Tools of the Trade: Spiral-bound notebooks still a favorite

By G. Robert Frazier

Quick show of hands: Which tool do you writers like more, the spiral-bound notebook (along with a good old-fashioned pen) or a computer and keypad?

For quick notes, character sketches, and random scenes that come to me in the middle of the night, I have to go with the former.

Notebooks

For one thing, you don’t have to get out of bed. You don’t have to take time to turn anything on. You just grab the notebook (which I conveniently keep on the nightstand beside my bed), flip to an open page, and start writing. You don’t have to worry about saving your work midway through by giving it a file name, finding a folder on your computer to save it in, and hitting the save button. You aren’t distracted by the lure of email messages, tweets and Facebook posts. And, perhaps most importantly, you aren’t compelled to go back and retype a sentence or correct any typos you’ve made along the way.

Your mind is free and clear to just write away.

I have reams of notebooks filled with goodies for my work in progress, as well as other story ideas, scenes and outlines. I use sticky notes to mark what I’ve written, so that I can find what I want again. I use a larger sticky note on the front of each notebook to create a sort of index. I keep the notebooks together in a small plastic tote and pull them out as needed. (Note: I stock up on notebooks dirt cheap every summer during the back to school sales.)

I am impressed by the volume of words and ideas I’ve managed to get on paper in this way. Any time I get discouraged by the word count on my work in progress on the computer, I can look to the tub of spiral notebooks for some reassurance. I am writing. I am making progress.

Of a sort.

When I get stuck in my writing, I can also flip open the notebooks to find inspiration or ideas that might provide a spark to get writing again. There are treasures there that I want to get back to; ideas I’d love to develop into full-fledged stories, once I get done with the novel at hand.

I also look at my hasty scribbles as a way to cleanse my thoughts. When I have time to transcribe the words from the notebook into the computer file, I find I can fine-tune or elaborate on the writing along the way. I can easily skip over anything I think is a bad idea or repetitive, or embellish a quick spark of a thought into something more.

There are, of course, downsides to the spiral notebook method of writing. First among them, finding the time to transcribe my words from the notebook to the computer. As you can see by the photo accompanying this article, I’m a bit behind in that regard. Secondly, there is the problem of reading my own writing. I’m not the neatest when it comes to writing with pen and paper, especially when I get in a hurry. I tend to write in a sort of hybrid printing/cursive pattern. I can make it out, for the most part, but sometimes even I have trouble trying to decipher my own chicken scratch.

My spiral-bound notebooks also take up space. A computer file doesn’t.

Still, the notebook method works for me. I like it.

Which method do you prefer in your writing? Use the comment box below to share your thoughts.

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Other reading:10 Famous Writers Who Don’t Use Modern Tech to Create

 

Book Review: The Accident makes mistake of being too wordy

I like short, snappy sentences and paragraphs.

And lots of white space.

Stories read faster.

Your eye swiftly races through the action, reading from left to right, from top to bottom, the pages turning.

James Patterson novels are a perfect example. Most of his books feature paragraphs of two or three sentences, and short, tight chapters. You can’t help but keep flipping through the pages to see what happens next.

The downside is the prose is very simple, minimalistic. The details are more sparse, the settings more arbitrary. The dialogue and action take center stage. It’s usually a compromise I’m willing to live with as I prefer the action and quick pacing to the slow, methodical buildup.

So, at first glance, I didn’t think I would like The Accident by Chris Pavone.

The Accident - coverIn The Accident, an author thought to be dead has scribed an unauthorized, anonymous biography about media mogul Charlie Wolfe. The novel recounts a deadly deed from Wolfe’s past that, if published, would threaten to topple Wolfe and his media empire and his connections with the CIA, which in turn could have worldwide implications. Both Wolfe and the CIA are intent on keeping the manuscript from ever seeing the light of day, to the point that they are willing to kill anyone who comes in contact with the manuscript.

