I’m in a prompt kind of mood (or at least I was when I wrote this post, before I left for France) because later on this fall I’ll be coming out, with a wonderful co-author, with a writing prompt journal that you will be able to hold in your very own hands! Exciting, no? But in the meantime, because its Monday and you need to write this week, here’s a week’s worth of prompts for you. Go to it.
–He never knew that his aunt had turned into a hoarder, but now he edged along a narrow path that skirted the huge pile of junk in the living room.
–It will all be over soon.
–I don’t like you, but I love you. Seems like I’m always thinking of you. (With thanks to the Beatles.)
–The pile of notebooks threatened to topple over at any second.
–But, after all….
–You main character’s favorite way to spend her free time. Drinking wine, pursuing a hobby, watching TV, having sex, hiking, reading, what?
–My neighbors collect gnomes and have them all around their yard. Sometimes they find new ones that friends have left in odd places. What do you collect and why? How about your main character?
Okay, you’ve got your marching orders for the week. Go to it! And if you write something you want to share, put it in the comments!
I’m leaving for France (Paris and Ceret) soon. I’m not one of those people who pack and repack a week ahead. No, you’ll find me throwing clothes in the suitcase the night before.
But, and this is a big but—when the time comes for me to commence said throwing, I will know exactly what I’m going to take. (Okay, because I’m a terrible packer and a confirmed right-brainer, there will be last minute changes and additions.) Because I’ve been thinking about what I need to take clothes-wise, book-wise, and technology-wise all month.
Chance favors the prepared mind. And the prepared packer. And the prepared writer.
At least I think so.
I know there’s an endless debate between pantsers and plotters. (For the record, a pantser is one who flies by the seat of his pants when writing, and a plotter is one who plans everything out.) And, seeing as how I have a completely somewhat loose approach to organization and house cleaning and the like, you would think I would fall down on the side of pantsing.
But I have learned through many years of experience that when I pants, I get into trouble. Not that I don’t love it, because I do. What could be better than allowing your mind and fingers to ramble down shady lanes and sunny byways in strange worlds? But the key word here is ramble, because that’s exactly what I do. Ramble along with no worry for the strictures of plot or character. Or showing a cohesive setting. Or anything but my rambles.
And one cannot write a novel without worrying about plot or character or setting. Or one can, but one will need to do a lot of rewriting when one is done. I do love rewriting—but not when I have to figure out how to make a shapeless lump into a story.
So, I plot. And write up character dossiers. And draw maps of locations and diagrams of houses and offices. I call all of this prep work and I actually enjoy it. Sometimes I think I enjoy it too much, as I can get so engrossed in it that I never quite get to the writing of the novel.
It occurred to me, as I pondered what clothing I should take to Europe, that it might be helpful to share what I consider to be the bare minimum of novel prep work, because it’s been awhile since we discussed this. So here you go (and remember this is a minimum. You can do a lot more if you wish):
Character Dossiers. I fill them out for all of my main characters and do at least the rudiments (appearance, personal traits) for the minor ones. Because all story starts with character, this is time well spent and often helps me come up with plot ideas as well. It is also helpful to know who is going to tell the story and if it will be in first person or third.
Setting Sketches. I need to be able to see where my character lives and works. This goes for big setting, such as the overall city she lives in, and small setting, such as her home and office.
A Loose Outline. And by loose, I mean loose. I’m not one of those people who plans out every single beat and action and character thought. I do like to leave some room for surprises. A simple list of potential happenings will do.
Really that’s it. I know, you don’t see research on the list. That’s because, like technology, I’m on a need-to-know basis with it. When I don’t know how to do something on my computer, ask the Google How do I do _______________ ? I always get a quick answer. Same thing with research. At least for the first draft you do not want to get mired in a lot of facts you might not really need. (And if you’re writing an historical, my hat’s off to you. And you’ll need to do a lot more research.)
Since I just finished my rewrite, I’ll be prepping a new novel myself soon. Can’t wait.
While I have you, are you a pantser or a plotter? What do you think are the advantages of your approach?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am at this moment a fool for detoxing. I’m doing a three-month heavy metal detox (under doctor’s supervision—don’t try this at home) and, at the same time (because why not), a detox designed to clean out my gut and make it healthier. I’ll spare you the gory details of it all, other than to say that I’m feeling great—lighter and more energetic.
