Taking notes

When I write a novel, I lean on notes. This post is a description of how I use them. Maybe you’ll find something helpful here or a method you want to stay away from. Or maybe you already do just as I do.

At the start of a writing session (on my computer), I always open both my manuscript and my notes, and I toggle back and forth. If the story is going well, I don’t write many notes, but if it’s not, writing them is proof that I’m still writing and not just goofing off, even though my story isn’t advancing.

If I’ve written an awkward sentence in the manuscript, I copy it into notes, rewrite it, copy it in notes again and again, so I don’t lose a version, till I’m satisfied or till I decide the original wasn’t bad after all or till I think I just have to live with what I’ve got.

To come up with a character name or a place name, I list possibilities from a baby naming book or an atlas or my own arcane sources, then arrange and rearrange the list, narrowing my choices.

In the mystery I’m writing now, Elody, my heroine, is an aspiring actress who’s been given the chance to perform at a feast. Thespians in the kingdom of Lepai draw on fairy tales and Greek myths for their plays. When Elody wasn’t sure what to perform, I listed options for her. After consulting my mythology book and a few books of fairy tales, I found a fairy tale that had parallels with the main story I was telling, which gave Elody the chance to paraphrase Hamlet and speculate that her performance might “catch the conscience” of the villain. That was fun, but I never would have gotten it without notes.

A minstrel sings before Elody’s turn comes. I didn’t write a complete song for her, but I made up the refrain. Here are my notes for the refrain, to give you an idea. Out of the notes I pulled what I needed:

Be he huge
Be he fierce as a beast
be he three trees tall
be he broad as a bushel of barrels
be his teeth as sharp as daggers
his eyes as piercing as pikes
his head as hard as iron
his fists as
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

Be the giant
three trees tall
and three trees wide
with teeth as sharp as daggers
eyes as piercing as pikes
head as hard as iron
fists like battering rams
falling as fast as hailstones
May he roar and rampage
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

face as terrible as
face as ugly as entrails
face as frightening as
volcano
avalanche
rock slide/frightful
death
disease/dreadful

I’ve let you see the repetitions because that’s the process. It’s messy.

When I’m far along in a novel, I often get confused, so then I list plot threads in notes to remind myself of everything I’m juggling. Sometimes I list future events as far ahead as I can see. This is like outlining, except that my future events never cover the whole span of a story.

If a plot idea knocks on my brain and the story isn’t ready for it yet, I put it in my notes and highlight it with the yellow highlighter on my toolbar, so I can find it again. Occasionally, I copy the highlighted bits into a separate document, to avoid hunting through 135 single-spaced pages – really! – of notes to locate them.

At those happy moments when I’ve figured something out or done a nice piece of writing I celebrate – in my notes. When I’m bummed and convinced I’ll never finish my story, I complain and moan and carry on. Sometimes I use bad words. If my books were people, notes would be their journals.

A novel that doesn’t give me much trouble won’t have 135 pages of notes, but I doubt I’ve ever gotten away with fewer than fifty. When the notes are longer than the book, the book was a miserable, horrible, uncooperative monster, like Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and the third Disney fairy book, which even now doesn’t have a settled title, although I finished writing months ago.

Notes, however, are never miserable monsters. They are freedom. In the manuscript itself go the shaped sentences, the chosen words, the paced chapters. In notes go the incomplete thoughts, the lousy ideas and the good ones – the eggshells of writing. A finished book is a cake with chocolate or blue or whatever-you-like icing and the title written on top in perfect handwriting. Notes are the messy kitchen where the cake was baked. No cake without the kitchen, and I – or you – never have to clean up afterward. Hooray for notes!

I Spy

10:30 am, commuter train to New York City: Before sitting next to me, a stranger set his briefcase down on the seat so that it flopped partway onto my lap. He didn’t move it until I looked at him balefully. Then he apologized and repositioned it. Once seated, he sipped from a styrofoam cup of coffee or chai latte or whatever, then placed the cup on the floor, continuing to reach down occasionally and sip again. I’m keeping an eye on the cup. My nice cloth backpack, also on the floor, will stink forever if the cup topples and the whatever spills.

