Top 10 Writing Tips

These are good. Several are probably more applicable to fiction than nonfiction, but most apply to all kinds of writing. My favorites are 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9. And maybe 10. I’m not sure about the love or the fun part, but the wonder of words coming through my fingertips? Yeah, that’s a big one. Thanks to Charles French‘s words, reading, and writing blog for the lead.

Lynette Noni

A few months ago I was asked by the Gold Coast Bulletin to come up with a list of writing tips that they could publish in their newspaper. I really wanted to include those tips in a blog post back then too, but the Bulletin asked me to wait until they’d published them first, which is fair enough. I’d pretty much forgotten about it, but this week my wonderful publicist tracked down the link for the whole article that they wrote up on me back in May in the aftermath of Supanova, which means I can now share my tips with you all!

Top 10 Tips (Portrait) JPEG

Feel free to share the above tips if you find them helpful at all. And if you want to read the whole article (it’s an entire page, which is so cool!), you can do so by clicking on this link to find a screenshot JPEG of it here: 

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Enough Notebooks

My regular writing time is from 7 to 9 a.m. I’m one of those insufferable people who’s wide awake and functional as soon as my eyes are fully open, and I don’t need coffee to do it. (I drink strong black tea with milk, no sugar, but only when I’m awake.) This morning I was a little late getting started because I’m reading an excellent book: Dorothy West’s The Wedding. I knocked off 20 minutes early because my longhand drafts and notes for Wolfie, the novel in progress, no longer fit in their notebook, and my other two notebooks are otherwise occupied.

Clearly a visit to the Staples website was in order.

Now the strict constructionists among you will not allow that the purchase of writing-related supplies constitutes “writing” for the purpose of “writing time,” and you may be right. However, being a writer, I can rationalize anything, and the pages spilling out of my notebook were messing up my head.

Dear readers, I ordered.

The Staples website is not as sensibly organized as it might be, so it took more than 20 minutes to find everything, even though I knew what I was looking for.

Some of the current pen collection

Some of the current pen collection

I do nearly all my first-drafting and most of my note-taking in longhand. On paper. Cut, Copy, and Paste don’t work on paper, but I still need to move things around, insert new pages between old ones, and (ideally) find some dimly remembered bit when it needs to be found. In my world folders do best in file cabinets, not lying around on desks and tables. I wanted notebooks. Three-ring binders might have worked, but I write with fountain pens and real ink-bottle ink and most punched or punchable paper can’t handle it.

Well, it can, but the ink often comes through to the other side, which means I can’t write on both sides of the paper. I am frugal, I am cheap. This wouldn’t do.

So a few years ago I spotted an ingenious notebook system in the Levenger catalogue. The Levenger catalogue is high-class porn for writer types, but it’s on the pricey side. Being frugal and cheap, I wasn’t willing to shell out for a system I didn’t know would work for me.

Open notebook with pocket divider

Open notebook with pocket divider. No, I could not live without Post-it notes.

Then I  encountered something very similar at Staples, the Home Depot of office supplies. The price was reasonable enough to take a chance on. I splurged. The system, which Staples calls “ARC,” quickly became indispensable.

At left you can see what the notebooks look like. The binding comprises 11 plastic rings. The rings don’t open; the paper is punched with 11 holes, each one open so it can fit over the ring. Pages can be moved, singly or in chunks, from one place to another.

A custom 11-hole punch is available, so you can punch holes in any paper you like, but the paper that comes with the system is, wonder of wonders, sturdy enough for my fountain pens to write on both sides. And sturdy enough to be moved here and there several times.

So this morning I ordered three more notebooks — one with a leather cover (like the brown one in the photo) and two with polyvinyl (like the rose one) — and more dividers, some with pockets, some without.

Blank paper,” I wrote last fall, “is faith in the future.” Enough notebooks, perhaps, is faith that what’s been written will be worth retrieving. Either way, I can’t wait for my order to get here.

 

Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

Beyond the Written Word

Words flow through my fingers and onto the paper, onto the keyboard. I take them for granted, even when they’re lumpy or reluctant or stuck. They flow out of my mouth as reliably as tap water (I’m lucky that way). Sometimes I sing them. I’m not a real singer, but I sing regularly, in a pick-up group — all comers welcome — that gets together monthly to sing and also in the Spirituals Choir. The choir is part of the U.S. Slave Song Project. We sing the folk songs sung by African slaves in America between 1619 and 1865.

For more than a decade, between the mid-1980s and the very late 1990s, I was very involved in local theater, first as a reviewer for one of the local papers, then mainly as a stage manager and actor. I even wrote several one-act plays.

Mostly these days, though, my creative life is words on paper and words on screen, writing them and editing them.

