Taking Notes

When I started writing seriously back in the 80s, I used loose-leafed sheets and a pencil (lots of them over the period of writing a complete novel).  I wanted to be able to erase my mistakes and get that first draft properly down before typing it on the typewriter.  I started with an old Olivetti or something like it.  No Selectric typewriter for me.  Then we got our first computer, one with the old changeable 5.25″ floppy disks.  I still kept everything on paper.  And a good thing, too; I got up one morning to find that 8 of the last 11 pages were missing — the middle 8 pages!  No big deal, I just rewrote from my notes.

In the beginning I did it all long hand, with scribbled phrases on the back side of the sheet.  Since then I have bought exercise books, journals, diaries, spiral bound notebooks both large and small, hard-bound or soft, bound notebooks with tear-sheets, and a myriad other configurations.  I have a love of all things notebook.  There is something about opening a fresh book that is stunning with possibilities.

I do try to make each notebook about one novel, but have just realized that didn’t happen with a couple of them; I was on the plane to and from Hawaii when an idea struck, so just used whatever was to hand.  I also have notebook I use for writing prompts and practices.  Still only one subject, but stories are usually short and range from fantasy to romance to science fiction, to speculative.  On the backs of pages, I often have a shopping list, phone numbers, notes for another story, a quote I think I’ll remember for a story in a different book, Christmas lists, a recipe, etc.

Yesterday I took some time to read a book I’ve been wanting to start for some time.  It is called Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  Of special interest to Christie fans and writers, it details how she wrote her stories, using her notes in 73 notebooks.  It’s fascinating reading, and I find I’m not the only one who writes random stuff on the back of the pages.  However, many of her book notes are scattered about throughout as many as six notebooks at a time and she will often have notes for as many as five or six books in one notebook.  She just started taking notes on whatever book came most easily to hand and on whatever page she opened to.  Amazing, and it shows the sort of mind she had: prolific, with ideas tumbling over one another, river-like.

These days my notebooks are sparser than they used to be.  I make notes on chapter ideas, something about the characters, maybe a reminder that X has grey eyes not green, and H is married to N and not T so that I can go back and make H married to the right person all the way through.  (Oh yes, here’s that salad recipe I wanted two weeks ago!  Well, I sort of made up a new one and wrote it down in another notebook.  Both were good).  If I’m stuck on a character and need to interview him, I often scribble down a series of interview questions and sometimes the answers.  Once in a while I get a good bit of the chapter down just to makes sure I’m going in the right direction — or I want to explore a different direction.

Do any of you use notebooks? And if so, please describe them. What is your note-taking writing style?

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How to Develop Realistic Characters

This is a great follow-up to last week’s blog.

A Writer's Path

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Today, I thought it would be fun to talk about what makes a fictional character believable. It’s easy to describe what a character looks like and give her/him/it a cool name. But how do you make your readers care about what happens to that character? What’s the secret to bringing your characters to life?

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Paper People

What are Paper People?  Not someone who works at a newspaper.  Paper People are the men, women, and children we meet between the pages of a book.  In other words, characters.  Writers always struggle with their characters.  If there is one thing I hear most, it is “my characters won’t do what I say!”

Well, folks, that’s because characters are people, as real as we are.  They aren’t cardboard cutouts we push around or direct like a play.  Just because we plotted the novel a certain way, doesn’t mean they are going to follow our directions.  You know what I’m saying here.

Characters are funny.  When a writer gives them life, they become living, breathing entities, as real as you and I.  (If they don’t, you better start again).  We might think they have straight yellow hair and blue eyes, but suddenly they have wavy brown hair and gray eyes.  Not only that, but they don’t like the name they were given and want a new one.  (Ha!  Some of you just laughed.  It has happened to you, too).  Like children, they often want to go their own way.  If we try to pull them back (the plot says go through the woods, not the village, and I don’t care if you like the red-head in the shop), they will often just stop and the story stops with them.

“What is wrong with my character?” is another cry I hear.  My answer:  Stop and ask them and then really listen.  They will tell you where you went wrong.  They really do need to go to the village and see the red head in the shop.  She sent your hero a note about his long-lost sister you didn’t know he had.  He’s been searching for her ever since they were children and their parents split up, taking one each.  The red head was his sister’s best friend before he was taken away and she’s grown into a stunning woman who takes his breath away.  So, see?  He does need to go to the village and you’d be wise to let him.  Yes, this will mess up the whole plot but that’s okay. You now know what is wrong with your character.  Nothing.  It was what was a problem with the plot.

“But I liked my plot,” you wail.  It probably was a very good plot — until you put your people into it.  Then everything changed.  Well, some bits stayed, but the rest changed.  Don’t panic, this is a good thing.  You need three things to make a great story: People (characters), a path for their journey (plot) and the scenery (setting).  Remember that paths often take many twists and turns, and has  forks or detours for the adventurous.  Of course, there are pitfalls and snares, too.  A plot is often a dangerous thing for our characters to tread, no matter how pretty the setting.

I have learned to leave my plotting fairly loose because I know, absolutely without a doubt, my people will change things.  They will discover in the course of a search that Aunt Maud had stored rare golden doubloons in her closet safe (they didn’t know she had a closet safe, let alone a doubloon in it).  Where did she get them and now who inherits them?  I would plot the search but not who was where or what they found.  If I had, I would have missed the doubloons entirely, and they could very well be the reason Aunt Maud was poisoned in the first place. It is because my people are dynamic, living breathing human beings that I discovered this new piece of the plot.