By the way, I’m typing these words with this stranger inches away, and I have no fear that he will look. Only we writers are nosy enough to care what our train neighbors do.

He just pulled his Wall Street Journal out of its plastic sheath and stuffed the plastic wrap behind him into the crack between the seat bottom and the seat back. I am almost certainly getting off the train before he does, so I won’t see if he removes the plastic when he stands up, but I am willing to bet he won’t. Ditto for the styrofoam cup. Maybe I’ll find them on my return trip. Or maybe before I leave I’ll be crazy enough to tell him to take his trash with him.

A few other details, because I don’t want you mis-imagining: gray suit, pale blue-and-white striped shirt, blue-patterned tie, shiny black shoes, gray hair cut short, probably in his fifties, tall, fit. When he was speaking on his blackberry a minute ago, very terse, soft-spoken, thank heaven.

Later, back home, in my office, hour irrelevant: I did get off the train before the stranger, and I issued no warnings. But there was a morning when I scolded someone. It’s a little embarrassing.

My routine when I take the train is to meditate and then to write, but often I fall asleep – especially delicious, the sleep that follows meditation. I was snoozing happily one day, when two men approached my seat. Through my fog, I heard them discussing, loudly, where to sit. (The train wasn’t crowded.) They decided to put themselves across the aisle from each other so that, they said, their legs wouldn’t be cramped. One sat next to me, I suppose because I’m too small to cramp anybody’s anything. For a few minutes the two exchanged loud pleasantries then lapsed into silence, which did me no good since I was wide awake.

I was absurdly angry but too cowardly to want an extended argument, so I waited till my stop came to tell the man next to me that he’d been rude and explain why. His response was that I should do my sleeping in bed at night. No remorse. No apology. And maybe he was right.

The point, of course, is character development. I could invent the lives of these three men. I could put them together and see how they rub against one another. (They just happened to be men, no special significance.)

While walking through New York City today I saw a man (male again) in a business suit and a cotton billed cap. What was up with a suit and a cap? I can speculate: Maybe he has 365 hats, all in different styles, and wears a fresh one every day. He throws each one away at night because by now it’s (ta da) old hat.

But if he’d sat next to me on the train I would have had more fodder for my guessing. People in close quarters tend to reveal themselves. On the train they talk on cell phones, ease out of shoes that pinch, play solitaire on their computers, leaf through magazines or read serious novels, and occasionally start an actual conversation.

So you might try cramming your characters together – in an elevator, a closet, a bank vault – and seeing how they react. You don’t have to work this into your story; you can do it on the side. A character who’s been holding out on you might reveal her inner nature if she’s trapped with three strangers in the back of a truck.

In my train anecdotes I was a character too. Coffee-or-tea man this morning could have been deducing about me too. What would he have learned (without reading from my laptop)? He could have seen without reading that I was writing prose, not making entries onto a spreadsheet, that I wore jeans rather than business attire, even that I think ahead, because I took out my subway Metrocard before leaving the train.

Watch yourself from the outside for a day. Spy on yourself just as you may spy on other people. What are your characteristic behaviors? Our own personality leaks into our fictional characters no matter what we do, but this time make it conscious. Deliberately give a character a characteristic that belongs to you. Put her into a confined place and use that characteristic to get her into trouble.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Writer Revealed

Here’s a confession: I’ve been writing poetry on the sly, not just poetry, but poetry for grownups, emotional poetry, with little held back. Some poems are lighthearted, some intellectual, but most follow my obsessions: aging, death, fairytales, family history, and my mother. You would make discoveries about me if you read these poems, although not so much that you could be blindfolded and pick me out at a party!

This is a cheerful-ish poem. Kids can read it too, maybe best at Halloween. Truncated means shortened, like a skull’s nose is. Lurid means gruesome. If you don’t know what gruesome means, look it up. You’ll be glad you did.

