The Glorious Avidity of the Beginner’s Mind

A giant Sitka Spruce

A giant Sitka Spruce

“In the beginning mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Suzuki Roshi

I don’t know about you, but I consider myself an expert. Yep, I sure do.  Because I’ve been writing novels for a gazillion years and teaching fiction writing for half that time. I’ve studied long enough to have earned an MFA and blogged long enough to remember when WordPress barely existed. So, yes indeedy. Expert here.

You’re probably an expert, too.  Maybe in writing—you’ve probably been at it for a while, too. Or maybe in other areas of your work and life.  By the time you reach a certain age, you’re a bona fide expert.  That means you and I know a lot.

It also means we have a lot of preconceptions.  Maybe a mind that is a tiny bit closed to challenges to our knowledge.  A brain shut tight to new ideas, to an expansive openness that lets the light in.  And we may not even notice, being so very busy in our expertness.

I was reminded of all this last week when I taught a group of beginners (or raw recruits as I liked to call them). Out of a group of eight, seven came to the novel-writing workshop with no prior experience writing full-length fiction.  They had ideas, but some were vague.  They knew nothing about plotters and pantsers and plot points and character dossiers or how to write a scene or structure a novel.  By the end of our three days together, they walked out with a plot and characters firmly in mind, close to being ready to write.vertigo-dizzy-dizziness-321395-h

I attribute this readiness not to me, but to them—and their marvelous beginner minds.  They soaked up ideas like the moss on my sidewalk soaks up water during rainy Oregon winters. Their beginner minds filled up with knowledge and ideas at an astounding pace and they inspired me—and this post—along the way.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with attaining expert status.  There’s the whole 10,000 hours thing espoused by Malcolm Gladwell , who claims you need to practice a thing that many hours to be considered an expert.  Do a quick spin around the interwebs and you’ll find all kinds of references to mavens and experts and specialists and professionals.  And they are all good. We need their knowledge and expertise.  But there’s something amazingly wonderful about approaching one’s work with a beginner’s mind, as I witnessed last week.

Following are some ideas for maintaining a beginner’s mind. But also go read this lovely article about it from a Buddhist abbess.

Be open.  I know, duh.  But how often to you find yourself listening to another person and eagerly pondering what you’re going to say in reply? Or getting defensive and upset about their words? Yeah, me, too.  So, for instance, if a writing friend is going on about how great it is to write without an outline and you fervently believe the opposite, try just being a tiny bit open to his point of view.

Be willing to admit you’re not always right.  Often we desire to be right more than anything. I’m not sure why this is—perhaps it gives us a sense of power or security in the world.  But it can be detrimental, too. Though my husband and I like to joke that I’m always right, I can think of some times when I’ve been very, very wrong. A willingness to admit it would have saved me tons of grief.

Be willing to admit you don’t know everything.  There are all kinds of literary terms whose meaning I don’t get. Okay, I admitted it.  And I still sometimes get confused about omniscient viewpoint.  And don’t even get me started on math—my son, the mathematician has explained prime numbers to me at least five times. I still don’t understand them.  And that’s okay.

But don’t close your mind just because you don’t know.  Don’t let not knowing keep you from being curious.  I could probably stand to learn Excel, for instance, an app I’ve told myself repeatedly I can’t master.  With an attitude like that, it’s likely I never will.

So the not knowing thing cuts both ways.

Approach life and writing with a sense of adventure.  Every time I’ve said to myself, “Life’s an adventure,” it has turned out to be.  You can’t have an adventure with a closed mind, you just can’t. And life and writing are ever so much more fun when you’re adventurous.

Okay, those are my thoughts. And now I’m going to go apply a beginner’s mind to looking at my WIP (work in progress for those with beginner’s minds).  I invite you to come on over to the blog (        )  to comment on how you cultivate beginner’s mind.

Photos: top by me, lower right by woodleywonderworks.

4

Meanwhile, I’ll Be Busy Making S*&% Up

Writing a novel is, at heart, all about making shit up.

