Organized Writing: Tips to Keep Your Ideas at Your Fingertips

Notes and ideas are collected in many media

My writing is all over the place.                                                                                                 Photo by Maria L. Berg

Over the course of writing my novel, I became disorganized. I have notes in so many different notebooks, computer programs, sheets of paper and anything handy to write on that I waste half a day looking for a name I wrote somewhere, or a thought I had months ago that finally fits.

In the hope that you and I can learn from my mistakes, I want to share organizational tips that I attempted to follow, I think would have made my life easier and I plan to follow for my next novel.

  1. Create a well labeled file system that has meaning specific to you and your work– I have tried many different versions of physical organization of the things that inspire my work. I have binders, color coded files in a drawer, homemade fabric-covered boxes, bins, tubs, etc. For my next novel, physical elements like found objects, cut-outs, print-outs, critique notes, etc. will find home in color-coded, labeled file folders  within an accordion-type file folder because they are easy to organize, keep everything in one place and are portable. Once you have decided on your physical file system, you can make a matching system in your documents on your computer.
  2.  Sticky note tabs in notebooks – Having wonderful computer programs doesn’t replace the need to physically write on the page or the occasional napkin or with the paintbrush or with the camera. So, the post-it, or glued tab, or  labeling-attention-getter of your choice can be very important. I write in many different notebooks in one week. I have my daily journal pages (I try to write three stream of consciousness pages every morning), the pages I print and a notebook for writing group, my smaller writing journal for outings and studies, my children’s stories journal, my songwriter’s journal, my artists sketchbook, etc. I have ideas in all of them that relate to one novel. I find myself spending way too much time searching through all of them and re-reading months of boring daily logs to find the moments or thoughts I know are in there. When I find them, I bend down the corners so I can find them again, but what good does that do me? When I get back to the bent corners, I wonder why I bent them down. Like the amazing revelation of post-its for my butcher paper wall-sized timeline, large post-its with quick notes about content will save me a ton of time. Matching or relating the post-its/tabs to my other files will make life easier during the writing process.
  3. Using inline comments / removing inline comments – I really enjoy using inline comments in Microsoft Word to make notes about word choice or secondary plot points, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them when I no longer wanted them. I kept going to Review, Track Changes, Final which hid the notes, but it never got rid of them. So, here’s my super hint: To get rid of inline comments in your draft click on Review then the arrow under Reject (or accept) and click on reject all changes in document. I found that I still had to reject a few comments individually before they were all gone, but once all of the comments have been accepted of rejected, the document will return back to normal. Once I figured the out, using inline comments became a great way to organize notes and thoughts within the text while I’m working.
  4. Make time once a day and once a week to review and organize – I think this is where I went wrong and where I can improve going forward. Taking a little time to make sure all of my notes are consolidated into one place will save me a lot of time. I like using Microsoft OneNote as my digital notebook, so for my next novel I plan to carefully set up a notebook for all of my research and notes. Each day before I start writing, I will gather all of my research and notes from the day before and make sure everything is put into pages under the correct subject tabs. Then, once a week (I tend to review on Monday mornings), I will review all of the notes and research from the week before and make sure everything is organized into my files and notebook. This way, I’ll have gathered my thoughts before they have a chance to get lost.

These are just a few ways to keep writing organized through the novel writing process. Do you have any tips and tricks that work for you? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Yesterday’s word count: 1,069 words. I finally wrote the first murder scene in “Creation of the Lake Spirit”. Very fun. Though keeping up with the challenge has been difficult, it has been highly motivational.

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Tips and Tricks: Creating Revision Goals and Preparing For First Readers.

 Crater Lake July 4th 2015

The hummingbird moth drinking after dark.                                                                             photo by Maria L. Berg

I apologize for my time away. I needed a break and an adventure to fill me up with new energy, so I could return to you with insight.

I can finally see an endpoint to my revisions, at least an endpoint that will allow me to send a draft to my carefully chosen first readers (I chose my first readers for many different reasons. I chose eight people who will give me honest feedback and may see my content from different points of view. I will talk more about first readers in October). Here are the revelations occurring in my writing life that have brought me to this exciting point in the writing of my novel.

