Keeping a Notebook

notebook

Keeping a notebook is widely recognised as being essential for writers; taking a notebook everywhere and writing down anything inspiring you experience, any ideas that occur to you immediately, before they can be lost.

Somerset Maugham, who kept notebooks for over fifty years, and published extracts as A Writer’s Notebook, described them as “a storehouse of materials for future use.” They are a place to write down anything that could be useful at some time, even if it won’t fit into what you’re currently working on, or it’s an idea that you can’t see how you could develop into a story or poem.

What I find most useful about keeping a notebook is being able to see different thoughts and ideas next to each other. I find that often one idea alone is not enough to make a story out of, and keeping a notebook allows me to see how ideas can fit together, with each other, or with images or potential titles to become something more.

There are different ways to organise your notebook; you could just write everything down in chronological order as it occurs to you, whether it’s a story idea, something you saw, a character sketch, a potential title, etc, or you could divide your notebook into sections for each of those. I have tried both ways, and I prefer not to have different sections, as I didn’t like constantly flicking through to find the right page, and I like to have everything mixed up, where I can see how they could fit together. Different methods work for different people so play around with your notebook a bit to see which is best for you.

Of course it’s not easy to write in your notebook every time something occurs to you; sod’s law dictates that your best ideas will come when you’re working or driving, and there will be times when you feel embarrassed about getting your notebook out in public, but try to get things down while they’re still fresh and before you start doubting yourself about how good it is.

Attempting a Novel in a Month

novelwriting

Every November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge started in 1999 in America that is now attempted by thousands of people around the world. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. It sounds impossible, but the point is not to worry about the quality but just to get the story out. Editing and rewriting can come later, and some published novels, including Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus were originally written in NaNoWriMo.

For several years I’ve been planning to take part in NaNoWriMo but I always seem to forget about it until about halfway through November when it’s too late to join in. This year I decided not to wait till November but to have my own novel writing month in May.

I thought it would be easy. I had already written a synopsis. I knew my characters. I had even written some of the novel already (which is against NaNoWriMo rules). All I had to do was write the story, and it wouldn’t matter if it was filled with clichés or the characters were two-dimensional or I wrote it all out is a “and then this happened and then that happened” style. I just had to write 1613 words a day to get to 50,000 by the 31st.

I found I wasn’t happy knowingly writing badly just for the sake of writing quickly. Usually I write slowly, struggling over every word. Sometimes it can take an hour just to write a few sentences, but at least I know they’re the right sentences (even if the next day I rewrite them or delete them). Trying to write a novel in a month I started to feel I was wasting my time; I would get the whole story written out, but so badly that rewriting would feel like starting from scratch again.

It may be that I was too invested in the story. If was starting with a vague idea and writing to see where it went then maybe I wouldn’t notice how badly I was writing in the excitement of discovering the story and the characters.

The good thing about attempting a novel writing month is that I am now much more focused on the novel, I’ve set myself a (much lower than 1613) daily word target and often when I’m not writing I’m thinking about the story, picturing the settings, imagining how my characters feel, hearing their conversations.

I think it is worth attempting to write a novel in a month, it obviously works for some people, and even if it doesn’t work for you it can still help you to get more into your novel and find a realistic timeframe for you to work with.

Morning Pages

morning
In her book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande proposes waking up earlier than usual, and before doing anything else, writing.

Just writing anything that comes into your head, not worrying about the quality of your prose or how interesting your thoughts are. Keep writing until you run out of time or, in Brande’s words, “you feel that you have utterly written yourself out.” Then, after a few days start increasing your writing, little by little until you’re doubling your original output.
The point of this is to use your unconscious mind to train yourself to write, making it second nature.

This idea was adapted slightly by Julia Cameron, who coined the term “morning pages.” In The Artist’s Way she recommends writing three pages a morning.

I’ve now been writing morning pages for a month. I began with two pages a day and am now writing four pages a day in only a slightly longer amount of time, so my writing speed has at least increased, as has my ability to keep writing even when I don’t necessarily feel like it, or I think I’ve run out of things to write.

The content of my morning pages is changing too. I still begin by writing about the dream I’ve just woken from, if I remember it, then what I did the day before and what I plan to do on this day, but I am finding myself writing, “I don’t know what to write,” a lot less frequently than I did at first. During the day I am looking for things to write about, making myself more observant so I won’t get stuck in the middle of my morning pages with a blank mind. If I do seem to have run out of things to write, I’m more likely to write something like, “I need a topic to write about. I could write about butterflies.” And then writing everything I know about butterflies, following any tangents my mind goes off on along the way. Sometimes I have slipped into a semi-dream while still writing, and without realising it have written pages of ideas I didn’t know I had.

Whether or not my writing has improved since I started doing morning pages is difficult to tell. They have definitely helped me find ideas and the physical act of writing feels much more natural, but the task of putting words together in a way that sounds good is just as hard as it always was.

Some tips for morning pages:

• Use a pen or pencil you can write with comfortably
• Use a cheap notebook so you don’t feel like you have to write something great in it
• Don’t plan too much in advance what you’ll write- be prepared to go wherever your mind takes you
• Once you start writing don’t stop until you finish
• Don’t censor yourself

Massive Open Online Courses

dracula lefthandofdarkness

Earlier this year I discovered Coursera and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). A MOOC is a course that can take an unlimited number of students to study for free online.

I was told about Coursera as a good way of updating skills or knowledge, or as a way to begin to branch out into a completely new area. In the list of courses I found one called “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World” and so of course I had to do it…

The course is taught through a series of video lectures, given by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan. Each week a “before you read” lecture is released on that week’s book(s). After the essay deadline several more lectures are released, looking at the text in more detail.

To pass the course, and gain a printable certificate, you must submit at least seven essays out of a possible ten, and average a pass mark for your seven highest scoring essays, and also review and grade five other students’ work for each essay you submit. From comments people have made in the course forums it seems this is a fairly typical way of running a MOOC.

The good thing about this Science Fiction course is that it encourages you to read the books in detail, really think about what they are saying and how they say it. It makes you look deeply into what makes good literature. The short essays (270-320 words) make you really focus your writing, make every word count in arguing your thesis. And as well as this you read other people’s essays; see their opinions, you can watch the video lectures to gain further insight, and you can discuss the books on the course forums.

However, when the “before you read” video is released on Thursdays and the essay deadlines are on Tuesdays, it can be a bit of a rush. I’ve realised that it’s best to start reading before the video is released to ensure I have enough time to read it properly and think about my essay. There are also problems with the peer reviewing system; there are many people posting on the forums who believe they’ve been unfairly marked down, or saying their reviewers have made insulting comments, and although reviewing five essays is necessary to receive your grade and comments, not everyone does it, meaning someone might only get one or two reviews on their work.

In spite of these faults though, I think taking this course has been positive and beneficial. I’m reading- and rereading- books I might not have picked up otherwise, and I’m engaging with them on a deeper level. I’m practising ruthlessly editing my writing and thinking carefully about my use of words.

MOOCs are an opportunity to increase knowledge and to use your brain, and so I think most of these courses, not just the literature based ones, can benefit writers; the more you know the more your imagination has to work with, the more connections you can make to form new ideas.

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