The Writer’s Best Friend

The Writer’s Best Friend

Stack of Notebooks
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Mid-May means that the school year is starting to wind down. Colleges are celebrating graduations and sending their students out into the workforce. (Or, you know, handing them back into the hands of their parents) Other schools are gearing up for major testing. At least, that’s what happened when I was in school. Now that standardized testing rules, I have no idea what actually goes on. And since my kids don’t attend educational programming (something that’s for the best, because NO ONE wants to see Tonks’s evil mind guided into further intelligence), you’d guess I don’t have much interest in such doings. But you’d be wrong. The end of the school year means one very important thing:

It’s almost time for back-to-school sales!

Yes, I know, it drives the school-age population nuts that they barely set foot in summer vacation before stores start cranking out supplies and clothing to send them back. But I LIVE for those sales. There’s nothing more exciting for a writer than aisles and aisles of pens, pencils, and NOTEBOOKS – all put on sale. It’s literary Christmas! And in Virginia, if you can sit on your hands and restrain yourself, the beginning of August brings Tax-Free weekend. So you can stock up on all of those supplies without needing to pay pesky sales tax. Plus, they don’t make you prove you have a child. ANYONE can go into their store of choice and walk out with a giant stack of notebooks and twenty packs of pens. The cashiers don’t even bat an eye! (Well, they might – it depends)

I admit, I’m the first person to recommend turning to handy programs to help you organize your thoughts when you’re writing. As publishers function in the computer age with the rest of us, odds are pretty high that you’re working in a word processing program on a laptop or desktop. So it makes sense that you’d turn to a form of technology for your notes. And that’s fine. I do the same. But I also have notebooks – TONS of notebooks. And they perform the same organization function.

Because sometimes? You need to set pen to paper.

Call me old-fashioned (don’t call me old), but there’s something inspiring about watching ink flow from beneath your hand. It sparks something in the brain. When everything else is locked up in your mind, sitting down and scribbling out a dozen scenes that go nowhere feels more accomplished than hitting “Delete” over and over again. You can actually SEE what you attempted to do. When you “Undo” something on the computer, all you get for your trouble is a blank screen (and the vague knowledge that you made an attempt at a scene 42 times). Even if I end up with crumpled paper balls on the floor around me and one sentence for my trouble, I have physical proof that I made an effort. It’s more satisfying for me to struggle through writing in a notebook than it is to fight with writer’s block on a computer screen.

But I have notebooks for other reasons, too. One of my oldest is where I have story ideas. Some of them have early starts as novels in my terabyte drive. Others? I’m still letting them ruminate in my mind. But I don’t want to throw out that notebook simply because I have Evernote now. Why would I? The notebook isn’t “broken,” for all that it’s “ancient” technology. It’s covered in multi-colored ink, with tabs dividing the type of work, and Post-Its with potential character names. There’s HISTORY in that notebook. When I flip through it, I remember what was going on in my life each time I sat down and scribbled those notes. Some came from dreams, others phrases in other books, and one or two from something I saw when I was sitting on the train. I can’t transfer those impressions into a computer; it would lose something – the depth of the pen in the paper, the slant of the writing that shows my emotions.

I have notebooks that track the posts I make here, ensuring I don’t repeat myself (at least, not too often). And there’s another for Silentio Sonante. When I write up my white board schedules for work, I take the time to come up with post ideas for both blogs, too. Then I divide the topics up between the notebooks. And while it might be easier to run a “Find” on a program, I like getting to flip through pages and see what I’ve done in the past year. Again, it’s a history thing. I can touch pages and count “steps.” Dragging a mouse down a screen? It doesn’t provide the same feeling.

And, yeah, there’s more.

I have non-writing notebooks, too. One keeps track of all of my weird medical crap. Because trying to remember which doctor needs what report at my appointments? My brain can come up with new worlds and story ideas without a problem. But asking it do that is impossible. So I have a notebook where I write everything down, complete with times (since my atypical migraines do seriously odd shit at times). Then I can take it with me and skim what’s important. The animals have THEIR medical notebook, too. (When you have three cats, trying to remember who threw up a hairball when is impossible)

Don’t get me wrong: technology is great. But (so far as I know), you learn to write for a reason. And a writer NEEDS to remember to connect with that part of their craft. What are you going to do if you’re ever in a situation without a computer or phone? (Don’t laugh – it might happen) Are you going to just REMEMBER your brilliant line? You know that isn’t going to happen. Wouldn’t it be a better idea if you get in the habit of keeping a notebook with you – just in case? (Why, yes, I have a tiny notebook in my purse – it has kittens on it) Even artists don’t stick to one strict medium when they work. Why should we?

