Summertime Quote-a-Rama

School is out and we’re managing houseguests and gearing up for some summer travel. My writing schedule has been reduced to noodling in my journal over the past few days. I went through my old journals/commonplace books and found some quotes for inspiration. Here are a few in no particular order. Enjoy!
“How the first draft lists will show you how the story will blow.” ~ Carol Bly in The Passionate Accurate Story
“Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.” ~ John Gardner in The Art of Fiction
“I am an obsessive rewriter, doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say, but a great deal to add.” ~ Gore Vidal

 “Perfection is not very communicative” ~ Yo-Yo Ma
“Readers may savor nuance, unless it illuminates and deepens a clear-cut pattern they’ve been following, it’s nothing more than fancy window dressing in a vacant house.” ~ Lisa Cron in Wired for Story
“We write to taste live twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ~ Anais Nin
“Many writers practice “pain avoidance,” don’t.” ~ Carol Blyin The Passionate Accurate Story
“No two persons ever read the same book.” ~ Edmund Wilson

“Instead of thinking each draft has to be “it,” just try to make your story a little bit better than it was in the previous draft.” ~ LisaCron in Wired for Story
“All good fiction has moment-by-moment fascination. It has authority and at least a touch of strangeness. It draws us in.” ~ John Gardnerin The Art of Fiction
“You can’t really succeed with a novel anyway; they’re too big. It’s like city planning. You can’t plan a perfect city because there’s too much going on that you can’t take into account. You can, however, write a perfect sentence now and then.” ~ Gore Vidal
“Let go of the edge of the pool.” ~ me

Read Slow Write Fast

King goes on to clarify that you shouldn’t be reading just because it’s good for your writing – like drinking prune juice is because it’s good for your digestion. You, of course, should be reading because you LOVE it. A writer may not, in fact, start out as a passionate reader, but if you’re serious about the craft, you will become one.
But I don’t just read for the love of it. Any book – from pulp to high literature – can be my university as a writer. The good stuff provides multiple examples of techniques that work, and the bad stuff shows me what clichés and pitfalls to avoid. I read as much and as broadly as I can, including books outside my comfort zone (both stylistically and socio-politically). I tilt toward the literary, but I’ve found no reason to look down my nose at beach reads. Those books sell like hotcakes for a reason – they’re fun and fast paced. The authors know a thing or two about suspense and character and how to pull a reader through a story.
But there is still the limited hours-in-a-day conundrum. I am always wishing I could read more. My solution? I just tell myself: if you can’t go far, go deep.
Every few books, I make a point of reading one slowly and deeply. I’ve already blogged about how I’m a slow reader. In this case, it’s a feature not a bug.
Going deep is all about understanding the techniques used in a piece of writing. As I read, I’m looking under the hood of the story or arguement. I keep notes in my journal as I go. How is the author creating the tone of the book? Is it their vocabulary? The sentence structure? Is it in the dialogue? How does he or she help me connect emotionally with the characters? Understand their motivations? If something about the book isn’t working for me, I try to articulate why. If there are elements or techniques that don’t float my personal boat, I not only think about why – but about why those techniques might work for other readers.
This kind of deconstruction might not be everyone’s cup of tea. You might find that simply reading a book over (and over) illuminates how the author accomplished what he or she did with a particular book. The important thing is to strive to understand and internalize the techniques brought to bear on a particular work. With each piece of writing you examine, you’re accruing an innate understanding of the many techniques that go into a powerful piece of writing.
When it is time to write – to put that deep reading into practice – WRITE FAST! Writing fast feels a little out of control. All I can say is get comfortable with that feeling. Like any student you will stumble, fall and fail. But eventually, through careful reading and lots of writing, you’ll find that the tools in the writer’s toolbox are becoming integrated into your writer’s hind brain, and that’s where the magic happens! When the techniques of the craft are in place, the story can just flow out through your fingers.
Keep reading as much as you can, so that you encounter every writing technique over and over, so that you can recognize them across different styles and genres. This summer, you may find you’re enjoying your next beach read differently as you notice how the author manipulates pacing, reveals character or sets up a trail of clues.