Pavone’s book – a New York Times bestseller – includes lots of chunky paragraphs throughout. Or, should I say, lots of chunky sentences? Pavone details everything. And not just with a word or two, but with several words. Dozens of words, sometimes. I counted in excess of two hundred words alone in one sentence. To put that in perspective, from the viewpoint of a former newspaper journalist, if a reporter wrote a sentence with more than thirty words in it, we editors would usually cry foul. And here’s an author writing two hundred-plus word sentences!

Certainly, with all those words to work with Pavone can and does paint a vivid picture of his settings, characters, and situations. There is no need for the reader to fill in the blanks. It’s all laid out right before us. There’s little left to the imagination.

An example: There’s one sentence where a character goes to hang up the telephone and we get a detailed description of the “accordion-like” phone cord and the big push buttons on the phone cradle.

All the articles I’ve read on writing stress less is more. I’m pretty sure that Patterson would have simply written: She hung up the phone. And I’m sure if I brought a story to my writing group to read in which I described the phone cord and push buttons on the phone, I’d be told to cut it.

Pavone was probably trying to make a point about the phone call, the shock that followed for the caller. But still, that much detail seems excessive. There were many more instances while reading The Accident in which I was of the mindset: Okay, I get it. Move on.

Still, Pavone compensates by putting his prose in the present tense rather than past tense, like most novels. By doing so, the story of The Accident churns swiftly for the reader and the pages do keep turning. I read the 381-page book in six days. (Not bad, since I generally only have time to read fifty pages a day).

I read somewhere that Millennials actually prefer to read stories in the present tense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m used reading stories in the past tense, and writing in the past tense, that’s all. But I’m always open to new experiences, especially if they work.

The Accident works, but it would work better if Pavone tightened his prose and quit trying so hard.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Everyone’s an expert on writing, or so they think

How-to articles on the writing craft are a dime a dozen. They’re all over the internet, in my email’s inbox daily, on my Facebook feed, and in the dozens of Writer’s Digest magazines and writing books in my personal library.

And everyone is an expert, or so they claim.

Today, I read an article sent to me by Writer’s Digest about finding time to write. I’ve been struggling with getting to the computer to actually write. This past summer was traumatic on a personal level for me with the loss of my mother, and the past month has been stressful as we try to put her affairs in order. So, writing has sort of taken a back seat to everything else.

When I saw the link to the article from Writer’s Digest, I clicked on it hoping to find some new spark of advice or inspiration to help me get writing again.

Instead, the article was more of a rehash of the same old advice: Take a notebook with you everywhere, because you never know where the urge to write will hit you; take time to day dream ideas during lulls in whatever else you do; plan beforehand/manage your time wisely.

Sound advice, yes, but nothing really new in it.

What was surprising when I reached the end of said article was the about the author blurb. The article was written by a 13-year-old. Out of curiosity, I followed a link to her book page. The blurb for her book was sloppy. It was comprised of typos and sentences that didn’t make a lick of sense.

The book, naturally, was self-published.

I typically respect and appreciate Writer’s Digest for its wealth of articles on the craft. The magazine often cites professionally published, best-selling authors and includes invaluable tips and information to reference time and time again. I also admire the magazine for promoting the works of young authors and encouraging a range of voices, from novice to expert.

I wish nothing but success for the writer of today’s article, but I was disappointed in her article overall. When I learned the age of the writer and then learned the writer was clearly an amateur, I felt I had been duped by Writer’s Digest.

Lesson learned: From now on, I will read the about the author blurb on any article first. That way I will have some idea of whether the source of the article is someone I can trust and put my faith in. Because apparently I can no longer trust Writer’s Digest to do that for me.

About me: I’m a former journalist who has written about local government, business, schools, crime and edited thousands of stories for print and the web. I’ve had two short stories published in local anthologies and I have dozens of unfinished stories waiting for me. I am working on a novel and screenplay.  I don’t profess to be an expert on anything.

Writers: You don’t have to do this … but you probably should

It’s a simple enough line of dialogue: “You don’t have to do this.”