But all this emphasis on detoxing my body got me to thinking, as I do, about detoxing the mind. Specifically, the writer’s mind. And that led me to think about our writing habits, good and bad. And I realized that while I’m detoxing my body, I might just as well be detoxing my mind and my writing as well. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about. Maybe these new habits will be helpful for you, too.
Shed the negativity. We all do it. Whine about how hard it is to write, to get published, to make a career out of writing. All of those things are true—and yet sometimes writing is fun, new people do get published every day, and many, many authors make a career from their words. So why not buck up and think about the positive instead?
Let go of what Brene Brown calls confabulating. These are the “dangerous stories we make up,” like, “I’m not creative,” “I’m not lovable,” “I’m not good enough to be a writer.” We all have our own particular confabulations. What are yours? Uncover them and eradicate them.
Ditch adverbs. I really, really, really love me an adverb. Yes, I do. Really. Okay, I’ll stop now. Most writers will tell you to never ever use an adverb. I’m not a fan of blanket rules like that, so you won’t hear that from me. But I do advise caution in using them because they weaken sentences. Even if you do like them, like me.
Get rid of flab words. One of my favorites is just. Another is that, or but. I’ve got lots of them. How about very? Another way to ditch the flab is to eliminate unneeded words, and quit hedging your bets (seems like, could be).
Resist perfectionism. That is, until you are going through your manuscript for the very last time before sending it out. Then you want to be picky. But before that, don’t stop and obsess over every word. You’ll never get a draft done that way, and besides, its torture.
Stop procrastination. Who, me, procrastinate? Never. But I do hear that lots of people have this problem, so in the interests of fairness I will mention it. When I start procrastinating hear of people having trouble with procrastination, I remind them of the phrase: Use yourself up. Use all of yourself up. Because that’s what we want to feel when we die, right? Like we’ve used every last bit of ourselves up.
Ditch your addictions. For the record, I do not consider my nightly glass of wine an addiction because I am old and I deserve my wine. But I will admit to an internet addiction. As in constantly looking at my inbox, waiting for the rush of new emails coming in. Or always eyeing my phone, ever alert for the next notification. Lately I’ve been engaging in the radical act of leaving my phone on the charger in the kitchen most of the day. Much less distracting.
So those are my thoughts on what I want to detox for my writing life. How about you? Any ideas on things you’d like to let go of? Please comment below and let us know!
(My inspiration for this post comes from a list penned by Anne Wayman.)
What’s on your desk?
My computer, a small Dell laptop
A cat (just about always)
A yellow legal pad with notes on it
Two books about writing
The little journal in which I keep my to-do lists and make notes in all week
A pen. Or often several.
My desk is small, like an old-fashioned letter-writing desk, and I like it that way. Until a few months ago, I worked at a massive Ikea desk that had all kinds of room on it. Too much room, because give me a flat surface and I will stack paper on it. And that is exactly what I did. I stacked paper and books and notebooks and files and all kinds of things all over it.
This did not make me happy. It cluttered up my mind and made me feel guilty. And then last summer, I started carrying my computer outside every morning and working at the table on the back deck. Most mornings, it was just me and my laptop, with maybe a pad of paper for notes and a pen, nothing more. I realized I loved this and that what I really needed was a small desk so that I would not have the problem of so much room to stack things on.
For the most part this has worked. The areas surrounding me have crap all over them, but it stays out of my line of vision and doesn’t distract me quite so much. I positioned this desk so that it is facing into my office with bookshelves behind me, and windows to each side. My last desk faced the wall. I like this better because I’m also facing the door and it always feels weird to have your back to it.
I find it amusing that it took me so many years to figure out what worked for me. And it is also fun to think about how many different places I’ve written. The kitchen counter, the dining room table, a corner of the bedroom, you name it.
Where do you write? Does this location work for you? Why or why not?
I am three-quarters of the way through the first draft of my next novel, and rather than writing all the way to the end, I am starting over.
I hear your gasps. I see your open mouths. I understand your shock and dismay. Because I feel it, too.