Tips:

1. Listen when a good friend asks if you need to be held accountable.

There is nothing better than a fellow writer and good friend wanting to read your book. When my critique group asked how my revision was going and I said I kept writing other things, Sherri stepped up and said, “Do you need me to hold you accountable?”  I am obstinate and rebellious, so having someone else hold me accountable was not an option, but wow did she set a fire under my seat .

As a self-motivator, I interpreted her words as, “you are not doing your work” in a way that I needed. I realized I had to set goals and make deadlines to see my draft become the novel that I want it to be.

2. Make your goals real and tell others.

The first thing I did to become accountable was to choose a date that had meaning to me. I didn’t map out the time I thought it would take and then set a date.That never works for me. Large dates like birthdays, anniversaries of important events, important holidays, are ways that I challenge myself. This time, I have a difficult anniversary (Ten years since evacuation with no return) and I want to turn it into a celebration.  Once I imagined I could achieve my goals by that date, I set personal goals for each day. For the first time ever, I tried to be reasonable and create achievable goals. Believe it or not, I procrastinate and have impressive skills in self-sabotage.

Then I talked to my first readers. I told them the date I chose and asked if they still wanted to be my first readers. This made me accountable, not only to myself, but to eight other people. And now to you.

3. Break your goals into little pieces and attack!

Knowing what I had left to accomplish in a short amount of time, I had to break down the last of my goals into daily work. To do that, I created weekly themes that I could break down into little projects. The first hurdle was typing all of my hand written edits from my last read through and from my critique group into a new draft. The perceived tediousness of the task had been the stop sign that had me wandering into different styles and story ideas. I gave myself two days to only type in edits. However, for every little comma or word choice, I saw larger problems that I either changed or got stuck on.

One of the greatest tips I have to give you is when you get stuck, change your text to red, type a note about what you want but can’t get to or why you’re stuck and move on. Typing up all the editing ended up taking five days instead of two, but I discovered how prepared I was to finish. For every sentence that was confusing, I knew how to change it into sense. For every chapter that was weak, I had a plan.

great reflection on Crater Lake

Reflecting on reflection                                                                                    photo by Maria L. Berg

Which leads us to my new (and newly applied) tricks:

1. Character Development through dialog: A personal breakthrough and a lesson in rereading my own blogs – This was my original name for this post because I felt like I had a major epiphany and wanted to share, but realized I had already posted about my use of dialog to get writing to the page in a previous post Getting words on the page. Dialog as a warm-up is the third tip in that post. My epiphany, however, is a little different. My protagonist is a self-proclaimed hermit who has very little interaction with anyone outside of her house. She has a lifetime of reasons for her hermithood and layers of associations as motivations, but I found it hard to get any of this across to the reader because my character didn’t want to think about those bad experiences. Finally, I had a breakthrough. I had already established that she talked to a friend every day on the phone, but I hadn’t written any of their conversations. I started writing their conversations as part of my morning pages and suddenly my protagonist’s world opened up. I found it awe inspiring how a quick phone conversation could let the reader know twenty years of back-story. My critique group found some of conversation unclear, but I think leaving some parts of the conversation up to interpretation leaves space for the reader (to relate to or not, to imagine something different in the space between).

2. Let yourself go through research- After finishing my edits, I created a separate document for each of the seven section I had left in red ink that need further writing. I noticed that the sections I need to really dive into are the areas I have little to no experience with, or contain behaviors that are outside my purview. I needed to get outside of myself.

Even if your novel isn’t historical fiction or science fiction, finding an avenue for research can inspire. In my case, a textbook on criminology and Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D. (Samenow is a great last name!) inspired pages of notes. Inside the Criminal Mind also showed me that many of the behaviors I had already written were right on track which felt great! It’s not often a writer manages to find her own positive feedback.

