Writers’ Notebooks

notebooks

Virtually all writers have heard the advice that they should keep notebooks—books of whatever sort in which one jots down ideas for stories, images, bits of dialogue, whatever might be useful sometime or other. I’m not very good at that. I kept extensive notes when I was writing Nettie’s Books, but mostly it is catch as catch can.

 

But don’t take me as a model! Better look to Agatha Christie. When Christie died in 1976, at the age of 85, she left behind 73 hand-written private notebooks, including illustrations and two unpublished Poirot stories.

 

agatha christies secret notebooks
She wrote more than one book a year from the 1920s, all bestsellers. Her notebooks included notes, lists, and stories. Such notebooks give depth to the published works, reveal the originally planned endings, and plots that were rejected.

 

agatha christie murder in the making
Not surprisingly, such a successful, prolific writer left behind more material than one book could contain. This volume explores Christie’s techniques for surprise and entertainment. John Curran discusses how her plots evolved, presents previously unpublished short stories and chapters edited out of published works, and discusses her final unfinished work.
hawthorne's lost notebook
Keeping a notebook is not a modern idea. Hawthorne’s notebook from 1835-1841 is testimony to that. It is the earliest notebook that Hawthorne is known to have kept, containing more ideas for stories and articles than any other, including facsimiles in his own hand with more readable typescript alongside.

 

I urge you to read such notebooks. For one thing, they are fascinating reading. But also, you might come across bits that the greats abandoned but which inspire you to new heights.

 

In any event, consider keeping your own writer’s notebook—or expanding what you’ve already started. As in virtually every case, there are books to help you do that!

 

novelists notebook

Exercising Your Creativity

The program is simple. Take an ordinary event and consider all the ways you could add tension, conflict, humor, surprise, etc. For example, having the house power-washed.

 

My house was scheduled for power-washing at 8:00 this morning. At 7:50 a loud—make that thunderous—noise outside the bedroom window made me jump and exclaim. What if it had caused a heart attack?

 

I was asked to back the car up a bit farther from the garage. What if I backed into the work truck? Or one of the workers? Or ran over a box turtle?

 

exercising the creativity
At one point a high-pitched squeal pierced the early morning silence. What if it triggered an epileptic seizure? Caused me to knock the tofu scramble from the stove-top to the floor, and I was running late already? Made the dog howl, the cat leap onto the curtains and pull them down, knocking over the parrot’s cage?

 

Then a worker moved all the potted plants to the far edge of the patio. What if he dropped a pot containing a rare heirloom orchid? Or wrenched his back moving the hanging baskets of rocks? Or dropped a decorative rock on his foot, breaking a toe, and falling through the French doors?
exercising the creativity
All the window screens were removed and set aside, leaning against a tree by the flowerbeds. What if squirrels played tag across the screens, knocking them from the tree and crushing the newly planted begonias?

 

When the washing actually started, what if the water roused a black snake from the foundation plantings? What if it had been a poisonous snake? Or what if an open window was overlooked? Who or what got drenched, and to what effect?

 

exercising the creativity
And I haven’t even touched on the possibilities of one spouse having scheduled the power-washing without informing the other spouse. Or the reactions of the neighbors. Or the dog-walker passing by. Or children who escape to play in the spray. Options go on and on.

 

Your assignment: Choose any mundane activity from today’s wealth—anything from doing laundry to going to the gym to hosting six for dinner—and take a few minutes to consider what if?

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life

Choosing the Pronoun for Your Purpose

bedford handbook
I read a lot. And the more I read, the more often I’m irritated or distracted by writers who misuse pronouns. Pronouns can be subject (I/you/he/she/it), object (me/you/him/her/it), or show possession (my/your/his/her/its).

 

I came to see you. She gave it to him. The book is yours.

 

Of course, not all pronouns are singular. The plural pronouns serve all the same functionssubject (we/you/they), object (us/you/them), or possessive (our/your/their).
The most frequent offense to my readerly sensibility is confusing subjective and objective pronouns. For example, “Joe and me walked into town.” Or, “The Queen nodded to James and I.”

 

Writers seem most prone to these errors when a pronoun is in a series with proper nouns. In such cases, taking out the nouns makes the correct pronoun obvious. Few would intentionally write “Me walked into town” or “The Queen nodded to I.”