That phrase–making shit up–became the constant refrain of my Mapping the Novel workshop at the Sitka Center last week.  (It was the BEST workshop ever, mostly because of my wonderful students, but also because of the fabulous staff and the spectacular location. I could go on and on.)

In order to write a novel, you’ve got to make a lot of shit up. You just do. But then you have to shape the stuff you made up into some kind of form.  And that was the premise of the workshop–that you’ve got to let your right brain roam free but also learn the structures through which you will corrall it.

It is easy to get hung up on any part of the process (she said, having experienced getting hung up at many points along the way). But bear in mind that structures are part of craft and can be learned. You can study plot, scene, character, style, and theme. It’s hard, but you can figure out how to apply it so you make a novel with a cohesive whole.

What is harder, arguably, in this day and age, is the making shit up part. It’s the part where we let our brains run free, and allow our hands to follow them, putting word after word on the page–even when we don’t know where the words will lead us.

The making shit up part is why we become writers.  I mean, who sets out to write a novel because he wants to master plot? There may be a few of you out there, but I’d wager a bet that most of you want to write a novel because you’ve experienced the glory of writing, how good it makes you feel to lay down those tracks.

The making shit up part is fun–and its also sometimes really freaking hard to get ourselves to do.  But really, all you have to do is go do it.  Take a prompt, any prompt, set a timer for 10 minutes and go write! Do it now. Go make shit up.  You’ll be glad you did.

Leave a comment and let’s discuss your favorite way to make shit up.

**I had a couple of great photos from Sitka picked out to go along with this post but some reason, WordPress doesn’t want to let me upload them. If you want to see a ton of them, go to my Instagram page (and follow me while you’re there–it is one of my chief social media outlets).

4

Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway — For Writers and Creatives

The_ScreamFeel the fear and do it anyway is one of the great all-time phrases ever. And I certainly can’t take credit for the words. It was the title of a book that came out years ago, by Susan Jeffers, and I clutched that book to me like a life raft at the time.  I was reminded of the book again last weekend when the minister of my church referred to how she also found it life-saving back in the day. (Books really can change lives, never forget that as you write.)

I’m heading off to teach today, and I’ll be honest, I’m nervous. I’m not nervous about the material because I’ve taught it a million times (just not in this format). But I’m nervous about logistics, and getting there on time, and about how I’ve put everything together, and what to wear, and the biggie–what will people think of me? Will they like me? If you stop and think about that one for a minute, it is the most ridiculous fear on the planet.  We can’t control what other people are going to think of us. We can be kind and open but if someone takes an instant dislike to us, there’s not much we can do about it.  I can’t tell  you how many times I’ve taken an instant dislike to someone–and later become close friends with them. Yet this is one of the most crippling fears people have. Oh, we humans are a funny lot.

And here’s another funny fear: that of putting words on the page. Or paint on the canvas. Or stitches on the fabric. We creatives face the blank page and panic.  But why? Because all those thoughts about how people will react to the words on the page (which actually aren’t even there yet) crowd in and stop us.  We tell ourselves we don’t know how to do it, as if everyone else has innate knowledge of it that we don’t share. That’s simply not true. They learned it by doing it, just like everyone else. The one exception is my four-year-old grandson. He comes up with the most amazing facts and when I ask him where he learned that he just shrugs and says “I just know it.” Which is, come to think of it, probably the best attitude any of us can take.  Shrug and tell yourself “I just know how to write a novel.” “I just know how to put paint on the canvas.”

The thing is, if you’re afraid of something, it’s probably yours to do. That is one of the truest things I’ve learned through the years.  And so here’s my best advice as to how to deal with fear:

Take action.

That’s the best antidote to fear that I know. It doesn’t have to be big action, it can be something little. Tiny, even. Because teensy actions pile upon each other and cumulatively become big actions.  I remember reading Susan Jeffers book back when it first came out and being so fearful that the thought of taking action was simply overwhelming. Back then, I could never have imagined publishing a book. Leading writing workshops in France. Or teaching others. But little actions built up. I went to a meeting of a writer’s group. Joined a critique group. Put words on the page regularly and started shaping them into something more than journal entries. Took the scary step of showing those words to others.  And one day I found myself on the plane to Paris (alone–something else I couldn’t have imagined).

