I am sitting at my desk right now preparing to venture to my 10-year-old son’s classroom where I will spend about an hour discussing my brief time studying with Madeleine L’Engle, the famed author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. The kids have been reading it at school, and I hear from his teacher that it’s been most challenging. Perhaps that is why it was one of the formative novels of my own childhood.
I’ve always liked a challenge, and writing is one of the greatest, to be sure. As I’m perusing Madeleine’s many wisdoms, recorded in a compilation called Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, I begin to recognize approaches and concepts that have been so deeply embedded in my psyche for so long that I had forgotten where they’d come from.
Here’s Madeleine on concentration:
“The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself into whatever it is that he is doing… His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.”
Somewhere along the way, I decided this was not only true, but an inherent part of the way to teach creativity. Perhaps it was watching my 7-year-old boy who, for as long as I can remember, has been able to keep himself endlessly entertained with only his fingers and perhaps a couple of odd bits of toys. They don’t even have to be “action figures” as he imagines them smashing together and, making loud explosion noises with his lips, lets them tumble to the ground. My little one is a master of sound effects and can go on for hours playing out scenarios that only he fully understands. Amidst the action, the dialogue he mutters to himself and the bits of plastic occasionally flying, I recognize the very soul of creative thinking that is so essential to writing stories.
For the last few years, I’ve tapped into that root to help creativity grow, especially in my youngest students. They are closer to that source, and hopefully I’ve caught them before it’s been drummed out of them by the rigors of school. As Madeleine states in “Herself”:
“I’m not going to define the creative impulse. I don’t think it’s definable. There are educationalists who think it can be taught like the new math and who write learned treatises on methods of teaching it. The creative impulse can be killed, but it cannot be taught.”
So I’ve tossed out the rigid confines of paragraph and sentence construction, grammar and spelling — all those very vital things children must eventually learn, but please, not from me! Instead, I’ve concentrated on helping the children become aware of how they imagine when they play and then harness that intuitive fullness and fluidity to create stories.
In our kids’ writing classes lately, we’ve had super-heroes with transformational powers chasing villains who do cartwheels to escape with their stolen loot. We’ve met a mad scientist mole who has invented a wildly successful shoe-tying device and we’ve wandered with an Argentinean boy-werewolf. We have made our own mythologies. We’ve even had fruit-and-vegetable battles. And we’ve written it all down, for better or worse, whether any of it makes sense or not.
Truly, the words on the page aren’t always stellar, but the experience of creative engagement has resulted in writing that is unique. And the children have learned to trust their imaginations. They’ve discovered that they can create wildly funny and unusual characters, serious conflicts, lots of action, and vibrant emotions that portray their own rich experiences both inside and out of The Writers Circle.
When they’re older, I hope that their understanding of how to harness creative play will help them write better and more.
Meanwhile I turn to Madeleine again to recall the exercises we adults often do in the Circle and out when we pick a word, an image or a thought and just write without thinking or editing for ten or fifteen minutes.
As Madeleine relates:
“When I write, I realized, I do not think. I write. If I think when I am writing, it doesn’t work. I can think before I write; I can think after I write; but when I am actually writing, what I do is write. This is always the instruction I give at writers’ workshops: ‘Don’t think. Write.’ And I put a time limit to assignments. ‘You may not work on this for more than an hour. If you’re not finished at the end of an hour, that’s all right. Stop.'”
I heard her say that very thing in class and I remember thinking that she was crazy. But it works. Trust me. And I’ve passed it on. The thinking and planning happens before you pick up the pen or tap at the keyboard, or after. But not during. Not even now as I’m writing this. There’s a free flow of words coming from my brain to my fingers and I’m not stopping it. In a minute I’ll edit and probably once more before I post. But for now, I’m just writing.
Wise words. Thank you, Madeleine.
What does it mean to be a writer today? For most of us, we are piecing it together, taking the hours when they come, squeezing our words into lunch breaks, between classes or meetings. We fantasize of having endless hours to dally with our muse. In truth, even writers who have found their way to praise and publication can rarely afford to hole up in a quiet cabin and type away.
What’s a writer to do when there are characters in our heads demanding to speak? When there are endless stories churning in our minds like stars in a nebula bursting to be born?
First, we take what time we can.
As I’ve often said in class, if you can’t get three hours, why not try a half hour, fifteen minutes, or the time you can steal when you’re in the bathroom with the door closed? No, this isn’t the best way to complete your epic novel. But it’s enough to get words on paper, to spit out one or two baby stars.