 

Another quick check is to replace the series with a plural pronoun: “Us walked into town” or “The queen nodded to we” glares like a spotlight.

 

Ultimately, correctness depends on intention. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I.” What is correct depends on how that sentence would be completed to give the intended meaning. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I (am)” indicates regretting poor manners. If it should be expanded as “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than (he is to) I” the “I” should clearly be “me.” In either case, the meaning should be clarified.

 

The above having been said, there are times when a writer can legitimately use grammatically incorrect pronouns. Using the objective as subjective can indicate a lack of education or intellect; alternatively, it can signal a child speaker. For example, “Joe and me went fishing.”

 

Using the subjective as objective can indicate someone striving for elegance, to give the impression of refinement. “The countess was excessively kind to my sister and I.”

 

Technically, the pronoun after is, are, was, or were should be I, he, she, we, or they. “May I speak to Ms. Lawry?” “This is she.”  equals a grammatically correct exchange. If you want to convey formality—or perhaps superciliousness, stuffiness, or age—use this formal construction. However, if you intend a conversational exchange or a casual tone, rephrase.

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes!
 
writers harbrace handbook cheryl glenn loretta gray

Use Slang and Clichés Effectively

see you later alligator
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Using any of the above farewells screams the 1950s. “Gag me with a spoon” is soooo 1980s.

 

Slang has always been with us, evolving from docks, gutters, gambling dens, and society soirees. It changes with the times. That is its strength and its weakness. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
dewdroppers waldos slackers rosemarie ostler
As with so many things, there are books for that! When writing “historical” fiction in any genre, books such as this should rest alongside a good dictionary and a convenient thesaurus.

 

A seldom recognized use for really old slang: when used judiciously, it can add freshness to writing.
The Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
When the meaning is clear but the phrase isn’t current, it can sound creative. E.g., cow-handed to mean awkward, brazen faced to mean impudent or shameless, sugar stick to mean a penis.

 

When not to avoid clichés: when adding authenticity to dialogue. Some say you should avoid clichés like the plague, but at the end of the day, using them is as American as apple pie. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many kick-ass expressions already out there? Don’t overdo it, but recognize that people really do say things like, “I’m wound tight as an eight-day clock” or “nutty as a fruitcake” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” Sometimes a repeated cliché can be an effective speech tag for a specific character.

 

Last but not least, browsing a good book of clichés can be informative. Kick the bucket has meant to die since at least 1785!  And keep your shirt on, meaning to stay calm, predates 1854. On the other hand, kick up your heels, meaning show spirit or having a great time, is a far cry from 1500, when it meant to die. So, one more for the reference shelf!

 

use slang cliches effectively dictionary cliches james rogers

Why Do I Write?

If you aren’t writing to put food on the table, you’re writing to feed your soul. And if you are writing to put food on the table, you are likely on a starvation diet!

 

how much do writers earn less than you think
As you can see from the blue and yellow bars on the graph, the vast majority of writers report earning less than $1000 a year. So what’s in it for us?
 
From college till I left paid employment thirty years later—excepting the occasional lines of private poetry—I wrote only academic articles and research reports. When no longer employed, with no title and no built-in social network, I found myself lost. And depressed. That’s when I started writing Dark Harbor. Mysteries had been my favorite escapist reading, so of course I could write one! I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing and enrolled in a writing class at the VMFA Studio School. And here I am, three books and more than fifty short stories later, still writing.

 

So why write? Because it’s good for you! In the February 10, 2017, Writers Digest published “11 Reasons Writing is Good for Your Health” by Baihley Grandison. According to Grandison, there are 11 science-backed ways writing improves your mind, body and spirit. Read the whole article, but in the meantime, here are the topics covered:

 

  1. Communicate better
  2. Be smarter
  3. Achieve goals
  4. Increase memory capacity
  5. Boost job prospects
  6. Healthier immune system
  7. Reduce blood pressure
  8. Improve lung function
  9. Boost athletic performance
  10. Heal traumatic and upsetting experiences
  11. Gratitude
6 unexpected ways writing can transform your help
Writer’s Digest isn’t the only source of such assertions. As far back as this Huffington Post article from 11/12/2013,  Amanda L. Chan extolled the virtues of writing by hand to better retain information and build motor memory. Other benefits of writing listed were:

 