But it’s also one of the most common and, perhaps, overused lines of dialogue in today’s movies and TV shows as well. Listen for it, and you will hear it uttered more often than not.

The line exists for one reason only: It represents a decision point.

The main character has one last opportunity to consider his or her course of action. Do they take on the bad guy even though it puts them, their family, their career, etc., at risk? Do they choose the action even if it goes against every moral fiber of their being?

Of course, the character faced with the choice always does move ahead. If not, the movie or TV episode would fizzle on the spot. The goal would go unfulfilled, the viewer would leave unhappy.

It’s unfortunate, however, that so many screenplays telegraph this choice in such a way. It’s not very original in terms of writing, and it sounds cliched. But there it is, time and time again. It’s clearly an audible cue to the viewers that this is an important decision to be made. It is a moment that everything in the film has been building towards. In other words, the big payoff is at hand.

I’m not sure if this line of dialogue has its own chapter in the many how-to screenplay books out there, but it should. Your story, your screenplay, is nothing without it.

 

 

When the pieces fall into place…

I’m getting a late start today (I slept late). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Last night was a wildly productive night. I used up one ballpoint pen and another is nearly spent of all its ink. I have page after page of hastily scrawled notes relating to my work in progress, or, more specifically, the main character of my work in progress.

What’s interesting is that I thought I had all this hammered out previously. I mean, I knew who my main character was. I knew what his job was, I knew what inciting incident was about to befall him, I knew he was facing a plethora of challenges that were about to make his life miserable.

But somehow, last night more pieces of the puzzle just clicked into place.

I think that comes from having spent much of the past few days, or weeks, reading about characters, character flaws and character arcs. I’ve been outlining my novel for months, trying to come up with plenty of scenes and situations to throw at my main character. I have a pair of small corkboards I bought at Walmart that I’m using to organize my scenes on, using sticky notes.

I’m approximating needing sixty scenes or chapters, averaging about 1,500 words each, to reach my 90,000 word novel. However, I noticed that I still have a number of gaps on the corkboards: missing scenes or scenes yet to be discovered. I also realized that while I have an exciting plot, I didn’t really have a great character arc.

Now, I believe I do.

Everything sort of coalesced last night. I woke up three times in the middle of the night and grabbed the notebook each time. The words spilled onto the page and with each new word my character’s flaw and arc began to take shape. I think I already knew this information, somewhere in the back of my mind. Yet, here it was flowing out of me onto my notebook, suddenly complete and completely logical.

Somehow, seeing it all on the page like that is immensely rewarding in itself. I feel like after my months of struggles and self-doubts over whether this story would work, my questions have been answered.

I’m determined to start pounding out the words now. I won’t call on luck to help guide me through the process. I don’t need it. I will instead call upon persistence.

So, excuse me if you will. I’ve got a book to write. Talk to you later.

 

Twisted questions can peel back deepest layer of characters

The Daily Post here on WordPress posted this writing prompt today:

A Pulitzer-winning reporter is writing an in-depth piece – about you. What are the three questions you really hope she doesn’t ask you?

Whenever I’ve gone on a job interview, the typical “where do you want to be five years from now” question has always bugged me. Obviously the interviewee wants to know about your aspirations and your commitment to the company. So you give some answer that you think they might be excited about. You certainly wouldn’t say, “I sure as hell hope I’m not here, hahaha!!!” Although, you may secretly be wishing it the whole time. Just be thankful you’re not strapped up to a lie detector when you are answering it.

Another question that always bugs me is the “what is your greatest weakness” question. Here, you are supposed to humbly acknowledge that you are not perfect, but that you have taken such and such steps to strengthen your skills or abilities regarding your weakness. This shows the interviewee that you can overcome adversity with commitment, training and resourcefulness. If you want the lie detector answer, I’d say one of my greatest weaknesses is lying. I just can’t do it. I can’t keep a straight face.My mom brought me up right.

How about this one: “Do you have any questions for us?” Oh, yeah. How about, “whose ass do I have to kiss to get ahead in this company?” Hey, you need to know what the office politics are like in any job, don’t you?