A couple of weeks ago, Roberta Kirn, the leader of the pick-up group I sing with and also a dancer, drummer, and teacher, sent round an email to all the singers, drummers, and musically inclined people on her list. An upcoming production at The Yard was looking for singers to form a sort of flash mob in the audience during the performance. Contact information was provided.

Of course I was tempted — but I’m not a real singer: was I a good enough singer to do this, whatever it was? And The Yard is a summer dance colony in the next town over. Of all the creative arts, dance is the one I have the least affinity for. Dance is a language I don’t speak. It’s spoken mostly by skinny people who can contort their bodies in impossible ways. I’m not skinny now, and for a couple of decades I was downright fat. My contortions are all mental. I do them with words.

Poster for "The Queue" at The Yard

Poster for “The Queue” at The Yard

Still, it sounded fun, and a little risky, and an excuse to get out of my head. I signed up. I had to miss the rehearsal; the director said come anyway. Our song was a three-part arrangement of the chorus of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Before Friday night’s performance, we did a run-through with the cast of The Queuedeveloped and performed by the Lucky Plush dance theater company from Chicago. The company began the song onstage, then the half dozen or so of us singers joined in from our scattered seats in the audience. I managed to pick up my note, hold my part, and remember the song even with no one around me to lean on — always a worry of mine.

The big reward was getting to see The Queue twice through. It’s set in an airport. At the beginning, apart from a gay couple setting out on their honeymoon, the seven players don’t know each other. Gradually connections develop and emerge among them. The piece is theater as well as dance. I do speak theater, and I totally forgot that I don’t speak dance. In theater, how the actors use space and their own bodies can be at least as important as what they do with their voices and the words of the script. The Queue draws on slapstick, vaudeville, and the great choral production numbers of yesteryear, among other things, and since the players are trained dancers who can do astonishing things with their bodies, I forgot that dance, music, and theater are supposed to be separate arts involving separate skills.

Well, OK, I already knew that. Thanks to my theater experience, writing often feels like directing or stage-managing to me. My characters are my actors. I watch them, coach them, and sometimes become them. Singing probably makes me even more attentive to sounds, rhythm, and silences than I would be otherwise. But lately I’ve been so exclusively engaged with the written word it’s like I’ve had blinkers on. Or as if I’ve been riding on an escalator focused entirely on the straight-ahead, screening out all the distractions to left and right.

And dance. I was totally ignoring dance. It’s not just for skinny people, and it’s not just a foreign language spoken in places I’ll never visit. I was just part of a dance production, even if all I did was stand up and sing.

Writers are scavengers. We’re the ultimate recyclers and repurposers. Our minds may seem crammed to capacity, but they aren’t. There’s always room for more.

Divide and Conquer (Your Prose)

This focuses specifically on blogging, but the message applies to all kinds of writing, fiction and nonfiction. In my novel in progress, the sections are scenes. Each has a beginning, middle, and end. Each links what precedes to what follows. Check out the two examples cited. They’re good.

The Daily Post

Reading, like breathing, is a continuous process that’s made up of numerous discrete acts. (If you’re like me, the same is true of eating gummy bears.) Whatever style we write in — from the most traditional to the more experimental — our job as writers is to make the experience so smooth for our readers that they don’t even notice the little seams that hold it all together.

We do this in ways both big and small. We make sure our grammar doesn’t call attention to itself (unless we want it to, like in some forms of poetry). We keep our posts clean, and their format easy on our readers’ eyes. We embrace the screen’s white space.

Dividing your text into smaller units is another way to make the reading flow and engage and push your audience onward. I’m not talking about breaking down walls of text into paragraphs — unless you’re James Joyce you’re hopefully doing this…

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Why Structure Matters

This is a review I just wrote of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Even if you have zero interest in Martha’s Vineyard or basketball, the comments on structural editing might be useful, especially to nonfiction writers. Moral of story: Your research may be impeccable and your sentences reasonably well crafted, but if your book isn’t sensibly organized your readers are going to have a hard time getting through it.

From the Seasonally Occupied Territories . . .

Slightly adapted from the review I just posted on Goodreads . . .

MV Basketball coverNo, I’m not a sports fan, but my fascination with the Vineyard and anything related to race and class is insatiable, so I had such hopes for this book. Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It doesn’t look like what one reads about in textbooks or sees in urban areas. Here, as elsewhere in the U.S., we bend over backwards to avoid seeing it. It’s complicated by the distinction between the year-round population and the “summer people”; by the ethnic groups with deep roots here (especially Wampanoag, Anglo, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean); and by the long history of African Americans on the island.

What a great idea, I thought: to explore “notions of race and class” by focusing on basketball, specifically the summer basketball program that started in 1970. Basketball does bring together people from…

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