Invitation

I bought a wooden skull in Mexico City, big
as my own skull, weighs over a pound and a half.
I have no clue what my own brainless skull will weigh.
This skull’s home, where it doesn’t live (ha, ha, yuk, yuk),
is my bookcase. I could hang it from the ceiling,
but it’s better recessed. Its eye and ear sockets
are bright red inside, red up its truncated nose,
red outlining the mouth and each widely spaced tooth
(ten of them), pink blush on its cheekbones and blush
on its scalp where a Mohawk would be, a black line
across the eye ridge and circling the ear sockets,
flirty eyelashes, squiggles drooling down the chin,
stippled stubble under the cheekbones. The jaw, once
articulated, is stuck, but I can chatter
the teeth. If you can’t picture it, I can say it’s
lurid but likable. I named it Death, Mister
Death or Missus Death, hard to tell which, its gleeful,
gap-toothy grin alive while it croons, Come to me.

End of poem. You’ve learned about something in my office. The skull makes me happy. It’s the funny side of death

Fiction reveals the author too, although not in such a direct way as my poems do. I used to read a lot of science fiction. One of my favorites was Robert Heinlein. Looking back, I’m aware of themes in his books, of government, an individual’s relation to society and authority, and group cohesion. I wonder if his friends could detect these interests without reading his novels and short stories.

In some of his books, Frank Herbert was into group-think and hive mentality, which he portrayed in a gossamer style that fascinated me. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov seems Herbert’s opposite: logic over emotion, disciplined plotting, full of surprises, but no confusion.

The books of all three are worth sampling. Heinlein wrote for children as well as for adults. If you’re under thirteen, I’d say, stick to his children’s books. In my recollection, Herbert and Asimov are fine for kids ten and up, but check with a parent or a librarian to be sure.

These writers are dead. However, if we could know them, live with them for a while as a guest, we might nod and say Ah ha! I get it. If we could watch each of the three of them brushing his teeth on You Tube, we might see confirmation of what we find in their books. Would Asimov be systematic (front side of the upper teeth first every time, back of the upper teeth next) and fast (he was an astonishingly prolific writer)? I imagine Heinlein talking with toothpaste in his mouth, and his brush is a contraption he invented. Herbert brushes with his entire household. If I were living there, the bathroom counter would be long. I would line up with Herbert, his wife, and two sons. After a few strokes, we would automatically and unconsciously be up-and-downing in unison.

What can you learn about yourself from your stories? Well, are you a conscious writer? Do you figure out in advance what your theme, perhaps your moral, will be and then work your story around it? Even if you do, what creeps in and infuses the ideas without your knowledge?

Do you write about a character who wants something that is hard to get and shape your story out of your character’s approach to obstacles? What kind of main character appeals to you? What kind of obstacles?

Are you pulled into a story idea, first and foremost, as I am? How do you play with the idea? What kind of characters do you build to fill the roles your story calls for?

I’m convinced that no matter how we writers approach writing stories, our deepest feelings get into the act. We can’t avoid lowering a net, often without meaning to, deep into the quiet lake of our – whatever – mind, spirit, subconscious, soul, emotions. Strange fish swim into our stories, stir the plot with their swishing tails, light the water scape with their incandescent scales, and let us enter behind their strange eyes, where we see colors not visible to merely human vision.

I don’t know what I’ve really been writing about until after I’ve finished a book, which serves the book well. If I understand what’s going on, I’m likely to shape events to follow the underlying thread, and then predictability results. Usually my books are about problems I haven’t been able to resolve (like obedience). Writing the book doesn’t fix anything. I’m still too obedient, but now I’m more aware.

Of course, the meaning I discover eventually is often entirely different from the meaning my readers come up with.

This isn’t a writing prompt; it’s a return-to-the-scene-of the-crime prompt. Reread a few of your stories, or just think them over. Consider what meaning they have for you, what you may be telling yourself. Ask friends to say what they derive from your stories. An unacceptable answer is that you write well or don’t write well. You want to know how the story added to their understanding of you and of themselves. This is hard, so don’t push if they come up with nothing, and don’t conclude that your stories have no depth, just keep the question in your mind. Ask other people. If your curiosity grows, make a pest of yourself. When you write your next story, after it’s finished and you’ve been away from it for a month or so, go back to it and ask yourself the same question. Have fun!

Getting funny

My happiest writing moments are when I’m writing something funny. I’m happy reading, too, when what I’m reading is funny, although maybe not happiest. I adore a good book in all its aspects.