Here’s the story. I am known to expound on the virtues of the writing process loudly and often, at least among certain groups. By the writing process, I mean this the following. You do some prep work, such as character dossiers and a loose outline, and you write your first draft (also known as the discovery draft) from start to finish, emphasis on the finish. And then you ponder and make notes and ponder some more, and return to the manuscript and write the second draft. You rinse and repeat as many times as necessary, ending with the revision draft, in which you concentrate on word choice, deleting adverbs, and grammar. All the little things. Then, and only then, do you consider your manuscript complete.
Any deviation from this process is frowned on in my world.
But here I am doing it. I am planning to launch into the second draft before completing the first. I have good reasons, I swear it! From the start, I’ve known this draft was lacking in everything a few things, such as, oh, voice and plot and interesting characters. I started it on a whim while in France last year, and had written several chapters before I really started thinking about where I was going with it (do not try this at home). I knew I had issues and yet I liked the main character and her arc a lot and so I plunged on.
But the antagonist was a soft, sweet Mama-bear type. And the love interest was too perfect. And I had a whole sub-plot going that really didn’t combine with the main plot. At all. Sigh. While in Nashville last week, I did a ton of journaling and writing about, which is my way of thinking through issues with my fiction. And I came up with ideas that pop the whole story open and make it all sparkly and shiny. Ideas that I love. But my antagonist is totally different now, and the love interest’s imperfections make him a new character. That stupid sub-plot is gone and there’s a whole new location.
Often, you can come up with ideas for big changes in your novel and keep writing as if you wrote the first three-quarters of the story with those ideas in place. But the changes that I have in mind seem to me to be so innate that I need to begin again.
So that’s what I’m going to do. HOWEVER, I just received rewrite notes from an editor who is very interested in The Bonne Chance Bakery and so I am setting everything else aside to work on that. Maybe–just maybe–I will change my mind about starting over in the interim. I have agonized over this a fair amount. But I highly doubt it.
What is your usual process? Have you ever started over on a project before finishing it? Do tell!
It is hot here in Portland, mid to upper 90s all last week and more of the same this week, with temps predicted to reach into the 100s by the weekend. We usually get some hot hot weather during the summer, but this is very early for a heat wave and it is lasting a long time.
My office is upstairs (I'm in process of moving it downstairs, but that project is taking forever) and that automatically makes it hot. (We, like many Portlanders who live in older homes, don't have air conditioning.) But it also gets stuffy, the air stagnant, and because it is full of boxes (the afore mentioned moving project), its not a very inspiring space at the moment.
In self defense, I moved my computer and all my notes downstairs last weekend and then one early morning around 6 AM I got the idea to move my operation out back. I set up on the outdoor table on the deck and listened to the birds sing and wrote my heart out. I started out a few weeks ago setting my Iphone timer for 15 minutes and telling myself I was just going to write, simply as a way to get to the page. But now, I think it is safe to say that these daily outside writing sessions are turning into my next novel–and that my daily writing practice has transformed my writing life.
The tree above me
I now set up outside every morning and it has quickly become my favorite time of day. It is peaceful and cool and quiet aside from the occasional dog barking and I am getting a lot of writing done every morning. It is amazing to me what a change of venue can do for your writing. Some people love to go work in coffee shops, but me? Not so much. I'm far too distracted by people and noise and activity. Besides, I do my best work early in the day, in my pajamas, and that doesn't work so well anywhere but home.
By 7:30 the sun hits my back and lights the screen and I can't see so well and I'm starting to flag anyway. But the point of all this, besides encouraging you to look at where you write and how well it is working for you, is to share a few tips I've learned (relearned?) as I start writing a long project (i.e., a novel), again.
1. Call it Daily Writing Practice. Some times the daily writings are just random scenes, sometimes they actually turn into a scene for my WIP, and sometimes they become me obsessing about where I am in the WIP. But gradually, the daily practices have turned into real, consistent work on my next novel, and the sessions have lengthened out considerably. But at the beginning, I just called it daily practice and all I had to do was write something, anything for 15 minutes. Whether or not your writing sessions pertain to your WIP is up to you—but if it doesn't, that's okay.
