8.23.2018

Notes: The Next Best Thing

Some days you sit down to write, and instead of feeling a flow of clever words leaping from the wellspring within, you experience the sensation of deepest sludge. You fight it. You get out a sentence, maybe two, yet you remain trapped in the mire. You’re going nowhere and you know it. You just can’t break through today.

Luckily, writing also consists of notes you need to take to help shape a character or to advance a plot line. Writing notes is far easier than writing prose. The notes will never been seen by anyone but you, so they can be jotted down as they come to mind. You can write about what you intend to accomplish. Or, you can sit back and dream up descriptions for different characters. You remember a spiky look on a website and decide, “That’s the look I want for my supporting character.”

As an editor, I feel that authors who don’t write notes about what they want to do end up wasting a lot of time. They go off on listless forays that they end up throwing out, sometimes the very next day. If you like, notes are flags in a field; just because you know you’re going in that direction doesn’t limit you from pursuing butterflies along the way.

Best of all, by writing notes, you are staying in contact with your novel. Sure, the notes aren’t the final text, but you would edit and rewrite your prose anyway. What you’re really doing is giving yourself permission to live inside your book even though you’re not in top form.

This point is particularly important for authors who don’t have time to write every day. If you’ve gone a week or two without writing, writing notes can be a way of checking in with your story. You’re making a commitment to sit down, and the boost you receive may pave the way for a terrific writing session. Because creativity is so unpredictable, you may find that note taking is the spur that gets you writing, for real. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’ve often found that a note I write becomes an actual sentence in the novel. It comes out right, even if it was supposed to be merely a note. You’ve made an advance even on a day you wish you could hurl your computer out the window.

Exercise: You can also employ this technique for specific scenes. Rather than trying to write for your present scene, write out a half page or so of basic points you want to cover in that scene. If any one of them strikes you as something you’d like to add to, keep writing a few more sentences. Once you’ve finished a paragraph, see if you’d like to convert it into actual text for the scene.

“The ideal view for daily writing, hour for hour, is the blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse. Failing this, a stretch of sky will do, cloudless if possible.”
—Edna Ferber

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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