Second, we take (or make) jobs that support our work.
The typical day-job for a working writer is university professor, ideally in an impressive institution that permits long sabbaticals, tenure and only minimal class loads. It sounds idyllic to those who wile away on the corporate wheel. But I’ve known corporate workers who manage to arrange a morning or day off each week to write; I’ve known full-time employees who stay late or come in early for the quiet time it gives, or who write back and forth on the bus or train. (Do NOT sit next to me and chit-chat, please!)
I myself wrote my first novel (the unpublished/unpublishable one) in between typing memos at the boring law firm job I held for many years for that very reason. And I recently expanded The Writers Circle because the idea of being my own boss and teaching children the joys and struggles of writing was so much more appealing than going back to the old commute. Its small start has brought me joy and comfort that what I think is important and valuable and rich maybe really is; and I’m doing my best to share its wealth (metaphorical, so far) with others.
Third, we write what we can.
These days, being a writer can mean many things. Writers are journalists, food critics, marketers. Many writers I know in our suburban New Jersey towns have become roving hyper-local reporters and editors, covering town hall meetings and t-ball games to hone their skills, build their credits and keep their feet in the game. I’ve known writers to accept gigs ghost-writing, working on financial reports, textbooks, advertising or technical manuals. No, perhaps it’s not heart-felt work, but it’s writing. Any chance to craft thoughts and ideas into sound, logical forms is a chance to rightfully call oneself a writer.
Fourth, we write what we must.
I, on the other hand, have never been very good a writing for writing’s sake. Even when I worked in information technology, I avoided the lure of technical writing for fear that it would drain me of any creative word-smithing energy I had left. I was happier doing something completely different, to “save myself” for my true love, awaiting my attentions when I finally made it home and, before I collapsed completely, spent a few hours in anxious, exhausted communing with my characters and worlds.
Neither way is perfect, and neither is a sure route to success. We need to feed our souls and minds as well as our bodies. Finding the right balance is a matter of personality, endurance, opportunity and ultimately choice. As with most things, we all do the best we can.
Fifth (and this is a new one), we publish where we may.
Is working on this blog – or any digital project – any less valuable than writing fiction for print? I guess it depends on your point of view. In a landscape of changing readers’ habits, shortening attention spans, media inundation and a shrinking traditional publishing pool, just about any writing venue is worth exploring.
Self-publishing has lost much of its taboo. And though I personally wouldn’t make it my first choice for developing a broad readership, it’s certainly becoming a viable option for many. It works well for anyone with very direct access to a small but specific market. Profession-specific non-fiction comes to mind readily. But then, who can escape the stunning success of self-publishing fiction superstar Amanda Hocking? Even if your spinal column quivers at the very thought of self-publishing, isn’t it too soon to say? There were naysayers and obstructionists (namely the Church and the elite) when Gutenberg first introduced his machine.
Writers and creative artists are also discovering ways to use digital forms to convey stories in unique and innovative ways. Starting years ago with primitive hyperlink novels, these digital formats are slowing helping us reshape the whole concept of storytelling. Like a brand new set of paints to an artist, new digital venues, including blogging, texting, super-short “Twitter” fiction, video-logs (vlogs, I’m told), and a combination of some or all, invite us into explore and reshape our thinking about story.
Isn’t all of this writing? And honestly, isn’t it fascinating?
We may dream of big readerships, big advances and a seat on a couch beside a talk-show host. But if that’s all we’re working for, we will almost certainly fall short of our goal. And if that’s all we see, maybe we’re turning west to watch the sunrise.
If we want to call ourselves “writers”, the task is before us. Simply write and write and write. Then find a way to put our words into the world. These days, for better or worse, doing that is much easier than it used to be.
Finding readers…? Well, that’s another story.
This week’s post is quick because it’s been THAT busy around here. But I wanted to share two great pieces that should guide, support and comfort all of us, wherever we are on our writer’s journey.
First, who doesn’t love a terrific list? Check out 100 Things About a Novel from author Alexander Chee. I’m not familiar with his work, but clearly this list shows how well he knows the whimsy and struggle of the writing process. And, believe it or not, this list reads like poetry!
Second, growing naturally out of conversations at Sunday’s Madison adult workshop, it seemed appropriate to dig out something from the old files. Who remembers when I shared Malcolm Gladwell’s article from the October 20, 2008 New Yorker Magazine, Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?
It is inevitable, perhaps, that many adult writing workshops are populated with slightly older writers. Many of The Writers Circle’s participants are mid-life, often escaping the chaos of children and work demands, or older, finally carving out some time to capture fleeting thoughts that have been floating around through busier years.