Before I started traveling regularly, I had a fear of flying. I’d grip the arm rests and hyperventilate during take-off and landing. But then I realized that if I ever wanted to go anywhere I better get over the fear. It is still not my favorite thing to do, but its not the worst, either.  Doing something over and over helps quell the fear (though I still get nervous about logistics, that’s for damn sure).

Write a word, make the phone call, visit the gallery you want to represent you. Send the query, ask someone for something you want, whatever it is that fear prevents you from doing.  Sit down at the computer and write the next scene of your novel or memoir. Because here’s the best part–once you’ve done that thing you’ll be flooded with the most glorious feeling of sweet relief.  Because you’ve overcome fear.  In many ways, I think it is the life journey we all share.

How do you overcome fear? Please share.

I’m off to teach at Sitka today, which is located on the beautiful Oregon coast, so I won’t be back in this space until next week. But follow me on Instagram for lots of photos!

The image is The Scream, by Edward Munch, of course, and it is in the public domain.

4

Writing Your Way Back to Yourself

Hohos JournalsYears ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Madeleine L’Engle, author of one of the best books ever, A Wrinkle in Time, speak.  I brought my sister, a designer along.  L’Engle was inspiring, gracious, and fascinating and when her talk was over, my sister turned to me and said, “She makes me wish I was a writer.”

Isn’t that wonderful? L’Engle had presented such an incredible picture of what it’s like to lead the writer’s life that even non-writers got swept up in the vision. And to me, it just reinforced what I already knew: that writing is the best passion in the world.  There’s nothing I love more than being totally enraptured by a story I’m writing, or completely wrapped up in putting together an article about writing.

But there’s another reason beyond both of these, that I love writing. And that is because it constantly and consistently brings me back to myself. Through throwing words at the page, I write my way home, over and over again.

It’s easy to get lost these days. There’s a cacophony of noise out there—social media, news headlines, videos, a contentious and distracting presidential election.  It is way to easy to drown in all of the input our poor overloaded brains take in on a daily basis and to feel confused, puzzled or out of sorts—without even knowing why.  When this happens to me, I pull out my journal.

It is all too easy to sneer at journal writing as the purview of the wealthy who have nothing more important to do than write delicate entries about their fragile emotions.  And yet, when one is in the grip of emotion, confounded about how to respond to the anxieties of the world, there is no better antidote than throwing words on the page.  I went through a period, many years ago, when I wrote in my journal every day.  That hasn’t been true of me for a long while, but I do journal in fits and spurts, regularly enough to call myself a journaler.  At the start of this year, for instance, I filled an entire spiral with words. And then one day I was just done and I didn’t journal again for a long time.

Most often these days I don’t journal because I’d rather be writing fiction.  If one has limited time to write, one must choose what one is going to write carefully.  Also, if one wants to write fiction but is blocked, one can easily use journaling as an excuse!  All those caveats aside, I do think every writer should consider keeping a journal at least sporadically, because it is so tremendously helpful in getting the crap out of your head and onto the page.

For the record, I come from a lineage of diarists. My maternal grandmother, who I don’t remember because she died when I was barely three, recorded a diary entry nearly every day of her adult life. (Those are her journals in the photo—they hold pride of place in a shelf in my office.)  To my great disappointment, they tell very little of her inner life, but rather, drily note who visited, what she made for dinner, etc. (And to what will likely be my descendant’s great disappointment, my diaries tell very little of what happened in my world, but rather are dedicated to me figure out emotions and stories on the page.)

There’s all kinds of journaling you can do.  I could write helpful snippets about writing morning pages , or keeping a gratitude journal, or writing unsent letters,, or writing about your day. But I’m not going to, because honestly, the best thing you can do is grab yourself a journal, open it up, and write. Start where you are now, wherever that is, and end when you’re finished. That’s all there is to it.

Do you write in a journal? Come on over to the blog and tell how you use it!