3. Names: A new fun technique for me– One of the most important things I have left to do is come up with names for the tertiary characters. Looking through lists of baby names or name engines online did not inspire me. I enjoyed looking through the most recent local candidates and trying to mix lasts with firsts, and talented friends have told me to look online for another country’s white pages, but these techniques were not what I needed either. Today, I found an unlimited fountain of names in my piles of old records. If you don’t have records, CD liners or movie credits will do just as well. Think of all the people that work behind the scenes to make music and film happen, then think about the multitude of combinations you can make by mixing and matching those first and last names.

For my example, I had a sampling of my old records and my parents old records. I had records from Sweden and France. I had a selection of Pop, Rock, Musicals and Classical. I made three columns in my notebook: Last names, Male character and Female character first names. This way my lists created unique randomized combinations as I wrote them down so when I look at it later, I won’t have to worry about using an actual name.

4. Those pages you don’t want numbered – When I send out my draft, I want to make it very clear to my first readers that I wrote a piece of fiction, so I created a page with the well known statement “All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. After typing it into the center of my new page after the title page, I had a major page numbering dilemma. This bugged me. I knew how to not number my cover page in Word, but I hadn’t figured out any extra pages until today. The magic? Section breaks.

How to: Delete your header. Create all the front pages you want: I created a disclaimer, but you might also want a couple quotes and a dedication; like I said this is for my first readers, so I might make a page of my expectations for reading time, editing/commenting expectations and easy directions for making notes inline. Once you know how many pages you do not want topped with a header or page number, make a section break. To do this in Word, leave your cursor at the end of the text that does not want a number, select the page layout tab, click on Page Breaks and scroll down to New Page. That will most likely create a break and a blank page. I recommend clicking on the Home tab and clicking on the paragraph symbol to see the backspaces needed to delete the extra page.

Once you have created a new section, click on the page you want as page one then click on the Insert tab and select Header. Make sure to click (unclick) Link to previous. Once you’ve created the header that you want, click pages and choose your style and placement then select format page numbers and select start at and enter 1. That should do it.

(I had to go back to the beginning of my first section and edit Header and delete it, then recreate the second header in the second section, but that is most likely because I was making changes instead of starting from scratch. Happy news, it worked).

So there you have it. The tips and tricks I am using to finish my revision and prepare for first readers. I hope you found something useful. Happy writing.

A Happy Discovery – Free Indirect Discourse: I Was Already Using It, But Now I Know When and How to Use It Correctly

Write Like the Masters by William CaneI first saw the term Free Indirect Discourse while reading the chapter on Flannery O’Connor in Write Like The Masters by William Cane. Cane describes Free Indirect Discourse (FID) as “A popular technique with good writers, FID involves narrating a scene in language that contains some elements from the lexicon of one of the characters (Cane sites Rimmon-Kenan 1983).” He also writes “A helpful way to think of it is to conceptualize FID as narration tinged or colored with the voice of one of the characters.”

I didn’t completely understand the concept until I read this passage from Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away:

The room was lined with automobile tires and had a concrete and rubber smell. Meeks took the machine in two parts and held one part to his head while he circled with his finger on the other part. Then he sat waiting, swinging his foot, while the horn buzzed in his ear. After a minute an acid smile began to eat at the corners of his mouth and he said, drawing in his breath, “Heythere, Sugar, hyer you?” and Tarwater, from where he stood in the door, heard an actual woman’s voice, like one coming from beyond the grave, say, “Why Sugar, is that reely you?” and Meeks said it was him in the same old flesh and made an appointment with her in ten minutes.

Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away

This passage describes a telephone from the perspective of a character who has never seen one before. A more distant third person narrator may have said, “Meeks stopped at a gas station to use the phone. Tarwater had never seen anyone act so strangely, talking into a box like that.” O’Connor draws the reader into the mind of the young man experiencing the machine through observing its use.