Looking at magazines like Poets & Writers that appeal to a generally more youthful, MFA-bound student or graduate (And I love P&W; don’t get me wrong.), it’s hard not to feel that those of us who come late to writing have perhaps missed something or have less of a chance to make their literary mark.
But Gladwell’s article reminds us that each voice develops on its own schedule. Many of us have much to say that only life’s wisdom can bring to clarity. Being a little gray, a little haggard, a little less fresh and a lot more focused (out of necessity) than when we were single, childless or untried, should not feel like a detriment. Having lived through many rich experiences gives us unique perspective and gives our readers complex, nuanced narratives that can only be achieved with the backing of life’s inevitable convolutions.
I cannot help but think how often my husband and I (both former actors) yawn when we hear of yet another play written about the life of the stage. It’s not that these stories lack merit. (And believe me, theater is the place where drama of all kinds truly lives!) But how limited the arts would be if all creative artists only knew and could portray their own narrow worlds?
To live fully is to bring to our work all that we’ve experienced. The one true challenge for all of us – professional or amateur, experienced or beginner – is to find a way to write and share our stories so that the world will want to hear them.
As many of you know, The Writers Circle is expanding. It’s a thrilling leap of faith for me to take our very personal, very “hyperlocal” community and reach across time and space (OK, it’s only eleven miles…!) to add a new link to the chain.
Michelle Cameron, who has posted as a guest here before, will be teaching two free introductory workshops this Sunday, March 27, at Sages Pages in Madison, NJ. Children from 11:00 AM-12:30 PM will join Story Magic, our multidisciplinary approach to creative writing. Adults will enjoy a more staid but equally nurturing workshop from 1:00-2:30 PM. Please come by, bring your kids (or not!), and welcome Michelle into our Circle.
Meanwhile, I give Michelle the stage once again with some wonderful insights into The Power of Revision:
I write quickly. Always have. It’s been a lifesaver, because right now, my life doesn’t give me the leisure I’d like to take with my writing.
But while I produce words swiftly and can focus in very short bursts, I do tend toward that infatuation with what I’ve just written that I think plagues all writers. I look at the freshly-minted page and fall in love. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s sublime. I want the world to read it, then and there.
I was reminded of this when I watched the video, Sondheim teaches ‘Later’ from A Little Night Music:
As Sondheim explains, this song describes Henrik, a sullen, adolescent young man from Scandinavia who is constantly being told “later” by everyone around him, with resulting frustration. Pay attention to the singer’s rendering of the piece. Sondheim allows him to get all the way through it the first time around. Listening to it (and granted, I am musically ill-equipped), one would think the music student had nailed it. There’s no place to go here. It’s perfect, just the way it is. Well, maybe not perfect, but good enough.
But Sondheim, the consummate artist, understands the power of revision. He has a vision of what he wants to hear and makes the performer repeat the song over and over until he achieves what he has in mind, because artistry isn’t just getting the notes right – it’s understanding the nuances that make it a living, breathing thing.
The first interruption of the second rendition of the song comes early. “It’s already too angry,” says Sondheim, wanting the student to understand how Henrik would really sing these words.
Characterization is critical to just about any song Sondheim writes. Giving the actor “someplace to go,” so his anger doesn’t stay at the same pitch throughout, is vital. He has also carefully considered the reasons why Henrik plays his mournful instrument, the cello – as opposed to any other instrument.
Sondheim then gives us a bit of insight into a fairly comprehensive cut that he made to the musical as a whole. Originally, every character was going to be carrying an instrument. “But it got too pretentious and it had to go,” he tells the audience, who laughs appreciably.
What they may not understand thoroughly, though, is the discipline it takes to make a cut of that magnitude. Take a second to ponder this. Sondheim went through the process of selecting instruments for each of the characters in A Little Night Music. It sounds as though he might even have staged it. But he was willing to cut this particular theme – akin to a writer having to write a character out of a novel, something I’ve actually done. Never mind the hours spent to make the selections. If it doesn’t ultimately serve the piece – it’s got to go.
Which brings me back to my original point. Getting the words down is only part of writing. The part that makes a writer into an artist is the ability to wait, to gain some distance, to come back to the draft with dispassion, and then to make sure that every word, character, plot device, and description all work as a cohesive whole.
It takes discipline. It means you often have to wait until “later.” But only there, in revision, is art truly possible.