2. Keep a Writing Log. I've started a daily writing log, wherein I write about my feelings and thoughts on what I'm writing. I wish I'd done this during the writing of my most recent novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery. Now that it is finished, that novel exists in a sort of magical haze for me, and I've convinced myself that writing it went smoothly from the idea to the end. But a few days ago, I opened, by chance, one of my daily writings from last summer–and read a whole long rant about how stuck and frustrated I was on the progress I was making. Because, the thing is, when a novel is done, you forget the day to day grind that went into it. Because the Bonne Chance was somewhat magical in origin, with the entire story essentially downloaded to me in the shower, it has been easy to forget the hard parts. Instead, I labor under the delusion that the writing of it was easy and sure in every letter and word. While parts of it were, much of it wasn't. And it is reassuring to remember that as I struggle to start anew.
For a look at how a major literary figure used a diary, check out this great Brain Pickings piece about the journals John Steinbeck kept while writing the Grapes of Wrath.
3. Set Word Count Goals. Once you get beyond the random daily writing practice (and its okay if you never do, truly), it is fun to set yourself some goals. I was hitting 1K words a morning with ease, so today I notched it up to 1,500. It helps to give me some kind of framework for what I'm doing.
4. Give Yourself a Place to Go the Next Day. If you are working on a long project, write a sentence or two about what happens next, so that you know where to start the next day. If you are doing random writing, choose a prompt so that you don't go in search of one on the internet and get distracted.
5. Stay Organized. For some dumb reason that I will probably regret, I like to save each days' writing in a separate file, labeled with the date. I think I like to see the files pile up in the folder I've created for them. What I will likely soon do is put all these pieces together into a file labeled "full manuscript." But I am notoriously terrible at organization, so you can probably figure out your own system that works well for you.
Okay, that's it! I hope you are making progress on your WIP or enjoying writing something. Do you have any tips for sustaining a regular writing practice?
Being immersed in the creative process–writing a novel, creating a class, knitting a sweater, planting a garden–is my most favorite thing in the world.
Until I hit a block.
And decide that the novel stinks, nobody will want to take the class, the sweater won't fit, the garden won't grow. And then I hate the creative process.
I was reading about this very thing on another blog this morning when it hit me. The tension between the love part and the hate part is what keeps us working at it. If the creative process–say, your writing practice–was all good all the time, you'd get bored. And if it was all bad all the time, you'd get frustrated and quit.
A well-known psychological principle is that of intermittent reinforcement, and that's what we're talking about here. This principle states that reinforcement is doled out in an intermittent manner is far and away the strongest motivator. Why? Because we never know what we're going to get, and we're always hoping for the good outcome–the wonderfully satisfying writing session as opposed to the time when you sit and stare out the window.
But we're also talking about tension, the lifeblood of all stories. It's what keeps readers turning pages, the tension in the story itself and the tension the author has embedded in the story. Without tension, or conflict, there is no story, its a simple as that. Which is why, of course, the news is full of awful stories about horrible things happening.
While it is frustrating to hit the lows of the creative process, if you just remember that its all a cycle and the highs will soon return, I think you can ease yourself through the times you hate everything you create. Remind yourself that the work would not be nearly so compelling if it were all easy, all the time.
And take yourself back to the page once more.
How do you handle the lows of the creative process?
The only way out is through. We usually don't want to hear this particular bit of advice, but I have found that it is true.
I thought about it as I was out walking this morning, my legs in some pain. After struggling with a knee issue for the last couple of years, I've finally found a chiropractor who is helping. Turns out I have one leg shorter than the other, and now a lift in my right shoe to balance things out. And that, in turn, works muscles in my legs that haven't been used in ages.
So, pain. And, my legs just have to get used to it as I gradually build up my steps. The only way out is through.
Same thing is true, of course, in writing.
Stuck on your work in progress? The only way out is through the wilds of the manuscript.
Got another rejection? The only way out is to feel the discouragement and despair, get through it, and send it out again.
Don't know what to write? The only way out is through taking notes and free writing.
Books aren't selling? The only way out is through more marketing.
You get the idea.
This concept may seem the tiniest bit depressing, but I find it comforting. Nobody is going to come save me, I have to do it myself, whether that means putting another word on the page or taking another step.
What do you think? Does this concept resonate with you?