Free Indirect Discourse is a type of third person point of view (POV) that allows a minimal psychological distance between the reader and the character. In other words it lets the reader inside the character’s head. There are two other forms of discourse in third person POV: direct discourse and indirect discourse. Direct discourse (or quoted speech or direct speech) is the same as dialogue, something stated out-loud by the character and written in quotation marks. Indirect discourse (reported speech) tells the reader what a character said or thought without quotation marks and using a reporting verb like she said or he thought.

Examples:

Direct Discourse

“It’s a lot more than that,” Jerry said. “If it works out, you could get everything you need and make some money too.”

“I’m intrigued. It sounds too good to be true,” Rick said.

Indirect Discourse

Jerry told him it was a lot more than that. If it worked out, he could get everything he needed and make some money too. Rick told Jerry he was intrigued, but it sounded to good to be true.

Free Indirect Discourse

Jerry’s proposition was intriguing. Could he get everything he needed and make some money too? It sounded too good to be true.

As a writing exercise, I recommend creating examples like those above, first, starting with dialogue and trying to change it to the other two forms of discourse and then, starting with FID and trying to turn it into the other two kinds of discourse. I found it to be trickier than I expected.

For me, discovering FID cleared up the question: do I put my characters’ thoughts in italics or in quotes? I now believe the answer is neither as long as I am using free indirect discourse correctly.

If you would like more information about free indirect discourse, I found these posts interesting and informative:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2013/09/free-indirect-style-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html

http://jeffchapmanwriter.blogspot.com/2010/06/free-indirect-discourse.html

http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/04/free-indirect-discourse-how-to-create-a-window-into-character-soul.html

Once I understood free indirect discourse, I went on the hunt for it in my work in progress. My novel is a psychological thriller told from the perspective of each of its three main characters, so, it turns out, my novel is full of FID.

Here’s a jog through B’s mind:

She wasn’t afraid of snakes. They fascinated her from a young age. She loved to draw their beautiful colors and patterns. She remembered spending hours in the snake habitat at the zoo watching their tongues flicking in and out as she imagined seeing the world through tasting her environment. Talk about an oral fixation.  She attempted to emulate the way pieces of their bodies expanded and contracted to propel them forward by wriggling on her carpet, that old shag carpet that shed fuzz right up her nose and made her sneeze.  Mom helped her create a really cool Medusa costume in sixth grade by sticking wires through a ton of rubber snakes and hooking them into a cheap wig.

And here’s a moment in R’s:

“Of course, silly. I’m a regular.” She smiled and scrunched up half her face. She probably thought she was winking.

That sounded like the brush off. She wasn’t going to give him a number and tell him to call her, so he wasn’t going to ask. She would let him find her here in this dive, if she wasn’t hooking a bigger fish on the line. Fine. He had mastered that game long ago.

Were you able to identify the different kinds of discourse? Do you feel like you got inside the character’s heads? Did they feel like two very different views of the world? I hope so. Have you found places in your own writing where you used FID, or places where you could improve your writing by using FID? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

I hope you also find the discovery of free indirect discourse fun and exciting (for some reason knowing the style had a name was very exciting for me). Happy Writing.

Part Two The Worrying Wave of Weak Verbs: a cautionary tale of the murderous search for to be, to have, to do, to get, to go and to make

Action verbs

He went down the slide.
He slid. He zipped. He whooshed!

In my last post, I shared an amazing discovery, a  little book full of helpful tips called The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by Bonnie Trenga. At the end of exploring Chapter Seven, you’ll recall I encountered a “there was” problem in my manuscript. After my battle with “there was”, I moved on to Chapter Four: The Delicious Drama of the Weak Verb. Finding specific verbs is important, interesting and sometimes fun, but I didn’t find it delicious.

In Bonnie Trenga’s words:

“Weak verbs are everyday, normal verbs we use all the time. However, they’re often repetitive, passive, wordy, or too general. These verbs frequently fail to clarify the action, and they make readers work too hard.”

Which verb does she start with? You guessed it, our friend “to be”. Along with the battle of “there was” that we discussed last time, she also mentions “it was” and “this was”. Because “there was” introduced me to my worrying workload of weak writing, I won’t linger on “to be”, but introduce you to the other worrying weak verbs and how I began to weed them out.

action verbs

He got up the rock wall.
He climbed. He hauled himself up. He tested his upper body strength.