  • Expressing emotions through words may speed healing
  • Consider it a fundamental part of your gratitude practice
  • Writing what you’re thankful for could help you sleep better
  • It makes your mind—and body—better
  • It could help cancer patients think about their disease
My own experience with breast cancer and its treatment gave rise to three publications: a magical realism piece, “Beast and the Beauty”; a memoir titled “Hindsight” about altering my view of my mother’s invalidism; and a newspaper essay titled “Repair or Redecorate After Breast Cancer.”
10 reasons why writing is good for you
Jordon Rosenfeld cited ten reasons for writers to keep writing regardless of publication or income. Rosenfeld encouraged sharing his post, so here’s his list:

 

  1. Creativity has been proven to have positive effects on health, self-esteem and vitality
  2. Writing is good for your brain, creates a state similar to meditation
  3. Writing hones your powers of observation, giving you a fuller experience of life
  4. Writing hones your powers of concentration and attention, which is more fractured than ever thanks to technology and TV
  5. Writing connects you with others through blogging, writing groups, live readings, and self-publishing outlets like Scribd and Smashwords
  6. Through writing we preserve stories and memories that may otherwise be lost
  7. Writing entertains you and others, and having fun is an important part of good health
  8. Writing strengthens your imagination, and imagination is key to feeling hope and joy
  9. Writing helps heal and process wounds and grief, clearing them out
  10. Life is too short not to do what you enjoy
vivian lawry author
Why do I write? It keeps my brain sharp. I learn new things when researching stories—everything from the effects of ketamine on humans to the price of gasoline in 1930 to the characteristics of Buff Orpington hens. I understand myself better in relation to my family. I meet interesting people. (I’ve never met a boring writer!) My journal helps me keep track of personal events, thoughts, and trivia. Publishing—even without much financial reward—is good for my self-esteem. And now that I am a writer, I no longer define myself by what I used to be—as in, “I’m a retired academic.”

 

Why do you write?

Writers are People, Too

Last weekend I attended my husband’s college reunion. The part that is relevant to this post is that we meandered through the English Department. Lo and behold, the corridors were lined with pictures of writers.

 

mark twain
When I saw the picture of Mark Twain, I remembered last week’s discovery—that he had published a short story mystery unbeknownst to most. So when I picked up the May 1 New Yorker and saw an article about Elizabeth Strout—author of Olive Kitteridge—I was immediately interested. It’s a great article.

 

long homecoming ariel levy
But back to the English Department. Below are several writers honored in the halls of higher education. Choose one—or any author you prefer—and investigate their peopleness (if I may coin the term). Find an article. Pick up a biography or memoir. Do an online search. You’ll surely be entertained, and perhaps surprised.

 

Let me know who you chose and why!

Characterizing Characters

characterizing characters building believable characters
This is a great book—especially for the the obsessive and/or anxious writer. It has a 14-page questionnaire intended to help you to really understand your character, so thoroughly that you just know how s/he would behave in any given scene. Then there are chapters on everything from Face and Body to names from around the world.

 

So why not just stop with an endorsement? What more is there to say? Just a few things about making characters vivid and memorable.

 

Actually, I can’t quite imagine eyes like butterflies. Nevertheless, this book highlights two methods of ramping up characterizations: similes and metaphors. Essentially, saying a character is like something, it’s a simile. E.g., “Her smile was like sunshine.” Saying a character is/was something is a metaphor. “He was a rock when Mother died.” As in all writing, avoid the clichés. “She is a diamond in the rough” is a tired example.
 
So where does one look for fresh ideas? Consciously visualizing a character in non-human terms might help. 
 
What animal would X be? Consider the differing implications of spider, rat, rabbit, toy poodle, wren, cow, mule, pig, chicken, etc., etc., etc. Various animals are associated with specific personalities and actions, and labeling a character that way can convey a lot of meaning. Think lap dog.

 

What is X’s astrological sign? Whether one believes in astrology or not, various signs carry lots of implications. The title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus works on many levels: Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and the planets are millions of miles apart. The Chinese sign one was born under has similar implications. I was born in the year of the Cock, and apart from the personality implications, this should be a very good year for me!
characterizing characters book stones
What stone would X be? Again, some stones carry a lot of weight already. For example, diamonds are hard, bright, glittery, and expensive. What characteristics do you associate with pearls, emeralds, jasper, agate? What about abalone? Quartz? Cubic zirconia? And what about metals? Is X gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, iron, brass, bronze—or maybe mixed metals?