6

Mapping the Novel: A Whole-brained Approach

sitka center for art and ecology

So, today is Friday and usually often on Friday I do a round-up post called Five on Friday in which I tell what’s going on in my life. As I started to write that post today, I realized that most of it would be taken up with information about the workshop I’m going to teach in a couple of weeks.  So I decided just to devote the whole blog post to that instead. I think you’ll pick up a couple tips for planning a novel along the way.

The idea behind the workshop is that writing a novel is a back-and-forth process.  You must go back and forth between macro (the big picture, i.e., plot) and micro (the details that will bring your world to life), and left brain (structure, outlining) and right brain (creating characters out of thin air, free writing).  You can’t lean all to the right side or to the left–you’ve got to be conversant in each.

I tend to like to live on the right side of my brain. Creating characters? Creating worlds? You betcha! Forming them into a plot? Um, that’s a bit harder. Give me a prompt and a blank page on which to free write and I’ll have at it with gusto. But telling me to form my ideas into a logical, cohesive structure is way harder for me.  I’ve had to learn how to do those left-brained things in order to write novels. (And don’t tell anybody, but I sometimes enjoy it.)

(As a brief aside, I sometimes teach in Nashville with the wonderful Terry Price. For several years, we were co-directors of the Writer’s Loft, now called, for reasons inexplicable to me, Write, a certificate writing program I still teach at in Tennessee.  Terry used to tell people that, “Charlotte has a right brain and I have a left brain and together we make a whole brain.” And it was true!)

So, here’s what we’re going to cover in the three-day workshop. (I’m the kind of teacher that fiddles with content all the way up to the minute before we start, so there may be some tweaks in this.)

  • The Writing Process
  • Fundamentals of Fiction
  • Character
  • Structure
  • Story
  • Theme and Style
  • Setting

And the really fun part is that we’re going to let our right-brains run wild, making vision boards for our book, creating maps, and free writing to learn more about our worlds.  Then we’re going to get very serious and organize all our brilliance into usable format to actually write a novel–character dossiers, setting descriptions, and a workable plot, sketched out in loose outline form.  Students will leave the workshop ready to embark on writing the first draft of a novel. (But no matter where you are in the process, you’ll find information of use to you.)

All right, so getting this accomplished in three days is a tall order so maybe we won’t finish every single aspect of it, but people will leave with the tools they need to get ‘er done at home.  Sounds like fun? Want to join me? It’s June 8-11th, at the Sitka Center on the Oregon Coast.

I did promise that you would glean a tip or two if you read this blog post, so here goes:

  1. Take the time to do some prep work for your novel. Figure out characters and settings and at least a loose idea of the plot. The prepared writer’s mind is a productive writer’s mind.  Trust me on this–I’m facing a rewrite of the novel I wrote without any prep work done and it is a daunting task.
  2. Remember the writing process–prep, write a rough draft all the way through from start to finish, rewrite with big picture stuff in mind, rewrite again as many times as necessary, then revise (all the piddly stuff like grammar).
  3. Write your first draft fast. This is not the time to obsess over the small details. You want to get the story on the page. Don’t go back and fiddle with stuff because it may all change anyway. There’s no use in perfecting sentences if you’re not sure if the scene is going to survive.
  4. Believe you can do it. This is not just woo-woo crap, studies have shown that writers who visualize themselves in the act of writing are more successful at actually getting to the writing than those who don’t. (I wrote a blog post about this years ago and damn if I can find it.)
  5. Use the power of momentum.  In other words, write every day. Or at least open your file and look at it. Find a way to keep your story in your head so that your brain is composting ideas for you while you’re not at work.

If you have the time and inclination, I do hope you’ll join me.  But even if you can’t, I also hope you launch into writing a novel. It’s the best thing to do, ever.

Do you tend to be more left-brained or more right-brained? Please comment!

2

Otherwhere: Almost Summer

It has come to my attention that next weekend is Memorial Day. Could somebody please tell me how that happened? And, though summer doesn’t officially start until after the solstice, we all know that Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of long, lazy days, right? Well, if someone could show me a universe in which adults actually got to enjoy long, lazy days I’d move there in a nanosecond.  In the meantime, how about some fun links to peruse in those stolen moments of your busy, crazy days? Here goes:

Writing

How to share your work and get discovered.

