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?

 

 

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Who Knew?

Like many Americans, I don’t know squat about U.S. history despite having been subjected to it year after year after year. I know even less about Abraham Lincoln except that he was the 16th president (I think), he had something to do with ending the Civil War, and he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

I was even more skeptical of how one could possibly pull off a story about a giant, gangly, top hat-wearing lawyer who kills vampires in his spare time. I mean, there’s only one slayer in all the world, and it’s not Van Helsing.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a really good movie! Like most action adventure stories, Abe: VH executes the elements of storytelling well. He’s got a backstory (best friend taken into slavery, Mom infected by vampires and killed), he’s got an external goal (revenge), he’s got an internal need (to believe in himself), and he even has a mentor to show him the ropes (Henry Sturges). There’s conflict, twists, and turns, and awesome fight scenes. And I for one am glad they did not turn this movie into some kind of campy slasher film–that would be a disgrace to the seriousness of the slavery and Underground Railroad subplots.

But the thing that pulls this story together is the way in which historical people and facts are woven into the tale. It amazes me how much research must have gone in to writing the novel and screenplay. For instance, Lincoln’s boyhood friend, William Johnson, was real, as was Joshua Speed. I know it came out with horrible reviews, but critics spend their time looking for faults and only focus on them. Just ask Edgar Allan Poe.

So what can we learn from this? No matter what kind of story you are writing, you will inevitably have to do research. And while not all of us are writing historical fiction or some kind of weird hybrid genre, historical (or otherwise) accuracy of details is what lends all stories their credibility. Yes, even fiction needs to be credible, and actually more so than reality.

For those of you who have been following my posts on First Draft in 30 Days, the Karen S. Wiesner method, the next step of the journey is research. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a week looking stuff up, but it should mean that you keep a running list of things you will eventually need to know to make your story credible. Research may span any number of story elements, including character, setting, and plot and, as you start looking for information, you’ll find that you come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for your story and may even find your story takes off in a direction you hadn’t expected. That is the beauty of knowledge; knowledge is power and, in this case, it also inspires creativity.

Throughout your writing process, keep a running tab of information or details you need to research. You may also want to list the chapter or page number at which you will need to include this information. My list is usually kept on any number of scrap papers that I’m working on at the moment and looks like this:

General research list

General research list

 

 

 

 

This is not exhaustive by any means, and it doesn’t even mean that as things progress and I learn more about certain details that all of these items will need to be researched. This general list is just a tool to get you to start thinking about what you don’t know yet.

Another element of research is the interview. In this case, you should write up a list of questions you will need to ask but also include relevant information from your story in case the interviewee needs more specific information. For instance, if you’re interviewing a police officer on procedure or laws, you may need to know all the extenuating circumstances of your story to get the most accurate information (how old the suspect is, what kind of weapon was involved, if any, if the suspect has prior charges, etc.).

Interview Questions

Interview Questions

At this stage in the writing process, though, don’t worry about doing all your research at once. Many writers get so caught up in the research process that they lose their original vision, or worse, they lose their interest in writing altogether.

For now, keep a general list until you finish your preliminary outline (and keep adding to it throughout the process) then you will have a better idea of what you actually need to spend your time trying to figure out. You may also want to keep a list of specific questions that will need to be answered to inform your characters, setting, or plots. And remember, not everything you find out about a specific topic will be used directly in your story but it will all help your story grow organically. Again, this is just about figuring out what you don’t know yet but may need to.

Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub

East End Pub

North Yorkshire moors 

Dorm room windows

Dorm room windows

Architecture

Architecture

Quaint village street

Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room

School Dining Room

Village alley

Village alley

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park

Whitechapel 1888

Whitechapel 1888

Drive to campus

Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style

Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!

 

To Pants or Not to Pants: The Age-Old Question

After two + years of post-grad education, a year of working 12 hour days, Christmas holidays, and shoulder surgery, I’ve decided to work on the 10th reincarnation of my MFA thesis.

I’ve always prided myself in being a pantser. Characters grew organically on the page and forged their own conflicts and resolutions. And while that’s great, more often than not, those stories were a million miles away from my original visions. I read recently in Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction, that there are four stages of writing:

creating short fiction

  1. The daydream stage when you are basically writing for yourself.
  2. The trivial stage when you are trying to break free from your fantasy shell but you haven’t quite cracked it yet.
  3. The technical stage when your stories are reasonable but lack structure or character.
  4. The professional stage when you have finally arrived as a writer.

Looking back, I think, in a way, that pantsing my past novels had actually hindered my goal of reaching stage four. I, as the author, was not in control of what I was writing. I relied on my characters to tell me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, and I know every writer longs for having this type of automatic writing experience, but it doesn’t allow the writer to tell the story only he or she can.

In fact, every time I tried to go back and rewrite or revise my finished novel, I couldn’t do anything with it because I didn’t like the main character or the story line. What else is there, you ask? I loved my setting and I loved my original idea of having a modern-day-Jack-the-Ripper-type murder mystery set on the English moors. Unfortunately, my novel didn’t even have a murder; it only had a disappearance, and it had more to do with The Phantom of the Opera than Jack the Ripper.