Characters are at the heart of every story and as an author you need to know them inside and out. One of the coolest things about being a writer is creating a profile sheet for your characters. Such character bios offer a glance at who they are, where they came from, what influenced them, what events shaped their lives, etc. Yes, you need to know all the basics about them: a physical description, family lineage, what their childhood was like, education level, work history, goals/aspirations,  likes/dislikes, etc.

But today’s  prompt got me thinking about some questions to ask that could further peel back the layers surrounding my characters. For instance:

  • Have you ever fantasized about killing anyone, and if so, what stopped you?
  • What’s the biggest mistake you made in your life?
  • Who or what are you most loyal to, and why?

Here’s a bonus question to ask your character:

  • If you could do things all over again, what would you do differently?

Questions like those above, while twisted, may lead to answers that deeply enrich your characters and, as a result, the story about your characters.

What questions do you ask your characters?

Lessons from a script reader

Over the past several months I have served as a volunteer reader for scripts entered in the inaugural Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition. I am working on a spec feature script and a tv pilot, so the experience of reading and reviewing scripts in the competition afforded an excellent opportunity to learn my craft. And it’s been a rewarding endeavor, to be sure.

The first 30 pages of each script are crucial. As a reader, I was tasked with identifying the premise of each script (who and what the script is about) and determining how compelling the story was. Key ingredients in the grading process were the characters introduced and the use of dialogue.

What stood out, more often than not, were the missteps that kept the scripts from reaching the next level of review.

Below are some insights into scripts, as well as some things to watch out for:

Flashbacks. A character’s backstory is certainly important to fleshing out their motivations, wants and needs, but flashbacks to me are a huge distraction. Too many writers are relying on flashbacks as a crutch. Frankly, I found flashbacks as unnecessary interruptions in the flow of the main story. They slow the momentum, seem obtrusive, and don’t always add much in the way of depth to a story or character. Heck, I’ve read scripts where there are flashbacks after the first paragraph. Can we not establish the character in the present for a few minutes before jumping backwards? If flashbacks are needed, then look at something like Saving Mr. Banks as a way to do them right. In that movie, the flashbacks were a story unto themselves. The story in the past lent deep meaning to the main character and why she wouldn’t sell her story to Mr. Disney.

Too many characters. Focus on establishing the main character, his or her current situation and wants, followed by the inciting incident and how that might impact that character’s goals. Remember, stories are about the transformation of character from one state to another. By inserting character after character into the script, no matter how small a role they have, it takes away from the story you should be telling. I read one script in which there were ten named characters within the first four pages, followed by a dozen more by page twenty. When you have to look at a list of characters or keep scrolling back to remember who’s who, that ruins the momentum of the story. That loses the reader. That dooms the script.

Establish your characters quickly. Don’t wait until page 30 to introduce a character’s romantic interest, confidant or mentor, protagonist or antagonist.

Write believable dialogue. Make certain dialogue sounds unique to each character and that their own personalities/motivations come through. Try not to be too simple or direct. Use some subtext, i.e., not always stating what is meant but inferring it. But don’t go overboard. I’ve read a lot of scripts where the writer suffers from the delusion that they are Quentin Tarrantino. That can come across as being too writerly and unnatural sounding. Be careful of loaded informational dialogue that tells more than it shows.

Avoid use of camera directions. That’s the job of the director. Follow the character and his actions, and the director will follow you. Let your script flow naturally.

Avoid too much setup. I’ve read a lot of scripts that take page after page to establish characters, build worlds or situations, etc. The story doesn’t get going until after page 30. If your character’s goals and inciting incident aren’t clear at this point, or earlier, your script isn’t going to make it to the next reader.