Creating your character’s world.

How to gain more confidence.

Tips for writing that novel.

Some words on setting.

How to start writing a novel if stuck.

Should you let your creativity rest?

Travel Porn

In honor of upcoming workshops I’m teaching, here’s some Oregon Coast porn (there’s still a few spots left in my Sitka workshop) and France porn (one spot left, but we have someone seriously interested so act now if you are, too).

Author Blogs I Like

Rachael Herron

Emilie Richards

Kathleen Tessaro’s nice piece on how she got published.

Joshilyn Jackson. (Lots of fun, but hasn’t been updated for a couple of months.)

That’s all I’ve got for author blogs (though I feel like I’m forgetting a couple of obvious ones that I read). Do you have any that you read? What I like in an author blog is getting a glimpse into their life, besides stuff about their books.  I don’t mind some self-promotion because, duh, that’s the point, but I do like a bit more than just marketing.  Share your favorites in the comments.

0

How To Get Your Writing Done

numbers_text_texture_225115_l (1)So, you have a book…or an article…or a story that you’d like to write. (Right? Because otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.)  And you need to get that book finished, that story done.  How to accomplish such a thing?  How to make room in your schedule to get it written?

To my mind, there are two ways to get your writing done, and writers fall naturally into either group, because of need or temperament.  I have strong opinions on which works best. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in fifteen years of teaching writing and nine years of blogging, it’s that there’s not one way that works for every writer. The best I can do is offer options and opinions and let you figure it out for yourself.

The first group, and I count myself among them, are those writers who prefer to write every day, or as close to it as possible. The second group write in great chunks of time as their schedule allows. Let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Daily Writing

If you’re at all like me, you prefer this schedule.  Aiming for writing every day means you’ll hit at least five days of the week, right?  This is the standard advice that most of us preach, I think with good reason.  Such as:

Benefits

–This schedule is the best way to get and maintain momentum on a project. If you’re writing every day, you watch your word count grow regularly, which is hugely encouraging.

–Your story stays in your head.  I don’t know about you, but my brain is so full of random bits I’ve picked up lord knows where that I lose the train of story very easily. If I’m writing every day, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write. This story is right there, waiting for me.

–You don’t even have to write a lot to pile up the pages.  If you manage to eke out three pages a day, that’s 90 pages—a third of a novel—at the end of a month.

–Your writing will become more facile. The more you write, the easier it is. Writing is like anything else: the more you do it, the more adept you become at it. And if you’re writing every day, you’ll hone your skills quickly.

–You will learn more about writing more quickly. As above, the more you write the more you realize how much you don’t know—and what you need to learn. Writing every day helps you learn it.

–There’s magic in making a daily commitment. There just is.  You begin to take yourself, and your writing, much more seriously.

Detriments

 –You may be tempted to write a lot of crap just to meet your word count. Though there are benefits to writing fast (like getting the damn draft done already) I’ve written drafts that are so terrible I’m not quite sure what to do with them.

 –It can be difficult to fit daily writing sessions into your schedule.  I’m with you on this one.  I find that if I don’t write first thing in the morning, doing the most important thing first, it often simply doesn’t get done.

–If you miss a day or two, you might get discouraged.  And discouragement can so very easily lead to not writing.  And then you feel like a failure.

Chunk Writing

You’re a busy CEO and Mom of five. In your spare time you run marathons. But, you’ve got a story inside you that you’re developing into a novel.  So once a month you find a babysitter and spend the day writing.  With luck, you’ll bang out a chapter or two.

Benefits

–This kind of writing schedule can be easier to fit into your schedule.  Those who simply don’t have minutes to spare in their day often have more luck taking an afternoon off, or trading babysitting with a friend in order to nab some writing time.

–The breaks between writing times can clear your brain.  I do find that sometimes my brain gets overloaded when I’m on a writing-every-day schedule, and then it shuts down.  Giving yourself regular breaks can keep your writing brain refreshed.

–Writing less often takes less mental energy. And after a busy day at work, or chasing two-year-olds, mental energy can be in short supply.