Writing funny means keeping an eye out for opportunities. We writers make our characters miserable, and one of misery’s faces is humor. After our mother died, my sister and I flew to Florida to sell Mom’s condominium. We rented a car, and I backed into a police car. That was pretty funny.

So was the time I smashed up a coworker’s brand-new car in the office parking lot on my first day on the job. (And confessed, naturally.)

One of my earliest dates, when I was about fifteen, was with a boy who stood about six foot three. I’ve never made it to five feet. We went to a museum, and afterward, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he held my hand, which I had to reach up to grasp. For blocks, people pointed and laughed. I didn’t laugh along, but we were funny.

When I was even younger I loved the verse about Ooey Gooey. I used to repeat it to myself over and over with a mixture of horror and delight. For those of you who missed the sad saga, it’s this:

Ooey Gooey was a worm,
a mighty worm was he.
Crawled out on the railroad track,
the train he did not see.
Ooey gooey!

Death at its silliest.

Mark Twain said, Humor is tragedy plus time. I agree, although I wouldn’t agree that all humor is tragedy based. Some humor is clever and some is goofy without a hint of darkness, and there may be more ways to be both comical and sunny that I can’t think of right now. But to stay on the tragic side, I’d suggest two additional equations. One is, Humor is tragedy plus willingness. In an awful situation, if we’re open to laughter, it will leap out – and provide lovely relief. My friend Joan, who had a brain injury, sometimes thinks it’s funny that she can’t remember what she ate for breakfast. She’s not horrified, she’s amused.

The second equation, a geometrical one, is, Humor is tragedy turned on its side. Take “Hansel and Gretel,” one of the least funny fairytales out there, although there’s a lot of competition. For anyone who doesn’t know the tale, Hansel and Gretel’s parents want to leave their children in the woods and let them starve to death. There’s nothing lighthearted about that.

Or is there?

Suppose Mrs. Hansel-and-Gretel says to Mr. H&G, “If we move the children out of their room in the cellar and into the forest, we’ll have more space for our colony of giant slugs.” And Mr. H&G says, “Superb idea, dear, and I can conduct my colorful mold experiments down there, too.”

The pain of being unwanted flips over. Being left behind by Mr. and Mrs. H&G is probably a step up in the world.

It can get funnier if Hansel and Gretel know what their parents are up to. Suppose the first day they case the gingerbread house without nibbling. Suppose they follow the stones home only because Hansel left his stuffed rat behind.

Then, of course, the bumbling witch will be lots of fun. And the ending even more so, with Hansel and Gretel deciding to stay in the gingerbread house. Gretel says, “We won’t make the same mistakes as the witch.” Hansel replies, “How many children do you think we’ll catch today?”

Gross, maybe, but I think it’s funny, and of course humor is personal – in case you’ve soaked seven hankies reading this.

Sometimes it’s a stretch. Back to auto mishaps. I once walked away from a car accident that could have been very bad. Luckily the span of highway I was on was empty at that moment. I was unhurt, and no one else was involved. How to make that into comedy? The only thing that comes to mind is to personalize the road and the guardrail. If the road is ticklish and the guardrail grumpy, possibilities start to emerge.

So here’s a prompt: Make a tragedy or a misery funny. Try “The Little Mermaid” (not the movie version) or King Lear. Or delve into history, which abounds with misery. Rewrite the destruction of Pompeii or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which is in my distant family history. Have fun, and save what you write.

Mystery mystery

In my first post I mentioned that I’m working on a book. I’m maybe halfway through, pagewise. It’s a mystery. I’ve never written a mystery before, and I’m confused about everything (often my state in the middle of a book). Although I’m almost certain what the crime is, I’m not sure who committed it, and I have no idea how my main character is going to solve it. When I’ve introduced new characters, I’ve been misleading about who is good and who is evil, and I’ve misled myself as well!

My only certainty is that writing is magical and if I muddle along, tossing in this and that, the pieces will settle into place, little by little. I imagine myself in the ocean, bobbing along in a bathtub-style boat. I have no engine, no sail, just pitifully small oars. There will be storms and close calls, but eventually rowing and the current will lap me to the shore of the island called The End.