Commonplacing

Pages from a commonplace book

“[W]e read how Milton composed, Montaigne, Goethe: by what happy strokes of thought, flashes of wit, apt figures, fit quotations snatched from vast fields of learning, their rich pages were wrought forth! This were to give the keys of great authorship!”         ~Amos Bronson Alcott, 1877

Commonplacing, or keeping a book of reading notes, began in Renaissance times. The practice grew up with the very existence of books themselves. It was taught in universities in England and Europe in the 17th Century. Authors from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Mark Twain to H. P. Lovecraft kept commonplace books. The practice has been, and remains, an excellent way to compile information and to build knowledge.

A commonplace book is not a journal. It is not overtly introspective and generally not chronological. Gathering a hodgepodge collection of random quotes, thoughts, and overheard quips that resonate or sparks ideas, is more akin to scrapbooking.

The value of keeping a commonplace book goes beyond simply recording useful quotes and references to mine later. Copying out a quote and noting some thoughts about it is a way to read actively. This kind of deep reading is necessary if you want to improve as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, popcorn reading for simple pleasure is also necessary and lovely, but if you want to grow as a writer you must seek out different and, yes, difficult texts and wrestle with them. (This is why I also love reading and committing marginalia.*)

A commonplace book is different than a journal but that doesn’t mean it can’t be contained in one, which is what I do.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many ways of journaling. Really, my journals are a constant, evolving experiment. In the past, I’ve carried around a thick book that took a year or more to fill. These are heavy to lug around, and I do like to always have my journal with me, so this year I’m using a series of smaller books.

My journals are always a mishmash of everything: New ideas, outlines, notes, meta thoughts, early noodling drafts, personal rants, and lists of things I’m grateful for. I keep commonplace notes in with all the rest. I have quotes from books about writing and popular science. I have a bottle of library paste handy so that I can glue in articles I clip from magazines. I’ll also write down thoughts about the fiction I’m reading, like why a particular story rung me like a bell, or how a writer approached character, or musings on why some some element of a story didn’t work for me.

I read through my journal every couple weeks to highlight sections and add marginalia. I also build an index in the back of each journal as I go. With both commonplacing** and journaling, I may or may not come back to a particular passage. For me, the act of writing out my (or some other writers’) thoughts helps me progress to a new level of understanding of not only writing but – as Douglas Adams would say – Life the Universe and Everything.


* Marginalia, a topic definitely worthy of it’s own blog post. Stay tuned…
** Today, commonplacing is showing up across a panoply of different technologies. I also use Evernote and Pinterest; some people use Facebook and blogs as commonplace books. This is a rich topic, but since this post is already past due, one that I’ll be blogging about on another day.

The Belated Turkey of Gratitude


This journal’s almost finished.

I love Thanksgiving dearly because it is a chance to relax with family and practice gratitude for all the things we have. I am committed to insulating my family for as long as possible from the encroaching BLACK THURSDAY. One day in our not so distant future only apostates will celebrate Thanksgiving, everyone else will participate in the sport of competitive shopping where credit card-wielding hordes crush the doors of big box stores, trample the weak and prove their worth by purchasing discounted items so that they may return home with an electronic gizmo as proof of their commitment to consumerism… So, in the face of my fear that the practice of gratitude is losing ground to the practice of getting, here’s a list:

31 things about writing and storytelling for which I am grateful.
  1. For finishing a journal and looking back on the glorious, sloppy scribbled pages, pictures pasted in, notes sticking out brain dump.
  2. For starting a brand new journal with all those blank pages were anything could happen.
  3. For stationary stores and everything in them.
  4. Specifically for the Pilot P-500 extra fine (for when I’m feeling gel inky) and Pilot Razor Point II (for when I’m feeling felt-tippy).
  5. For writing apps and software like Dropbox, Evernote, and Scrivener that make writing on screens efficient and fun.
  6. For the public library, a well of books for the whole family, and a place where I can write without being required to buy something – because I’m not always hungry or thirsty when I feel like writing.
  7. For coffeehouses and diners for when I am. 
  8. For my ten minutes of freewriting, where I can bitch and moan to a sheet of paper that is bound for the recycle bin.
  9. For the way that writing has taught me to be a keen observer of the world around me and of my own responses to it.
  10. For all the nascent, fragile little story eggs that fill my head, even if they can be a bit distracting rolling around up there.
  11. For how writing has given me something to aspire to. Mastering storytelling is serious fun.
  12. For creating a world, entering it and discovering something, or someone, unexpected there.
  13. For how writing has taught me to stretch and grow my imagination. To imagine worlds stranger than our own and the characters who can live in them.
  14. For how writing has made me broader in my thoughts and braver in my actions. A good story is built on experiences. Good storytellers are experienced. 
  15. For how good characters encourage me to step out of my comfort zone and look at issues from more than one perspective (file under how to write a good villan). 
  16. For writing until I realize the way even if I have to spend thousands of words. Sometimes those who wander ARE lost.
  17. For the camaraderie of my writer’s group. 
  18. For meeting new people who are willing to give honest, constructive opinions in an effort to make us all better at what we’re trying to accomplish.
  19. For the privilege of having another writer share his or her unfinished work with me.
  20. For all that I’ve learned about writing by learning how to give a good critique of someone else’s story.
  21. For the work of busting apart a draft and putting it back together.
  22. For reworking a sentence until it rings like a bell.
  23. For publications that accurately gague and post their turn-around times for submissions. It’s easier to be patient if I have some idea how long I have to wait.
  24. For slush readers who deal with their monumental slush piles with alacraty.
  25. For all the editors who have read my submissions — all of them. Even when they send a rejection, I know it took time to read my story and many have taken a few extra minutes to comment on my submission. I am grateful for their time and their valuable insights.
  26. For writing podcasts like Writing Excuses and the Coode Street Podcast that talk about writing and Escape Pod and PodCastle that keep my ears entertained with stories.
  27. For semipro zines like ClarkesworldLightspeed and Daily Science Fiction that are committed to finding and putting great stories out there on e-readers, in print and as podcasts.
  28. For how the practice of STORYTELLING has enhanced and sharpened my enjoyment when reading, hearing and watching other stories in books, on podcasts and at the movies. Especially when someone else tells a story in a completely surprising and original way.
  29. For the magic that is a good story, which is more than the sum of its parts.
  30. For sitting in the sun with a good book.
  31. For the journey.

Tools for Writing

It’s been a tough couple of weeks writing-wise. Halloween is a banner holiday around here and requires a fair amount of crafting and preparation. As I continue to squeeze writing into the nooks and crannies of my day I am paying special attention to tweaking my process so that I can be as productive as possible with the time that I have. And imma gonna blog about that soon, but today I’d rather talk about some of the various tools, apps and gizmos I  use to write.

I’ve always been a stationary store geek. There are cups of pens and pencils all over the house and pads of sticky notes secreted everywhere. Then there is my own *special* cup of pens, pencils and highlighters. While not under lock and key, I am very protective of it and whenever I spot one of my writing implements next to hubby’s crossword puzzle I switch it out of a normal pencil while muttering quietly to myself… But clearly that’s fetish territory. For practical purposes, I take a maximumilist approach and will write anywhere with any implement that comes to hand including pen, pencil, crayon, public terminal on the cloud, laptop, phone (Android), or iPod Touch. I believe you should work wherever you can whenever you can with what ever comes to hand.

Just because I’m willing to write with a sawed off crayon doesn’t mean I don’t have my favorites. Here are some of the tools I use:

LOOSE LEAF PAPER

For daily freewriting. I’ve been pursuing the practice of daily freewriting and it was getting gummed up because, I’ve come to believe, I was doing it wrong. I was trying to accomplish too much with it. I would try to get the next words of my work in progress out or suss out new ideas or work out a revision kink. But true freewriting wants to be – free. So for my daily ten minutes of true freewriting I’ve moved it out of my journal and switched to loose leaf paper. This writing is a warm up and a place where I write without stopping about anything, without a plan. Mostly it’s nonsense and loose leaf pages are easily tossed into the recycle bin. Of course if I happen to blurt out a gem during a session I can always transcribe it into a document or my journal.

STICKY NOTES

I have these little pads at work, all around the house and in the car. This is for noting random thoughts, ideas and inspirations, some people go old school and use 3×5 cards for this sort of thing (e.g. Annie Lamott) but I like sticky notes because they are, you know, sticky. If I’m busy I can gather them up and just stick them on a page in my journal for later integration/transcription.


JOURNAL

This is home base for most of my working stories, notes, research, outlines, freewritten drafts, ideas, quotes. I also try write down my dreams in the morning using a different color ink. I try to put something in my journal every day. I read through it a couple times a month for useful bits and to update the index/table of contents that I keep in the first pages. I’m a visual thinker and while I don’t spend a lot of time “arting” my journal up, I do keep a bottle of rubber cement so that I can glue images that I find or print out into the pages.