–You don’t have to get up early (or stay up late) to fit your writing in.  No regular time sacrifices are needed!

–You may enjoy it more.  If you write for the sheer love of it, forcing yourself to a rigid daily schedule may make you start to hate it.

Drawbacks

–It is really easy to get off track.  If you haven’t worked on the story for a while, you may lose your enthusiasm for it and then it is really easy to find excuses not to spend Saturday writing after all.

–It is much harder to keep track of the story.  Your brain is full of the soccer games and swimming lessons of your twenty children—how are you going to maintain its attention to story as wait a month (or a week or whatever) between writing sessions?

–You’ll waste time getting up to speed.  You’ll likely have to reread your story to remember exactly where you left off at your last writing session.  And that is going to take a chunk of your precious time.

–It is easier to get discouraged.  Hit a writing snag when you’re writing every day and it is not such a big deal.  But if you reach a roadblock—what scene should come next?—while writing in chunks you may waste your entire session trying to figure it out.

So those are my thoughts on the topic.  But here’s the bottom line: figure out what works for you and then do it. If you fancy yourself a daily writer but you’re not doing it, experiment with chunk writing. And vice versa.

What’s your writing schedule? Come on over to the blog and share in the comments.

Photo by maio5.

 

2

Quick Writing Tip: The Uses (and Abuses) of TK

I’ve seen a couple posts about using TK recently (though damned if I can remember where), which tells me it is in the zeitgeist, which tells me it it time to write about it.  asok_project365_mydesk_1059218_h

What is TK, you ask? Some people say it is short for “to come,” which makes a certain kind of sense if you ignore that pesky K.  But “to come” is definitely the spirit of TK, whether or not it is actually short for it. You put TK in your manuscript wherever you don’t yet know what should be in there.  Not certain of your character’s name? Call him TK. Need to insert a bit of research but don’t want to stop to look it up? Add a TK. You get the drift.

The reason this works so well is this: T and K are the only two letters of the alphabet that never occur next to each other in a word. So when you’re cleaning up your draft, you can do a search for TK and find all the places you inserted it much more easily than using, say XX.

I use TKs liberally throughout my drafts.  And here’s where the abusing part comes in: sometimes one can use them a bit too liberally.  In this case, you’ll end up with a draft so full of holes it might as well not be a draft. Don’t let TK become a substitute for the basic writing you need to do.

But besides that little caution, there’s not much to worry about with the TK. So TK away!

Photo by orangeacid.

 

0

Five on Friday: Friday the 13th Edition

Happy Friday the 13th! I’m of the opinion that this day is lucky, not cursed, so let’s celebrate it, shall we?  Here’s

One of the best bookstores ever

One of the best bookstores ever

what’s going on with me this week. I’d love to hear what’s up with you if you feel so inclined to comment.

What I’m Happy About: How my detox is going. Though I do tend to have a low-grade headache most days and also have moments of feeling crummy, as my doctor puts it, mostly I feel less sludgy, and less ploddy.  The other day, my brain, in quite a grandiose fashion, was stuck on the song Wake Me Up in relation to how much better I’ve been feeling. (That would be because of the song’s refrain, “I didn’t know I was lost.”) If you’re not familiar with it, scroll down, I’ve helpfully provided the video. (Though you’ll have to ignore the chatter of the Brit disc jockey at the beginning.)

What I’m Watching: Wallender, on PBS Masterpiece Mystery. Apparently this is the last season, which just means there’s lots of great shows for us to catch up on.  The show stars Kenneth Branagh, and he is amazing. Last week’s episode was set in South Africa.  With one brief look, Branagh, as Wallender, can show shock and dismay at the disparity between poverty and wealth in that country.  I’m looking forward to watching more of this series.

What I’m Reading: Okay, this should actually be what I’ve read, because I’m in a bit of a dry spot which I hope will be soothed by a visit to the Cannon Beach Book Company tomorrow.  Anyway, I recently finished Be Frank With Me, which features an unforgettable main character, Frank, who is all of ten years old. There were many things I enjoyed about this novel, and some things I felt didn’t work well. (Spoiler alert for those coming to the France workshop: we are considering choosing this book for your assigned reading.)