So my confusion isn’t the subject of this blog. The subject is how to keep the reader reading when the main character, the sleuth, isn’t at the heart of the action.

I asked my friend, young-adult author Suzanne Fisher Staples how she did it in her mystery Dangerous Skies. The narrator, Buck, is the best friend of the accused, Tunes. Suzanne says she opened with an idyllic scene, Buck and Tunes fishing together on what “felt like the first day of the first spring ever.” Buck is so happy at the beginning that, when trouble starts, we know exactly how much he has to lose. His precious, precarious friendship is enough to carry the reader through the book.

Alas I can’t ask the authors of the other mysteries I’ve loved, so I’ve been speculating. Some people enjoy mysteries for the puzzles. These devotees track clues and try to solve the crime before all is revealed. Not me. Amateur sleuthing isn’t why I read whodunits. So I can’t write that kind of mystery. Luckily, the genre is broad.

Lately I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. My favorites are the ones that feature the City Watch, which are mysteries. (Note to kids: check with your librarian. The series seems fine to me for kids ten and up, up, up.)

Discworld plotting is complicated. Scenes switch frequently. We’re with one character for a few pages, then with another. I can never figure anything out, so I’m along for the ride, which bumps along. Terry Pratchett stops for asides. And footnotes. Ordinarily this would annoy me, but he’s so funny I don’t mind. The laughs and Pratchett’s wild imagination keep me reading. In every book I go green with envy, wishing I had thought of this idea or that one. I don’t much care what happens, as long as no beloved characters die.

Dr. Watson, the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, is rarely in danger, and yet the books are page-turners. Watson represents the reader. We trust his emotions, and we like being in his company. What he feels, we feel. Sherlock Holmes, the detective, is spellbinding, a magician, the best kind: drama mixed with misdirection, and who can look away from that?

Sometimes I stick with a mystery because I’m getting an education. The Tony Hillerman series is about Navajo culture. Jonathan Gash (definitely adult) writes about antiques. Dick Francis writes about horseracing. The plots may be slow, the characters not so lovable, but I’m in and I stay in because what I’m learning is so interesting.

I’ve read every one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series. In these books, the charm and the beautiful prose win me over. The detective, Nero Wolfe, is almost never in danger, because he almost never leaves his apartment. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, who narrates, is hardly ever endangered either. I don’t mind. I adore the way Archie teases Wolfe and how Wolfe needles back. The details of their life tickle me: the orchids, the meals, the cases that Wolfe has to be bullied into taking. Delicious.

So there are many possibilities: Suspense – we can make the reader worry about the sleuth, even if her danger is different from the victim’s. A puzzle – for writers who aren’t me. Humor – nobody stops reading if he’s laughing his head off. Drama and sleight of hand. Fascinating facts. Fine writing.

I don’t know how much of this I’ll get in my first or second draft. I already plan to step up the humor on that happy day when I finish and start over. However it goes, though, I’m having fun (sometimes), and I’m saving what I write.

The whited sepulcher

Thanks, many, many thanks, to everyone who posted to my first blog or emailed me about it, and thanks for putting the word out. I feel supported and encouraged and not as if I’d flung words into outer space.

Usually I wake up in the morning muzzy-headed, but a few weeks ago I opened my eyes, thinking, What does whited sepulcher mean? Can’t say where the question came from, but I loved the combination of these gloomy and atmospheric words. Anyway, I looked the expression up. A sepulcher is a tomb, and whited means whitewashed. A whited sepulcher presents himself or herself to the world as good, but when you scratch the surface, evil oozes out. An apparent saint, an actual stinker.

Since that morning the phrase has stayed with me, and I keep poking at it, like a loose tooth. During my years (twenty-seven!) working for New York State government, I had two bosses who were terrible people, worse than inept; they didn’t mean well. Everyone who worked for them knew it, so they weren’t as much whited as grayed. But when I was in college and for a few years after, one of my professors really fit the bill, at least to his adoring followers – and I was one. He was smart, interesting, and expert at sniffing insecurity. He ruined lives. I don’t know what would have happened to me, if my husband hadn’t clung to my pinkie toe and pulled me free before I was sucked into the vortex.