MY LAPTOP & THE CLOUD

The electronic home for my work. I’ll compose stories from my journal notes, or do directed freewriting on the keyboard. I keep everything backed up on DropBox so that I can access it from my work computer if I should happen to get an extra few minutes there. I also use Google Drive for some drafts and projects. For random notes, ideas and web research there’s Evernote. I don’t pay for any of this as I’m well below their bandwidth limits. Once I finish a story I delete most of the research files and any online drafts. I usually save a couple print outs with my scribbled hand revisions for posterity. That’s the beauty of research for fiction. I’m not out to prove anything — just trying to juice my brain, so I don’t need footnotes.

I just bought Scrivener and have started to use some of the writerly features for my longer short stories. I’m going to be using it to write my novel come January. I’ll post down the road after I’ve given it a real test drive. When I am out and about and feel like noting something down with my thumbs, which is my least favorite mode of writing, a fact that just makes me feel old. I use iAwriter on my iPod, which is very straightforward, with biggish buttons and synchs nicely.

So much to write and so many ways to do it. Fun!

Process

Vladimir Nabokov’s Draft of Lolita

Over at Quoria under Unusual Work Habits of Famous Writers there’s a picture of a box of index cards, an example of just one way to work. I’ve been thinking about how I write as I continue to learn my craft and try to make my writing process more efficient. From old fashioned to new fangled, there are a million ways to get your ideas down on paper or onto a glowing screen and out into the world.

I don’t usually start from plot, but I don’t exactly start from character either. Usually a situation or a concept piques my interest and I have to grow that into a story. Here’s what I’ve learned about my own process for capturing and growing ideas.

READ:
I read around a lot, both fiction and nonfiction. Most of my ideas come from a bit of news or a story element that suggests an interesting situation or even just a tone or emotion that I want to explore.

JOURNAL:
AKA the “idea bin.” I have an actual journal that I keep close when I’m sitting on the couch and need to jot down an idea. I also try to practice FREEWRITING daily, sometimes I write without stopping on a story I’m currently working on, sometimes I do a random writing exercise, and sometimes I just vent.

Every couple weeks I try to read through what I’ve written, which is a fruitful exercise in itself. I also add to the hand-written index that I build in the back of the book so that I can access all those random notes and quotes and ideas that are scattered throughout the pages.

RESEARCH & DEVELOP:
I then do a little research to flesh out the world and solve any practical/scientific questions that are part of the story. I try to limit this initial research to one day (not a solid day but whatever I can get to in a 24-hour period). This keeps my research from becoming a procrastination station.

I never used to do this, but I’ve started to write up a quick bio for the main character or characters. I use Nancy Kress’ “Mini-Bio” (general) and “Emotional Mini-Bio for Key Characters.” Sometimes I do this before I start to draft, other times I stop and do these bios after I’ve started building the plot. This not only helps me to create dimensional characters but also often sharpens the conflict and in one case entirely changed the direction of a story I’d been stuck on. Chuck Wendig tells it in 25 of my Personal Rules for Writing and Telling Stories:

“Plot is Soylent Green. Plot is made of people.”

Yes it is.
DRAFT:
Sometimes I draft by hand in my journal as this seems to give me more freedom to suck. I tell myself that I’m going to fix-it-up when I type it in anyway, so it doesn’t matter that I’m flailing around trying to figure this thing out. Other times I just sit down and start banging away at the keyboard.

At this point I usually only have a rough idea of where things are going plotwise. I don’t consider myself a seat-of-the-pants writer, but I’m not the outliner that I used to be. I’ve discovered that what I like to do best is outline as I go. I’ve been doing this more now that I have Scriviner on my laptop. If I’m in my journal I just keep a wide margin for outliney notes. For this reason, I think my next journal is going to be a larger format.

FIRST REVISION:
This is hard for me because I need to rein in my urge to tidy and nit-pick and force myself to read through my draft for the big picture. I try to fix glaring errors and plot holes, moving thing around and adding and excising whole chunks of texts, before cleaning up any mechanical and grammar issues. At this point I’ve usually got something that’s ready to show to a critique group.

SECOND REVISION:
Okay, saying “first” and “second” revision isn’t all that accurate as I often fit revising in here and there throughout the day and so the process is more of a spread out kind of tinkering that I group under those terms. After getting a critique I go through the story one more time to fix anything that other people caught or to incorporate any awesome ideas that might have come up during the session. I also go through sentence by sentence for grammar and style.

SUBMISSION:
Off you go into the world, little story…