No, this is not an announcement. I am not even thinking about giving up on my novel. In fact, revisions are going rather nicely. Though I’ve been inundated with other obligations over the last two weeks, when I return to my manuscript, I see that my vision is becoming clearer and the suggestions that I fought against back in the fall are resulting in a much better story overall. I am, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, married to the long, slow, sometimes torturous process of completion, even if it – and sometimes it threatens to – kill me.
Nonetheless, over the last few weeks, a couple of writers have come to me at wit’s end. Exhausted, they’ve announced that they’re ready to give up, or at least to shelve their half-formed creation for a little while. (Subtext: maybe forever!) Their frustration is thick in their voices, in their carefully worded emails, in their slumping body language and their labored sighs.
Believe me, I do understand!!!
In class I’ve often referred to my unpublished novel, my first, the one that “belongs in the drawer”. I’m truly grateful that it never made it’s way to print, though I labored over it for four years.
Some of you also know that, right after The Thrall’s Tale was accepted for publication and while still in the throes of nursing my second son, I charged ahead on new novel, what the industry would call my “sophomore attempt”.
The term “sophomoric” comes to mind when I look back at those pages now.
Several months of research and about a year of writing went into that work – about 120 pages of stilted language, over-weighted plot, and characters who whined so much, they annoyed even me.
I knew something was wrong when I kept going back to the beginning. The first few chapters just felt stiff. Though I tried to move ahead, I felt their tug like something icky stuck to my shoe.
After well over a month rewriting a particular chapter, I paused, printed out all the pages so far, and sat out on my deck to read. By the time I finished, I was crying (and not because I was moved). I didn’t stop for several weeks, as I knew with all the crushing weight of Jovian gravity that that book was headed “into the drawer” with my first. It was going nowhere.
I’m not sure what the real problem was – writing under the influence of post-partum hormones, dealing with the challenge of having an infant and toddler on hand, or simple the very real effort of letting go of The Thrall’s Tale’s voices that had occupied me for so many years. Whatever it was, the writing sucked! (And you know I don’t use words like that often or lightly.)
A recent New York Times article, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?“, details how other authors have faced the same hopeless end of their fraught labors. It’s a frightening moment, a step that no writer takes blithely after months and even years of sweat, agony and pages crumpled and torn, especially in this high pressure publishing environment where all authors feel the breath of oblivion at our necks, demanding another book soon or be forgotten.
But in that moment when I finally let go, there came a very real, if very painful, release. And not long after, out of the deep darkness of writer-ly defeat, there shined a glimmer of hope. As so often happens to me, I received a sort of “sign”.
In this case, it came in the form of a PBS documentary about Central Asian burial mounds, a topic that probably fills none of you with awe. (Sorry, but I’m fascinated with long-dead things.) In fact, the docu was about a burial I’d read about long before, but filed away for down-the-line when I wasn’t in the midst of a 500-page project.
There I sat, watching as archaeologists uncovered warrior-priestesses of an ancient nomadic tribe. The gruesome faces of the burials grew flesh and blood in my mind. In that moment, I felt the weight lift from my body and a new adventure opening before me.
What I learned was that, through those wasted pages, lost time, and frustration, I had cleansed myself of all that had come before: the voices I had served for so many years, the baby-hormones, the mommy-chaos, the elation and despair that are unavoidable steps on the author’s first publishing journey. All of it. I was reborn, ready to begin anew.
The next day, I went to the library and chose my first book to begin my research. Holding it as preciously as a baby in my arms, I went home, sat on my deck, and began again.
As I read her guest post, I particularly paused at the self-admonishment she shared: “I can almost literally hear my acting teacher clap his hands to interrupt the action: ‘Sandra, don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning.'”
If you read it, you’ll realize she’s discussing bigger issues than just writing. (And yes, there are such things!) Still, I can’t help but take it down to our usual topic and point out that we often do the same thing when we write.
Sandra continues, “Sometimes actors enter a scene prepped for what they know is coming – the emotional breakdown, the knock-down drag-out – and they bring that negative energy into the scene before the conflict has even begun. It lends an unnecessary weight and edge to what is actually happening in the moment.”
Be in the moment – Be here now – cliches in acting, writing and life, but they’re also true. I’ve seen several manuscripts this week that fit the mold, with scenes that carry the weight of their climaxes before the full circumstances or characters have been laid bare. Anticipating the ending kills the inherent tension of the tale. Hold back, I keep writing in the margins. We don’t fully understand yet. Let your characters live it first. Then we will live it with them.