If you really run into a problem with a character, do an interview with her.  Find out what she wants most in her life (not I want this, please let me have it, but if I can’t have this one thing, I shall surely die), what scares her to death, what she loves above all else, and what she hates with a passion.  What are her hopes and dreams for the future?  What breaks her heart and brings her (and you) to tears?  All you have to do is listen and then record what she says.  Keep talking until you have all the answers you need.  You can then write the scene as it should be done (and all your characters will say “Amen!”)

Please leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts.  How do you work with your characters?  Do they obey your commands or often go their own ways?

When the Writing Feels Good

        Every writer has days where the writing feels good.  We sit down at our desk, flip on the computer – or open our notebook – and get “stuck in,” as my friend, Paula, says.  The words come pouring out our fingers, almost faster than we can get them written.  Thoughts, words, images crowd our brains, screaming to be written first – who cares if it is written in order?  We can come back and edit later. 

            These kinds of days are the best.  Even when the writing is messy, even when there are huge holes in the story (I make a note to fill in and move on), a good writing day means the story moves forward.  I find new and appealing things about my characters, even the bad guys.  Somehow on a day like this, a plot detail I’ve been struggling with smoothes out, the killer is caught, a new planet is explored, or there is an epic space battle. 

            It catches me, holds me hostage and won’t let me go, even when I need fresh coffee.  Somehow, the coffee goes from pot to cup, though I’m hardly aware as I’m plotting away feverishly, hardly able to wait to get my fingers back on the keyboard.  Forget the phone; everyone will have to wait, and I better not have a doctor’s appointment that day or it gets rescheduled.  Hubby  cooks and brings me a plate.  He knows the characters will not give up their hostage until they are ready.

            Finally, sometime around 4500-6000 words later, I am released, exhausted, from their clutches.  But it is only temporary, and I know it.  The book will haunt my dreams, the characters getting ready to write themselves into the story in the morning. 

            Those are the hectic, crazy writing days.  They feel great.  I have other days when the writing feels good, where I manage to get a scene just right, or even a paragraph that has caused me trouble comes together.  Finding that right word that makes an idea sparkle; writing at the beach with the wind in my hair and the sound of the ocean; sitting in the car and listening to … nothing but the breeze in the grass and the lazy mooing of the cows down below. 

            Okay, I can find lots of times when the writing feels good.  Basically, it feels good to write, even when it is messy and sloppy, or it all grinds to a halt because all the characters decide to go walk-about at the same time.  As another of my friends says, “This is the best job ever!”  I totally agree.

            When does the writing feel good for you?

Priming the Pump

I heard an Angel speak last night, and he said, “Write!”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A few years ago I was stuck in the middle of my story, bored with the direction it had taken and feeling stale.  Nothing I wrote felt fresh or amazing.  I didn’t care what my characters were doing or saying.  It wasn’t that the story was bad or I was going in the  wrong direction, it was me; I was stale.

One of the first things I did when I started writing was subscribe to Writer’s Digest and its affiliated book club Writer’s Digest Shop.  While looking through the site one day I came across A Creative Writer’s Kit by Judy Reeves.  It is a kit of writing prompts and practices for every day of the year and some cards to keep you motivated.  I really needed something to kick start me again and perhaps this would be it.  I bought the kit.

I have never been sorry.  In the course of the last several years I have written on jealousy, explored loves won, lost, and won again, hidden characters in a dark hold while their ship was being searched. and watched the world go by from behind a lace curtain.  I went on a Shopping Spree that turned into some of the best writing I ever did and became the first chapter for my current work in progress, now known as Energy Weavers.  I’ve written about Shoes and Something Eaten, and A Borrowed Dress.  This week I was inspired by the snowstorm that has hit the Seattle area and dumped ten inches of snow in my yard to write a story based on “A Cold and Snowy January Day”.

I’ve gone from a Regency period mystery to a present-day alternate world to far into the future and explored everywhere in between.  These little prompts (for example, December 6 is “This is what she said.”) give me scope for all sorts of imagination.  They are like a wind blowing through the sameness of my writing amd brightening things up.

Writing prompts and practices is what I call priming the pump. I don’t do it every day, but I do it often enough to stay fresh.  Sometimes I use the prompts in this kit or other books and sometimes I just find other ideas around me, challenge myself to write a story out of mundane everyday objects: A pot, a pan, a knife, a hat.  What about a hatbox?  I just got one of those for Christmas.  What would you do if you found an old trunk in an attic?  Write a story about a blank piece of paper.  I once wrote a story on an iceberg that had broken free — from the iceberg’s point of view.

Anything and everything can become inspiration for a story, a poem, a map, or an article.  Sometimes it’s really good, sometimes it is just worth writing it for the exercise of it.  The point is to write, write, write; whatever catches your eye, write about it for ten minutes, thirty minutes, whatever you have.  I am always surprised by what comes out the end of my pen and rarely disappointed.  I’m not looking for golden prose, just something new and different and fresh.

My question: How do you prime your writing pump?  Do you use writing prompts or do something else?

It is still a cold and snowy January day here, but with the promise of a Pineapple Express coming in from Hawaii and dumping 3-4″ of rain on top of all our gorgeous snow.  I feel a little storm writing coming on.

Happy writing, everyone.