So this summer, when you hear about those sales, consider dropping by for a peek. Touch those pages and remember what it felt like to set a pencil or pen to them. Then go look at the pens. (You know you have a favorite) Pick up at least one of each and go home. Write something – ANYTHING. Odds are pretty high you’re going to find yourself going back for more. Because it’s addicting. But it also helps with the writing process. (Besides, you can always type whatever you write with little trouble)

Cue it Up

Cue it Up

Playlist of records
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The ancient Greeks divided up inspiration among nine different Muses, crediting their influence for the creativity that flowed over the known world. Terpsichore held dominion over music and dancing. So the Greeks felt music held the same importance as poetry and comedy. Probably because separating music from writing is damn near impossible. And when you’re stuck, mired in writer’s block, Terpsichore lies in wait in the wings, waiting to assist you.

Simply put: Turn on the radio.

Nowadays, finding inspiration has myriad forms. Music lurks everywhere, in every form. CDs reside in hefty binders or stacks against the wall (don’t deny it – you know you have them), records have returned to weigh down shelves, and computer drives hold decades of MP3 files. Not to mention the variety of streaming services open to people – free or paid. If you can think of it, there’s a station for it. Type it in, and you have music blaring from your computer, laptop, or phone.

I’ve said before that I refuse to work in the vacuum of silence. The music calms my brain, but it also helps me when my writing brain locks up and refuses to work. I have playlists designed specifically for inspiration. They’re chock full of songs that take my breath away and energize my imagination. They transport me into different places, different times, even different worlds. They drop the curtain on the world around me, giving me a chance to breathe and reorient myself with what I’m struggling with. And they jolt electricity through my imagination, sparking new ideas into my writing.

Magical playlists? I guess you could say that.

The funny part is, none of the lyrics have every prompted a story idea. I don’t take inspiration from the words, from the scenery (a lot of the entries on the playlist come from Broadway shows), or even the original concepts. It’s the feeling generated by the music that does the trick. And I know you have songs that engender that feeling in you. Music that gets into every nerve fiber, causing you to freeze up. You find yourself in another place – somewhere YOU created – feeling emotions only your writing brain has words for. Maybe it’s the beat, or the harmony, or something less definable. You just have to stop and let the power sweep over you.

And then the words flow – so fast your fingers can scarcely keep up.

Maybe that’s why the Greeks felt there were demigods behind inspiration. It’s an immediate rush. Or, sometimes, it’s perfect quiet. Other times, you break down completely. The music provides the emotional connection your brain needs to break down that wall blocking your creativity. Or it ignites the imaginative spark in the first place. The rush is crazy, and when you “wake up” from it and see how much writing you’ve accomplished, you’re amazed.

Everyone needs that playlist.

Think over the songs that resonate with you. Start setting them aside into their own playlist. Organize them into the order you need – or leave them on shuffle. (I get some amazing results when I do that) Keep it labeled so you can find it the next time you need a jolt of inspiration. And each time you stumble over a new piece, add it. Will the songs have any kind of cohesion? Of course not. Will people look at you strange if they hear that particular playlist? Probably. (Mine bounces from classical music pieces, through musicals, to modern instrumental pieces, to hard rock, some pop, a couple 80s – it’s a crazy hodge-podge and I love it!) It doesn’t matter. If it resounds with your imagination center, that’s what counts.

And the next time writer’s block rears its ugly head, sit back and cue up the list. You’ll clear the obstruction in no time.

Outside Opinion

Outside Opinion

Okay, so 2020 wasn’t the best example to use for this post. I’m trying to be more optimistic for 2021 (yeah, I know – it’s a big departure for me). Or I’ll save time and point out that writers are no longer trapped by the need to print everything out and submit things by mail like we did back in the stone age. Therefore, the adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” applies, and this post will still work.

Moving on.

If you’ve never attended a writers workshop – whether a standalone or as part of a con – you’re missing out. These little affairs are gold mines for writers. And that applies to writers of any type. If you look, you’ll find a workshop for ANYTHING. And COVID-19 or not, most of those workshops persevered this year, through Zoom or other mediums.

Most writing workshops follow the same format:

  1. You submit a manuscript you want critiqued.
  2. Everyone in the workshop reads the piece and writes up their critique.
  3. You spend the workshop going through everyone’s work, one at a time.
  4. When it’s your turn, you take copious notes (while keeping your trap shut).

Easy, right?