 

What plant would X be? What are the associations with oak tree vs. lily? Rose vs. dandelion? Wheat vs. redwood? I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Characterize characters in unexpected ways. You could come up with this sort of writing.

 

attributing words characters

Loving Language

When my ship comes in. Getting sacked. Raining cats and dogs. Cut the mustard. Knowing the ropes. Our everyday language is full of phrases we use without thinking of how they came to mean what they mean. But let’s cut to the chase here.

 

qpb encyclopedia word phrase origins
We all know that carouse means to party down, probably with a lot of drinking. But do you know how the word came to be? I didn’t until I read it here. “A ancient Roman goblet used by the Germans was made in the shape of a crouching lion, with the belly as the bowl so that a drinker couldn’t put it down until he finished his wine. This led to the German toast Gar aus!, meaning “Completely out!” or “Drink fully!” when drinkers lifted their goblets. Over the centuries Gar aus eventually became garouse and finally carouse in English, meaning to engage in a drunken revel or to drink deeply and frequently.

 

When it comes to books about language, one is never enough for me. In the past I’ve mentioned Bill Bryson‘s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. There are many other books around about the evolution of language. And while I find them good reads, they really aren’t handy references.

 

brewers dictionary phrase fable
For quick, focused access, look elsewhere. For example, last week I was talking with a friend about how different parts of the country use different words for the same thing, such as bag, sack, or poke. She’d never heard of poke meaning any such thing. That led me to say, “Still common in parts of the south during my childhood. And have you never heard of a pig in a poke?” She hadn’t. And I was unable to explain clearly why that phrase should mean a blind bargain. But Brewer came through for me! “The reference is to a common trick in days gone by of trying to palm off on a greenhorn a cat for a suckling-pig. If he opened the poke or sack he “let the cat out of the bag,” and the trick was disclosed. The French chat en poche (from which the saying may have come) refers to the fact, while our proverb regards the trick. Pocket is diminutive of poke.”

 

The Oxford book gives similar information, but often in less detail. For example, Dutch uncle is defined as “a person giving firm but benevolent advice; the expression is recorded from the mid 19th century, and may imply only that the person concerned is not an actual relative.”
loving language word origins
The Funk book is the opposite. Each entry is quite detailed, and a hair of the dog that bit you gets half a page, beginning “This stems from the ancient medical maxim, Like cures Like—Similia similibus curantur,” and goes on the reference the Iliad and trace the phrase over time.

 

Webster’s Dictionary of Word Origins is much the same, albeit with fewer entries. When it comes to general browsing, these are my favorites!
 
loving language fruitcakes couch potatoes christine ammer
 
Last but not least, let me mention one of the more specialized references. As the cover promises, Ammer’s book is all about food phrases.

 

Delve into the origins of words and phrases. You will find amusement as well as information!

Dulcimer Lesson for Writers

dulcimer lesson writers
In high school I played percussion, but I never mastered a tuneful instrument–which I’ve always regretted. So, I recently started taking dulcimer lessons. The instrument and the music are rooted in Appalachia, as am I. In short, it’s important to me.

But so far, I’ve managed only one lesson and one practice per week– usually the morning of the lesson. This is not the road to proficiency!

clock face
I truly intend to practice, but there’s always something else to do first. Make the bed. Empty the dishwasher. Celebrate my birthday with my bridge buds.

washing dishes
Write my twice-weekly blogs. Submit a short story. Come up with and deliver a couple of tattoo stories to honor Amy Black. Spend Easter with my family in New England. And on and on.

AND THAT BRINGS ME TO FIRST THINGS VS. IMPORTANT THINGS.

It’s easy to fill your life with things that are right in front of you–or that have a date certain–and never get around to some things that are truly more important.

kids room
When my children were little I often lamented the clutter and mess in my house. (I was a psychology professor at the time.) One day a friend with four children just older than mine said, “If they aren’t doing structural damage, don’t worry about it.”

Which brings us to the point: LOOK AT HOW YOU SPEND YOUR TIME AND DECIDE WHICH FIRST THINGS CAN BE MOVED TO LAST. If writing is truly important to you, make time for it.

And so, off to practice dulcimer!


Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.

Vivian Lawry Agile Writers