One of my own teachers called it telegraphing – sending a message ahead to let everyone know what’s to come. It’s an impulse of an anxious or inexperienced writer (or actor) not to trust, to feel compelled to leap ahead to the crux of the matter. But our readers will be patient. Just like our characters, they want, should and must experience the building excitement, anxiety, curiosity, hope or despair. Jumping ahead only destroys the authentic moment of the scene or, in Sandra’s essay, the full, fresh experience of life itself.
So take Sandra’s wise advice whether in writing, acting, or life. Allow your characters to be in the moment and walk with them, step by step, day by day, through their experiences. Don’t let them get ahead of themselves. They don’t know what they will face anymore than we do each morning when we roll out of bed. Whatever conflict we or they must contend with, when it comes, it will bear its own levity or weight, whether tragic, comic, aggravating or joyful.
Thanks, Sandra! And everyone, if you have news to share, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post! Good writing, all.
Sandra Joseph, as most of you know, spent nearly a decade on Broadway as the female lead in Phantom of the Opera. She’s now working on a new self-help book idea while awaiting good news (pray, everyone!) from her agent on her memoir. She’s also teaching a workshop at the Omega Institute this summer: Performing as a Path to Presence, July 10-15 during Arts Week. Check it out and go. I’m sure she has lots more wisdom to share.
For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.
I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.
In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.
Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”
Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.
Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.
Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.
Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.
Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.
Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)
The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.
Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.
Stuart Lutz shared another quote that supports the same idea: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting,” attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. To make our work great, we must embrace this critical truth.
Then why do we do it only kicking and screaming?
Plotting is a delicate balance of intention, intuition and flexibility, of knowing what path to follow without losing track of all the other forks in the road. We generally sense our story’s direction – its main thrust and the ultimate objective of our tale. But along the way, we trip and wander. Other events and characters step in with subplots, histories, and desires of their own. And themes appear that deepen our telling, even while they confuse and distract us.
In early drafts, meandering is good, at least to a point. If we stick too closely to an outline or plan, we lose opportunities for our subconscious to bring us offerings. A combination of knowing and not knowing is the perfect state from which to explore.
I view my own plots as a map with lots of dots for places. The landscape is sketched in lightly, but there are no details or connecting roads. I can see perfectly well where I want to travel, but I don’t really know which route will take me there. And like an explorer, I sometimes end up at cliffs, canyons and impassable rivers.
One writer-friend advises to “throw rocks at your characters” when you get stuck—to make something big and bold happen that throws your character into new chaos. High tension and hard choices make for excellent drama and action. But subtler approaches can also yield fascinating results. Try working from a character’s interior. Consider the conflicts and the desires that form their moment stuck in time. Dare to step into their skin and feel and see the world you’ve created for them. Whatever action, situation or choice your character has made, force them to ask themselves: “Why the heck did I do that?” and “What can I do next, now that this is what I’ve chosen?”
Of course, characters are not people and stories are not life. When you’ve made a wrong turn or a bad choice, you can always change it. Sometimes I make bullet-point lists of my character’s situation and emotional point of view, making sure the progression makes sense. I diagram plots and subplots to figure out what I’ve left out, or create outlines of each character’s journey until I discover something I haven’t dealt with fully. Taking a break or jumping to another scene or story can also loosen the clog. With time and examination, I can usually pick up my plot and start moving again, however haltingly.
But getting stuck is never a waste of time. We learn while we linger, muse and take tangents. Often these detours enrich our tale. Though more often, some of our best writing ends up tossed out with the recyclables.
Have I mentioned the “Cuts” section at the bottom of my chapters? It’s often several pages longer than my final draft, with beautiful writing that I’ve sweated over before realizing I’ve gone astray yet again.
Does anyone know a more efficient way to write? If you do, please comment and share!
Back when I worked in information technology, a co-worker used to like to play a trick on me. He’d sneak into my cubicle when I was out and move one of the countless, neatly stacked project piles. He’d only move it about 10 degrees left or right, then watch from his own cube to see how long it would take me to notice. Invariably, I would walk in and, even before sitting down, unconsciously straighten the pile.
I have always been compulsively organized, but I’ve never resented my OCD. In fact, it’s a huge benefit for a writer. How many of us have bemoaned the challenge of keeping track of revisions? Or discovered that the really good version was the LAST version that you accidentally overwrote? Or that you’d lost an entire story when the computer crashed? Being a little obsessive about how and where you store your hard-earned work can save a lot of heartache and time.