What I’m Working On: Figuring out the next novel. I’m doing more prep work this time, because last time around I jumped right in without knowing much and the resulting draft was sort of disastrous. (It is still sitting on my computer, awaiting my attention, which I’ve not had the fortitude to do yet.)  Also, a new website for Let’s Go Write!

What I’m Offering: Guys, there’s one, maybe two spots left for the France workshop.  And several spaces for my Mapping the Novel class this June at Sitka on the Oregon coast. Come join me for one or the other!

Before you watch the video, please do share what is going on with you.

 

6

Corralling Your Writing Ideas

writing organization, corral ideas, novel writing, mapping the novel, productivity

writing organization, corral ideas, novel writing, mapping the novel, productivity

If you’re anything like me, the beginning of writing a book is a messy affair.  You’ve taken notes like crazy, and they might be anywhere and everywhere. You’ve got nuggets about character buried deep inside a Moleskine, and the best ideas ever for a plot–if only you could find them. I’m all for this chaos at the start, but there comes a time when one must get organized or risk not going any farther.  You need a way to corral all your supporting information.

So how do you corral your notes into a usable outline, or list, or something you can follow while writing a book?  Amazingly enough, I have ideas for you. But first,  let me be clear here, I am not a paragon of organization, far from it. I’ve just learned the hard way I need to get my notes together one way or another, or I’ll never write the novel.  (Also, there’s that productivity thing I wrote about a couple posts back–a person who feels in control is much more motivated to accomplish things.)

Before I share some of the methods for organizing I’ve discovered, first, a note–it does help if you take all your notes in one place.  (No, duh.) I’ve got a giant legal pad I’ve been scribbling ideas in and I number the pages and sometimes often remember to annotate on the margins to make it easier to go back and find things.  You might choose a Moleskine, or a humble spiral. I’ve used them all, depending on my mood.  Okay, ways to organize thyself:

  1. Mini binders. I love these little guys. Okay, I’ve gone off the deep end for them. I use them  for corralling everything from novel notes to ideas for workshops to my day to day life.  Often an index card seems too small, or a regular binder, too big–too much information on one page, ack! But as Goldilocks said, the mini binder size is just right. Also, I can make sections–sections, people!–for plot, setting, character, brilliant ideas, etc.
  2. Index cards. You, however, might like something smaller, and in that case you might want to try index cards, which do come in two sizes. Beloved of screenwriters, these babies make it easy to put one scene per cards, or one character trait per card, or whatever  you would like. There are tons of nifty little containers to put them in, and you can take them out and play with them. You can move scenes around, pin them up in different configurations, whatever  your little heart desires.
  3. Scrivener. I am not a Scrivener zealot devotee, though I respect those of you who are. I do, however, love the idea that you can use index cards on the computer through this program. And there’s lots of other cool stuff as well. I just don’t have the patience to learn it.
  4. Powerpoint.  If you like the idea of corralling ideas on index card, but insist on doing everything on the computer and don’t want to learn Scrivener, try Powerpoint.   You most likely have it on your computer, and it is easy to work with and very visual seeing as how it is a program to create presentations.  Each slide equals a card and there’s enough flexibility to create sets of cards for plot and character or whatever you need. I’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities here.
  5. Regular binder. You know, the 8.5 by 11 standard size we used as school children. I do love me a good binder, which always feels so rich with possibility, but as stated above, the pages get a bit overwhelming for me. They do have the advantage of holding lots of info.
  6. Word document.  Nothing fancy, nothing special, just the file most of us use every day for our writing. No reason you can’t put all your supporting info for your story in a Word doc. That’s what I did for Emma Jean.
  7. OneNote or EverNote.  Choose your poison from these online organizing tools. Both have advantages like accessibility across a broad number of platforms. I prefer OneNote for its simplicity but many writers love EverNote. It’s up to you.

So those are my recommendations. What do you use?  Please do share.

Oh and by the way, I’ll be talking about stuff like this at my three-day Mapping the Novel workshop, to be held in June on the glorious Oregon coast.  Check it out here.

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