I’ve attended a couple of speculative fiction workshops, and the information I received each time improved my writing. I also found myself with new ideas. Not from the other people’s writing, but fleshed out of notes they were giving to each other. For instance, I’ve killed every prologue I’ve ever written. It’s where I first learned to massacre my adverbs. And the first workshop I attended started me down the path to writing more science fiction – simply because the overwhelming amount of fantasy presented made me realize there was an opening.

You’re in an environment with people who want to help improve your writing. Some have publication credits, others don’t. Some have attended other workshops, some are there for the first time. Everyone has a different background. At my last workshop, I was able to correct a medical fact for someone – something they had no knowledge of but that was commonplace for me. Little things like that matter, and everyone’s grateful for the insight.

Are writing workshops perfect?

Of course not. Humans are humans, after all. You’ll encounter people who are focused on themselves. I had several people who’s feedback consisted of, “I don’t read this genre.”

Gee, thanks.

I mean, I wasn’t a fan of everything I read, either, but I did my due diligence and provided concise feedback on everyone’s work. I felt it was owed as a responsibility.

I also had one guy who went on a long tangent that made no sense and had nothing to do with my novel excerpt. (Pretty sure he just wanted to hear himself talk)

It’s hit-or-miss. However, there were plenty of people who DID care and provided me with information I could use. And that was the majority. I also got to read some amazing writing. Writing I want to see in print. And I told those people as much. Getting to connect with writers is another perk of such workshops. You never know where networking might lead.

Putting your work in someone else’s hands is always nerve-wracking. You don’t know what they’re going to say. (Think about it – how much do your hands shake when you submit something?) But if you have an opportunity to make it BETTER, isn’t that worth it?

In my book, it is.

So whether it ends up being virtual again this year or not, I’ll be hitting Dragon Con’s Writers Workshop in 2021 – my second visit. And this year, I’ll have more confidence under my belt than I did before. Because I know that, even if my piece gets ripped apart, it’ll emerge better at the other end.

Take a look at the workshops for your chosen writing genre. Swallow that knot of fear. And pick out a piece to submit. You won’t regret it.

The Modern Note Card

The Modern Note Card

Screen captures from Evernote

For those of us who lived through school without Google, there’s nothing quite like savoring the joy of shuffling our thoughts together via color-coded note cards. We were trained to think that way when researching, and a lot of us carried that training through to our writing (assuming you’re not an organic writer like myself). Character traits, plot points, scenes, quotes you dreamed up and didn’t want to forget: plunk them on a note card and then shuffle them into the appropriate order.

Nothing wrong if you’re still doing that!

However, if you have your own demon with a penchant for stealing note cards, I have an advancement for you: Evernote (available via the Apple Store and Google Play – and, no, I don’t receive any kickback from this). Evernote is the equivalent of those note cards, gathered into nifty notebooks, with the added bonus of being available to you 24/7. You can utilize the app on your computer (desktop or laptop) and your phone, so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can grab your phone and type/write it out without needing to find a light source (or, as I’ve done, attempt to decipher what you wrote in the dark). The image above is a screen capture from my story idea notebook, the handwritten scribble from one such late-night idea. Best of all, with one account, you can link both devices, and they’ll sync with each other.

Sometimes, technology gets it right!

On the research side of things, Evernote has a great “clip” feature which allows you to save website clippings – complete with the original page, in case you need to refer back to entire page at some point. This works beautifully for me when I’m doing research. Since each “Note” functions as a standard document, you can also format it any way you want (hello, color-coding?). I use it to keep my work documents organized by contract and then assignment, noting deadlines at the top, as well as any particular notes the client has requested.

Evernote has a selection of built-in templates you can access, including several geared toward writers. I’m not a personal fan of them, but you can create and save your own. For one of my regular contracts, I’ve done just that since the same notes apply each time. If you’re one of those writers that DOES prefer to plan, the templates are a great option.

Best of all, you can set up your own tags for each Note, making it easy to keep track of your work. So if you set up a Notebook for your novel, you can then generate Notes for everything you need within, from character profiles, to background profiles, to plot points, down to world-building details, and then use your tags to link everything together. You can also rearrange your Notes into whatever order you need, as many times as you want – the equivalent to shuffling those note cards around on your wall.

Evernote is really user-friendly, and while there are paid versions available, I’ve been able to function with the basic free edition quite happily. It gives me the organization I need for work, while also giving me somewhere I can scribble writing ideas down – without a risk of losing them (not to mention being able to decipher them).

A writer held responsible for their work is a writer that gets work done!