As the title of this post suggests, other weak verbs include: to do, to get, to go, to have and to make (Trenga also suggests to occur and to use). Because my manuscript is written in past tense, I started my search for the past tense of each verb: did, got, went, had and made. When I typed “did” into the find bar in Word an astounding, heart-breaking 826 instances came back. However, a friend and fellow writer, Sherri Ann DeLost offered a very helpful tip: when typing a word into find type a space before and after it, so the results only include the word not the letters within another word (such as candid). This made a large difference bringing my did count down to a reasonable 180 or so (though many “didn’t”s may still need to be dealt with).

After seeing the staggering number of verbs in need of more specific replacements, I decided I needed lists of specific action verbs at the ready. I started with my thesaurus and found some replacements.

Did: acted, performed, achieved, executed, completed, concluded, determined, ended

Had: kept, controlled, enjoyed, held, owned, possessed, retained, included, contained

Got: acquired, gained, obtained, took, received, knew, bought, gathered, understood

Went: moved, exited, left, retired, escaped, traveled, ran, walked, passed, wended

Made: initiated, originated, started, created, produced, shaped, formed, crafted, built, constructed, fixed, readied

These are only a few examples of the words I found, but I didn’t feel like I had enough replacement verbs, so I searched online. I printed out these three lists:

http://www.westga.edu/~rmcrae/FYW/Awesome-Action-Verbs.pdf

http://www.cvisual.com/film-techniques/writer-action-verb-list.pdf

http://cdn.writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Active-Verbs-List.pdf

and here are some other lists you may find useful:

http://www.fourcornerslearning.org/TechTips/Resources/Action%20Verbs.pdf

http://www.wellesley.edu/sites/default/files/assets/departments/cws/files/complete_list_of_action_verbs.pdf

http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~cainproj/writingtips/preciseverbs.html

http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-verbs.html#verbs%20list

I created a key: D=did, H=had, W=went, G=got and M=made and scoured my lists, writing the correlating letter or letters next to the strong verb that could replace the weak verb.

With all of these active, descriptive, precise verbs at the ready, was I prepared to attack my weak verbs? Some of them.

Here’s an example from my work in progress with the verb “got”:

“Ben grabbed a handsaw and got up on the step ladder while Anna attempted to twist the branch and tug at it to help it along.”

Ben grabbed a handsaw and climbed the step ladder while Anna attempted to twist the branch and coax it along.

I found stronger replacements for hundreds of  weak verbs, but I also found new issues. Many of these weak verbs were like parasites in symbiotic relationship with other words to create a different meaning than the replacement verbs I so obsessively collected. Example:

“Went back” led me to find as many words as I could for returned.

“Had to” led to must, needed, and wanted.

“Did his/her best” to = I don’t know. I’m still working on this one.

After I worked through each of the weak verbs, examining my sentences over and over again, I thought it would be fun to do a new word cloud of my manuscript to see if this exercise had changed my overused words. I was sure changing so many “went back”s would get “back” off of my list at least. If you haven’t read my earlier post about overused words, you can make your word cloud here. Sadly, “back” was still there, but more shocking was “make”. Hadn’t I just spent an entire day replacing make?

The answer was no. I had focused on the past tense of the weak verbs and, like “there was”, led to “there is”, and “there were”, I needed to search for each of the other weak verbs in all of their variations.

“Make” presents interesting challenges: “Make any sense”, “Make sure”, “Make it look like”, “Make this work”. At least one or two “make sure”s can become “ensure”. I would greatly appreciate other suggestions.

As you can see, verb choice presents unending challenges and sparks the neurons.

This week I will be reading my entire novel for content: plot, action, consistency, etc. I will also pay close attention to whether my verb choices have changed the distinctive voices of my characters. I tried to keep that in mind as I made changes, but I’ll only know for sure after I’ve looked at the big picture. Wish me luck.

Happy Writing!