Find an original plot/idea. So many script writers are clearly chasing trends. Zombies. Seniors coping with Alzheimer’s or other end of life diseases. Young adult vampires. Super heroes. This superhero phase is going to fade, trust me. Marvel and DC Comics destroyed my love for their characters by pushing out title after title in the 1990s. They’re back at it again now (DC publishes 52 books every month alone, if not more) and Marvel has more than 100 titles. It’s too many to keep track of and it’s ridiculous to even try. Now with more and more superhero movies on the horizon (a half dozen planned for this year alone) there are few fresh superhero stories to be told. It’s become comical. [Addendum: I say all that, and yet it’s interesting to note that one of the winning screenplays in the NaFF competition was Heroman, a story about, you guessed it, a washed up superhero. So what do I know?]

Realize that your scripts will cost money to produce. Yes, we all want to write the next summer blockbuster. But face it, if you are just starting out it’s extremely unlikely that any studio will plop down a hundred million dollars to produce your movie. You have no cred. You have no track record. They’re going to go with the proven commodity. And if your script includes car chases, special-effects laden fights on the moon or in deep space, the script is going to be seen as unproducable and it’s going to be thrown on the slush pile. Keep it simple, and focus on the story.

Pay attention to three-act structure. You may hate it, you may think it’s formulaic and confining. Fine. But if you’re just starting out, you better know how to write a script using three-act structure before you decide to break the rules. Script readers are looking for three-act structure, and if it’s not there your script, despite all its gloriously fresh ideas, will be tossed.

Get coverage on your script. There are plenty of outlets that will read and provide coverage for you. Yes, for a price, but it will be worth it in the long run. The coverage can point to structural problems, plot holes, etc. that you can address now before they doom your script. [Addendum: It would also be useful to join a local screenwriters group, if you have access to one. I am now attending meetings of the Tennessee Screenwriters Association where I hope to build new connections, continue to learn my craft and, hopefully, receive valuable feedback.]

Lastly, for God’s sake, check your spelling and your grammar. Punctuation and spelling were not instant reasons for disqualification with NaFF. But you can bet they were noticed and that somewhere in the back of readers’ minds when making their decision, it factored into the equation. Sloppy mistakes signal that the script isn’t up to professional standards and the writer wasn’t either. Misspellings, missing commas and apostrophes, and inconsistencies in characters (names, ages, for instance) matter.

To write a good script, you’ve got to read scripts. Good and bad. See what works, what doesn’t. Go to LA Screenwriter for links to scripts, including Oscar-award winners Her, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and more.

Today’s adventure in writing begins …

I thought I might chronicle my day today to see just how I spend my time. I’m hoping to finish editing a short story today so that I can submit it to L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest. So, here goes:

Monday, March 31: 9:50 a.m.

Woke up about five minutes ago and ate a little something, then fed the cats. Will now make a quick run-through of my e-mails and Facebook, then hit the showers. I never feel fully awake until after I’ve showered and changed.

11:35 a.m.

Back at the keyboard…

Found some interesting articles while surfing Facebook feeds and Twitter. One is about a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles and book written by a pair of journalists exposing police corruption in Philadelphia. The article interests the former journalist in me as well as the novelist in me, as I am working on a thriller involving a corrupt sheriff. I’ve bookmarked the site to read later and added it to my “To Read” list I keep near my computer.

I also came across an interesting blog post from Bare Knuckle Writer here on WordPress about those “inane” Buzzfeed quizzes you see all over the Internet. You know, the ones where you take a quiz and it reveals what type of super-hero or Star Wars character you are. I generally regard the quizzes as a total time suck that keep me away from what I should be doing, which is writing. But BKW makes a good point on how the quizzes could be useful by putting yourself in your character’s shoes. How would your character answer the quiz, and what would the quiz in turn reveal about your character? Neat idea.

OK, I’ve got to pay a couple of bills online now and then set my DVR to record the Red Sox season opener (to watch this evening when my brother gets home). Then I’ll start on my short story edit.

4:17 p.m.

Making good progress on editing my short, I think. Probably about halfway through. Story is coming along nicely, I think. I shouldn’t have any problem submitting it in advance of Hubbard’s midnight deadline. (Knock on wood).