There’s enormous power in the whited sepulcher. In fiction, we can draw close to that power without being scarred. I haven’t written anything about a whited sepulcher yet, but I’d like to. When I teach my summer writing workshop for kids at the Brewster, New York, public library, I’m going to start with a whited sepulcher exercise.

The prompt will be to describe the villain, inside and out. Where does she live? Is her home rent free because the landlord is in her thrall? What things does she surround herself with? What does she wear? What’s in her pockets or purse or backpack? How does she smell? What’s her voice quality? Does she have any virtues? Does she think the same way the rest of us do, or is even her thought process different? For fantasy writers, is she human or some other kind of creature, an evil fairy queen maybe? For horror writers, is she the family labradoodle? Does the whited sepulcher have to be an individual, or might it be an organization – a business or a charity, for example?

The second prompt will be to invent the ideal victim for the whited sepulcher, the prey she’s always seeking, the human key that unlocks her wickedness. Describe the victim as thoroughly as you described the villain. Then tell what about him makes him vulnerable? What signals does he give out? Does he have inner resources that eventually will protect him and maybe even expose the whited sepulcher? Or is he doomed?

The last step, naturally, is to put the two characters together in a story. When you do, the most important decision may be point of view. Will the story’s voice belong to the whited sepulcher or to her mark? Or might it alternate, or belong to an outsider? With whom will the reader sympathize? I wonder what the circumstances are of their meeting. In the course of your tale, be sure to show how the whited sepulcher spins her web, and show the moment, if it comes, when the victim realizes he’s being drawn in.

But whatever you do, have fun, and save what you write.

Writerly Thoughts

This is my first blog ever, and fear of the blank blog is as bad as fear of the blank page. For my blogging life, I intend to post once a week, and I will probably blog mostly about writing, but I don’t know that for sure. I’ll see how it shapes up. If you are reading this, I would welcome a post to tell me what you’re interested in reading from me.

Right now and for a long time to come, I’m working on a new book and having to introduce new characters and thinking in particular about describing them physically. If I try to do this only from my imagination, the result isn’t very interesting. I think about size of features, eye color, hair color. It’s like thinking about houses. If I picture houses mentally, I think, wood or brick or stone or artificial siding, tin roof or shingle, ranch or colonial. But if I drive around and look at houses, I have much more information.

Same with people. Looking at them helps. But I don’t like to stare. So I look at photographs and portrait art. For example, when I wrote The Wish, I wanted the main male character not to be either classically handsome or hideous. I went to my high school yearbook (from yikes! 1964) and paged through it, as I am doing right this minute. And there is so much to say. You – and I – may not want to go into this much detail, but the shape of every upper lip is different, and the space between lip and nose is different. In some faces the width or narrowness of the chin determines the curve of the lips. In other faces, lip shape and chin shape have nothing to do with each other. When I did this for The Wish, I found a boy whose eyebrows met over his nose, forming a unibrow. Now, I went to a huge New York City high school, and I didn’t know this boy or how his eyebrow may have ruined his childhood or not affected it at all. I lifted it off his face and gave it to Jared, and that unibrow helped pull the plot along.

For the new book, I looked at drawings by early sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Durer, and found a profile view of a youngish man with a plump face, uplifted eyebrows under small mounds of flesh, as if he might sprout horns, a flat nose with two bumps, small lips, several descending chins, the topmost of which stuck out almost as far as the tip of his nose. I couldn’t possibly have made him up out of my imagination.

Of course, when you’re looking for physical description, you probably want a face and a body to go with the character. This Durer guy doesn’t have a face I’d give to a poet. It’s a shrewd face. I bet he can add a long string of dollars and cents in his mind. I bet he can size up a person in a second. He could be a merchant or a shady character who lives by his wits.

If you’d like to use this post as a writing exercise, look at photographs and portraits – but not of models and movie stars, no strictly gorgeous people. Find one that interests you. Describe the character that might belong to the body – or go against type and describe a personality that seems accidentally planted there. Write a story about him or her. As I say in my book, Writing Magic, have fun, and save what you write.