted to him instead of just telling us. Chances are you’ll find some good stuff to use when it comes time for your sleuth to start conducting her own interviews.

Next, give your victim a sanctuary, a space in which he felt most comfortable. It could be his workplace, his favorite bar, his bedroom, his mancave, his mother’s basement, the diner down the street.

Fill the space with meaningful objects that symbolize what your victim was all about not just with clues your sleuth will use to piece together who shot him.

If you’re looking for ideas, look no further than your own sanctuary. Imagine a stranger walking into your space. What could she infer about you from what’s lying about (or hidden in drawers).

  • Do you own a preponderance of CDs, DVDs, books? What genres? What titles?
  • Is your mail scattered all over the dining table or organized in a command center?
  • Is your bed made with hospital corners or are the covers just thrown over it? Did you even make your bed this morning?
  • What kind of clothes are in your closet?
  • What kind of art, if any, hangs on the walls?
  • What food is in the cabinets and the refrigerator?
  • How clean is your toilet? The kitchen counters?
  • What do you hide that you don’t want anyone else to see even if you live alone?

All these little things make a person, a person.

This may also be a good time to start jotting down the must-have scenes that involve your victim.

  • For instance, do we meet the victim before he’s killed? When? Where? In what context?
  • What was he doing on the day leading up to his murder?
  • What does the crime scene look like? Where did it happen, how is his body positioned, what is he wearing, what objects did he have on him or are conspicuously missing (like a cellphone, wallet, etc.)?
  • What does his sanctuary look like to the detective investigating?
  • Who is going to be interviewed about him and what do they say?

I want to remind you again not to get into the habit of only killing off innocent little kitten victims. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people too. So make your victim as bad as he wants to be.

Once you’ve got a pretty detailed character sketch of your victim, go ahead and start to dive into his relationship with the villain.

  • Where did they meet? How long have they known each other?
  • How well did they get on? Were they best friends, adversaries, co-workers, family members, business partners? (Remember, not all murders are motivated by hate, and you can still be jealous of your best friend.)
  • Did your victim stand in the way of your villain’s goal or did they want the same thing that only one of them could have?
  • Was your villain’s perception of the victim’s ability to get in the way overrated?
  • How long did your villain and victim get into it before murder was the only option? (Unlike real life, fictional characters don’t resort to murder just because someone bought the last big screen TV at Walmart on Black Friday.)
  • Did your victim fight back on previous attempts with his own brand of vindictiveness like blackmail, bullying, insults, maybe a murder of his own?

In other words, what commodity, perceived or otherwise, did your victim hold that led to his murder? Was he the last person standing in the way of a corporate takeover?  Would her paternity ensure she would inherit the estate before your villain did? Does the murderer think your victim knows too much or is he just being used as a pawn for something bigger?

Many of these questions you’ll be able to answer or will have already pondered as you explored your villain, but by giving your victim a life before he gets killed, you’ll be able to create a more complex character rather than a stark chalk outline.

Remember, victims are people too.

Which technique did you find most helpful?

What did you learn about your victim that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?

Interview With a Killer (or not)

While we’re on the subject of villains…one way to get a handle on your mystery is to get a handle on your villain.

killer

Your killer (or any other criminal) should be fully developed before your story even opens. That is to say, he won’t be changing over the course of the novel. Everything that has contributed to your villain’s life of crime has already happened, especially because, by the time your story opens, the crime will have already been committed or will be committed very soon. So it makes sense to create a comprehensive character sketch of your villain before he sets foot on the page.

The best place to start is with the most significant event in the killer’s life that directly affects your story–AKA the murder or other terrible crime that needs to be solved. You can learn more about this event and get a feel for your villain’s voice by conducting an interview with him.

A few ways to do this is by establishing the scene as:

  • A police interrogation after being arrested
  • A written statement after confessing to the crime
  • A courtroom trial with testimony and cross-examination
  • A deathbed confession
  • A confession to a clergyman
  • A confrontation with the sleuth (amateur or otherwise), possibly in the moment he’s caught

Or you can get creative and have your villain apply for a job with Killers For Hire and get called back for an interview.

The idea with any of these interviews is to establish not only your murderer’s character but the details of the mystery as well.

Consider asking the following questions in your interview to establish the motive, method, and opportunity of the crime:

Who was the victim and what was the nature of your relationship?

Where did the murder take place and why this particular place? 

What time did it occur? What was the weather like?

What were you wearing? Were you trying to blend in or avoid being seen?

How did you get there? How did you get away?

How much planning was involved?

What weapon did you use, if any, and why that particular one? 

Where did you get it or who did you get it from?

Have you ever used that weapon before? Did you need special training to use it?

Did the weapon deliver a swift death or a long, slow, tortured process?

What wounds were inflicted?

How long have you planned the killing or was it a crime of opportunity?

Were there any accomplices?

Were there any witnesses that you know of?

Was this your first kill? If not, how old were you when it happened? How did the killing make you feel?

What did you do with the victim? Did you leave the body there, mutilate it, bury it, drown it, burn it, pour chemicals over it, leave it for the vultures?

I know this may sound scary to some of you pantsers out there, but trust me, once you decide who your killer is and figure out the what, where, why, when, and how of your murder, writing the rest will be cake. Even Dame Agatha Christie knew her killers and how she wanted her novels to end before she began writing.

So what does your killer have to say for himself?

 

 

Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?