Here are a few tips I learned from working in I.T.:
- CREATE A FILING SYSTEM
If you are old enough to recall having a metal filing cabinet in your office, you know why those little icons on your desktop are shaped like manila folders. Instead of dumping everything into “My Documents”, you can set up your computer filing system the same way, using sub-folders to keep things where you can find them.
I have a folder called “Novels” in which there are several projects (most of them on hold for now). “Eurasian Nomads” is the folder where my manuscript lives. Inside that folder are folders for Draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and eventually draft 762! I keep “Old Versions” in a separate sub-folder, though there are actually “Old Versions” folders inside each “Draft #” folder. “Research Materials” are stored separately – an especially vital location for anyone writing historical fiction, non-fiction, etc. Generally, I can find the location of my files for any project in a couple of clicks, but then, which file do I choose?
- USE GOOD FILE NAMES
Come up with a simple way to name your files and then name them consistently. I started my naming with “Eurasia3_01”. “Eurasia” is the project name. “3” is the draft number. I used an underscore to make it easier to read. Then “01” is the chapter number. I use double-digits for the chapter number so I can click on the “Name” bar and sort the files in order. (Perhaps I should’ve used double-digits for the draft numbers, too?) I can also sort by date, but since I sometimes backtrack when I revise, it’s not the most reliable way to find the most recent version.
When I get ready for submission, I get fancy and replace “Eurasia3” with “Lindbergh_Judith_Pasture_of_Heaven_”. That way my name and book title are clearly associated with my manuscript before the reader even opens the file. But for simplicity while drafting, stick with “ProjectName_Dr##_Ch##”. Then you can find, sort and open them easily.
Note that I keep all my chapters in separate documents. NEVER put everything into one document until you’re done with the draft. What if the file got corrupted?!?!?!
- KEEP VERSIONS
OK, here’s where the anxiety starts to build. When I was learning HTML (Yes, I can still write the code by hand!), I discovered that the smallest type-o could destroy the entire document. So I learned to keep versions. These days, I add “_New” or “_v1” or “_A”, “_B”, “_C” at the end of my latest draft. I sometimes end up with twenty copies of the same chapter, but at least I can tell which one came first. Then, since I’m always worried that something wonderful might be hidden in one of those old drafts, I drag them into my “Old Versions” folder where, generally, I never look at them again.
- BACK UP YOUR FILES
Most of you already know that I back up obsessively. Last year, I carried my USB-key everywhere – in my pocketbook to the grocery store, in my jacket when I was hiking. I even slept with it on my nightstand. I was worried about more than my computer crashing. I mean, what if someone broke into my house and stole my computer? What if the house burned down? When my family planned its escape route in an emergency, I already knew my priorities. Grab the USB-key first, then get the boys.
Thankfully I’ve discovered the wonder of free online storage. I’m currently enamored with Dropbox.com. They give you 2GB of storage for free. More costs a small fee each month, but if you refer your friends (and yes, this will happen if you sign up using my link, PLEASE), you get 250MB of bonus space. It’s not enough to back up all your family photos, but for your valuable Word documents, it’s priceless. Your documents are secure, private and accessible from anywhere. Just beware that the initial setup MOVES your files to Dropbox. It doesn’t copy them. The paranoid author here suggests you copy/paste, so you’ll have your files on your hard drive and in your Dropbox. (Did I mention I also have a backup external hard drive?)
After all those technical tidbits, here are a couple tips for managing your work within your manuscript.
- MAKE A CHAPTER SUMMARY DOCUMENT
This is basically a table of contents with a quick paragraph summarizing what happens in each chapter. I keep it in a single document that I can refer to quickly and usually find the scene I’m looking for in a minute or two.
- SAVE “CUTS” AND “HOLDS”
I make a hard page break [CTRL+ENTER in Word] at the bottom of my documents and put all the gorgeous darlings I’ve killed there on a page entitled “CUTS”. I do the same with “HOLDS” though they usually end up as “CUTS”, too. That way I can hang onto my beloved useless writing and return to it if inspiration allows. It’s emotional as well as practical. But I warn, this can be depressing. Most times, the number of pages I have in “CUTS” is longer than the finished chapter.
Is that a good or a bad thing ? I cannot tell. But I promise, thinking it though and creating a file system and a few extra organizational documents will make it much easier to manage your writing, especially when you’re working on a big, unwieldy project like a novel.
OK, I hope you’ll all pipe up with more suggestions. As with writing, there’s no right way, only what works. So feel free to comment and share your wisdom.
- CREATE A FILING SYSTEM