So after years of frustration, I decided just to rewrite the whole damn thing. And when I say “rewrite,” I mean start from absolute scratch. New characters, new plot, new everything. It took me years of not reading my original novel to be able to get it out of my head long enough for me to come up with new ideas that had nothing to do with the old ones. It’s a really hard decision to trash an entire 300+ page novel that took two years to write and two years to shop around to publishers and agents, but I wasn’t happy with it on any level. Because some (read “most”) of the story had autobiographical overtones, it was necessary to get that story out in writing, put it behind me, and start from a place unencumbered by personal emotion.

My decision to go from pantser to plotter came about after reading First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S. Wiesner.

first draft

It’d been sitting in my writing book cabinet for I-don’t-know-how-long. I don’t even remember when I bought it. But I noticed it, started reading it, and thought, hey, if I can make an outline so detailed it could pass as a first draft, then I was willing to take up the challenge. Though I haven’t kept the same schedule Wiesner recommends, I have learned that my characters and my plot can grow organically through the outline process while still holding true to my original vision. Organic growth doesn’t just have to happen during the writing phase. And while some people may consider outlining a pre-writing strategy, it is just as valid and, I am convinced now, even more necessary than what we have come to call the drafting phase.

For the next several posts, I plan to write about my process of going through Wiesner’s system, using my own variations of her techniques, complete with images of my writing. I do this so that, if you too are at a crossroads in your writing, you can make the transition from pantser to plotter without the fear and shame that you are cashing in organic storytelling for prefabricated stories.

Priorities, people!

I am a deadline fiend. Give me a date and a time when I need to have something done by, and I will do whatever it takes–stay up late, skip school, call out of work, etc.

In grad school, I thrived on deadlines. As part of a low-residency program, the creative writing degree required four submissions per semester via email to our mentors. Each submission consisted of two craft annotations, revisions from the previous month’s work, 30 pages of new material, and a cover letter detailing our experience. On top of that, we had to read between four-to-six books per month directly related to the genre we were working in or on the craft of writing books.

For the first two weeks of the month, I worked full-time, read all my books, and wrote my two papers. For the last two weeks, I took Fridays off from work and spent the entire weekends writing. On Fridays I would write from about 10:00 AM until 2:00 AM. Saturdays were the same except I would break from about 9:00 PM to 12:00 or 1:00 AM to play video games with my friend then back to writing until I fell asleep. Sundays I wrote from about 10:00 AM (or whenever I woke up) until 9:00 PM. I tried to write about one and a half chapters or roughly 15 pages per weekend. I got less done on Fridays because I always reread my manuscript from the beginning to get into the character, mood, feel, voice, etc.

The reason I excelled at this type of deadline was not just because I was getting something out of it (a terminal degree) but I didn’t want to let my mentors down either.

I have since tried to make my own deadlines to finish this novel or that screenplay, but I have never been able to enforce them or meet them. I blame it on my lack of priorities. I can sit at the computer and level my World of Warcraft toon until I use up all my rested XP or I hit the next level, but I can’t just sit at my computer and finish what I say I’m going to by my deadline. I guess I’m just not tough enough on myself.

Recently, it’s come to my attention that I am missing two opportunities to send my manuscript out to different publishers during their open submissions this month and missing an opportunity to enter a screenwriting contest with one of the prizes being a reading with Robert McKee. And it’s all because I failed to meet those self-imposed deadlines over the past few years. Oh, I get stuff done; it just takes forever.

Well you know what? I don’t have forever. I don’t want to miss anymore of those open submission calls. I’m sick of being a loser. I want a backlog of  manuscripts/screenplays ready to send out a moment’s notice. I mean, really, is this so hard?

(And don’t even get me started trying to complete NaNoWriMo or ScriptFrenzy. They happen in the two busiest months for me school-wise.)

I’ve decided what I need is to not call it a deadline. Because seriously, no one’s going to fail me if I don’t finish by a certain date. My “goal” is to finish revising/rewriting a specific manuscript by the end of the year (where have I heard that one before?).  And the reason why I think it might be doable this time is because I have a list of priorities.

The story needs some help not only with plot but with character. I also want to change from first-person, present tense narration to third-person, past tense narration. That will require one set of revisions. At the same time I’m going to focus on sentence variety (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex) and beginning sentences with more than just a noun, pronoun, or article.

Secondly, I’m going to do a major rewrite because my protagonist seems to have come down with multiple personality disorder. (I blame the photo I found for inspiration). I’m hoping this will lead the story to a plot more in line with my original vision.

And lastly, I’m going to tackle the first chapter. I’ve never really liked it and I think it’s because I’m not happy with the protagonist, so hopefully that by starting my revisions/rewrites after it, I won’t get frustrated and give up before page 10.