I stopped for a short lunch break, started a load of laundry and the dishes, strolled to the mailbox and even took a 10-minute nap. Back at the keyboard again …

2:02 a.m.

Yeah, I’m still up. I’m a night owl. Stay up late, sleep a little later. It’s how I roll.

Anyway, I finished the edits to my short for the WOF contest and submitted it around 8 p.m. So, mission for today accomplished.

Am I happy with the story? Well, let’s put it this way…I like the idea of the story. It’s unique and it’s kind of a fun “what if” type of story.

Will it win or place? Honestly, who knows? Depends on the competition for the quarter. Depends on whether the judges believe I pulled off an effective story. I think I did, but we’ll see.

Short stories are tricky and I haven’t had much luck with them as yet. I feel like I’m learning from each new short I finish and submit, though, so that’s got to be a win right there. Time and perseverance, as they say, will tell.

I rounded out the day by watching the Red Sox lose their season opener to the O’s (Boo!), and by taking in a couple of my Monday evening shows (The Following and Intelligence.) The Black List and Bates Motel will have to wait ’til later tonight. Some time during the course of the afternoon and evening I even managed to do a first run-through on my taxes and my brother’s taxes.

So, what’s next on the writing block, you ask? I’m going to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo and kick my novel into high gear. I’ve been plotting and character-building  off and on for past five months, so ready or not I’m diving in. We’ll see where this story takes me and if I can manage a mad-dash month of writing without letting my finicky inner editor intervene.

Anyone else taking part in the novel-writing free for all this month?

 

An important tool of the writing trade…

Image

 

I spend a lot of time sitting on my ass.

It’s true. I’m a writer.

It’s important to have the right surroundings when writing, and that includes what you are sitting on. My new chair from Staples is just the thing for hours of creativity at the computer. I used to have just a plain armless task chair to sit in. And it was a real pain in the ass, let me tell you.

I wish I had more desk space for my notes. You can see from this picture that I’m something of a note-taker. I’ve got Post-Its on the computer, an old-fashioned notebook and pen, folders, etc., etc. But, hey, at least now I’ve got me a nice chair for my derriere. No more excuses about not sitting at my desk now.

It’s time to write.

Wild thoughts in the dead of night

Sometimes, thoughts just come to me. 

Doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m supposed to be doing. So, I keep notepads all over the house. There’s one by my easy chair in front of the TV. There’s one in my truck. I even have a waterproof notepad secured to the wall of my shower by suction cups (search “aqua notes” on Amazon).

I’m prepared for my wild, fleeting thoughts, if nothing else.

They are always welcome, these thoughts, but they do sometimes interrupt my sleep.

Last night, I turned in around 1:30 a.m., which is about typical for me. I generally sleep late, then stay up with the night owls reading or writing or whatever the case may be. Old habit, really, since I used to work the second shift putting the newspaper to bed. Plus, I just like to sleep in, so there.

But as soon as I turned out the light, I began to think about the novel I’ve been working on. At first it seemed like a reiteration of something I’d thought of earlier and I just shrugged it off, flipped my pillow, rolled over and tried to go to sleep. But then a second thought came into my head that I hadn’t thought about before, and I was up again in a flash. I turned on the light, seized the notebook and pen I keep handy by my bedside, and began furiously writing down both thoughts. I wound up writing about six pages.

Satisfied that the ideas wouldn’t slip away from me, I turned out the light and drifted happily back to sleep. 

And woke up again about thirty minutes later.

Another thought.

Another wild idea that I just had to write down, which I did. 

I never try to assess whether the thought is logical or will fit into what I’m working on. I just write it down so that I can look at it fresh in the morning. Even if it’s something I decide won’t fit in the novel, I hold onto it. My creative mind went to the trouble of waking me in the middle of the night with it, so I’m going to keep it. I may not use it in my current project, but it might come in handy later on. You just never know.

I’m now super tired this morning, but at least I can rest assured in the knowledge that I was being productive in my sleep.