I’ve been really happy to see that other people use character pictures and mood music to help them write. Writing is serious hard work and you need the right tools for the job. But here’s something that I wonder if I’m the only person out there that does it.
I write notes.
I mean, a lot of notes.
Writing notes is something that came out of a silly high school writing class years and years ago. The point of that exercise was to free-write to come up with ideas. You put your pen on the paper and when the teacher said go you had to write constantly, without stopping, for two or three or five minutes, depending on the length of the exercise. If you got stuck or ran out of things to say you were supposed to write whatever came into your head, whether that was song lyrics or your name or one word over and over.
I never had any problem filling my page with relevant material. I was the kind of person who would come up with eleven other story ideas while trying to write about one. I still do that, unfortunately. It makes concentration really difficult sometimes.
Nowadays I use note-writing as a sort of compass. I’m not sure if I can explain this effectively to non-writers, but my brain thinks from a different place when I’m writing, either by hand or typing. It’s not the same place I speak or just randomly think from. I have always felt like that part of me that pours directly onto the paper knows more than my conscious mind or my mouth does. And believe you me, this was one really useful skill to have in college and grad school while taking essay tests! I would routinely write down things I didn’t even know that I knew. I always aced essay exams.
But I digress.
These days I use notes for two purposes. The first is to record the myriad story ideas that pop into my head on a daily basis. Whenever they come I’ll whip out one of my numerous and ever-present pads of lined paper and write down as much of the idea or synopsis or character sketches as I have. It’s a great way to not forget things.
More importantly though, I use notes to work through blocks and to set my stories in order.
More often than not I’ll start like this….
“So in the last chapter the hero realized that he was in love with the heroine and panicked. He jumped on his horse and galloped ten miles away into the forest to hide. But he forgot that the heroine’s grandmother lived in the forest and when he dismounted, finally thinking he was safe, she was waiting right there with a scarf she’d knit for him. In this chapter I’m about to write the heroine will be really annoyed that the hero is smothering her and will try to sneak out on him while he’s crying to his horse about something. The heroine doesn’t realize that the hero wants space as much as she does. The hero thinks that the heroine is like every other girl he knows who has to be around their hero 24-7”
Well, that’s an infinitely shorter version of what I do, but it gets the point across. I always start with a summary of what I’ve just written. Think of it as “Last time, on Work in Progress”. It’s always a good idea for me to remind myself where I’ve been. It helps me to recapture the mood of what I’m writing and to bring up anything important that I want to carry through to the next bit. Sometimes I also remember points that I was going to talk about but had forgotten.
The next thing I do is to tell the story of what is about to happen. If I know what that is. I write about the actions that will immediately take place. This is where the writing exercise from high school comes in handy. I write and keep writing, even if I’m not sure. Sometimes I’ll write sentences that start with “Maybe she’ll do a, b, c. Or maybe she would do x, y, z instead.” This isn’t the story itself, this is just thinking about the story. It can and usually does change at some point.
Perhaps most importantly for me, I write about what the characters are thinking and feeling and how their backstory effects the immediate action. This helps me get a strong handle on who these people are, what makes them tick, and how they would approach any given situation. Most of the stuff I write in this section never makes it to the story itself. Sometimes I come up with incredibly specific things that I would never, EVER include in the story.
For example, in my current work in progress I realized that the hero actually slept with one of the women who becomes a friend of the heroine, but it happened six years before the heroine ever showed up in town. This friend knows far more about the hero than she’ll ever let on, because she’s a good woman. She also knows the hero’s secret, but she would never tell. Why is it important to know this? It informs what kind of a man the hero is and how the tragedy in his past lead him to do something impulsive that he feels uncomfortable with. Because in the present day of my story the hero once again has done something impulsive that he’s uncomfortable with. So this story-creating action isn’t out of the blue for him. He has a history of making impulsive decisions.
Voila! Backstory! But it will never be spoken of in the work itself. Having my characters tell me about this aspect of themselves while I wrote notes did, however, help me to understand how to write the actions that take place during the story.
The long and the short of it is that I feel like I can think my way out of certain writing corners when I scribble notes freestyle. And when I take a pen to paper and riff about my characters and the plot I feel like I bring more life to them than if I just let them exist within the boundaries of the part of their lives that the reader will see.
I’d be really curious to know if anyone else does this. Or if you don’t, give it a try and let me know how it feels.