Losing your Writing

There’s nothing worse than losing a good idea because you forgot to write it down – except maybe writing it down then losing the notebook you wrote it in…

IMG_0492I keep notebooks. I make notes, write down observations, record snippets of conversations, jot ideas and make lists. I have spiral bounds notebooks, composition books with marble covers, legal pads, and notebooks small enough to fit in my purse.  Once I fill a notebook or finish with it I keep it. But I have a terrible habit of writing things down and then forgetting which notebook I wrote them in.

I can’t be the only one who has done this.

I am now kicking myself because I have written something (potentially) brilliant and can’t find the notebook it is written in.

I came across this particular piece earlier this summer while I was cleaning out my filing cabinet, penned in an old notebook. I remember writing it, sitting in class and ignoring the lesson entirely, instead filling eight or ten pages reflecting on the most awkward and hellish years of my life – middle school. While the writing itself isn’t my greatest, it was written with such honesty and clarity I could remember the night before that first day of school like it was yesterday.

I thought I’d like to reread it, perhaps rework it into some sort of personal essay, not necessarily for public consumption, but for my own enjoyment.

And now that I can’t find that notebook anywhere, I’m afraid I have lost it, that I perhaps threw it away in my cleaning frenzy.

But how could I have done such a thing? As a rule, I never throw my writing away, no matter how terrible it may seem. Anything we’ve written represents what we were feeling at that moment. I still have stories I write longhand in elementary school, but lost an entire novel-length story I wrote in high school that I had saved on a 3.5 inch floppy disk (yeah, remember those?)

What is a writer to do when she has lost a piece of writing?

The obvious advice here is to BACKUP YOUR WORK. With great tools like Dropbox I can save my work to the Cloud and access it just about anywhere. But that doesn’t help me keep track of my random scribbles on scraps of paper.

Have you ever lost your writing?

What to do When you’re “In-Between” Writing Projects

We’ve all heard the phrase, someone who says they are “in-between” jobs. But what about writers who are “in-between” writing projects?

I just finished a short story I’ve been working on for a few months. For the new couple of weeks, I’ll be taking a break from that story, while my long-time friend reads it for me. Once she gives me her feedback, I’ll be able to rewrite/revise the story with fresh eyes.

That means, for now, I’m not writing anything.

It’s good to step back from a piece after you’ve been working on it for a while. But without a current work-in-progress, I’m a little unsure of the next step.

I certainly have a few options:

A Writing Hiatus
The first option is to take a break from writing altogether and maintain my current status of “Not Writing Anything.”  I could make more time in my day for reading. Breaking Bad is on TV again, I can certainly fill some time with that. While a short break from writing might be nice, I know that not writing usually does more harm than good. It’s better to keep writing, than to stop and try to get back into the routine.

Something Old
We all have unfinished writing projects – some of us have many stories waiting to be revisited. I’ve been toying with the idea of blowing the dust off the old novel. I’ve grown so much as a writer since I first began writing it, I know that a rewrite will make it even better, but the idea of reworking my novel is so daunting I’ve been putting it off!

In the few months my novel has been sitting dormant, I’ve penned a few short stories – some that were just for fun (or, as I like to think of it, practice) that I won’t necessarily continue to work on, and others that I will. Should I put these shorter works on the back burner and bring my novel back to the forefront, or focus on the shorter pieces?

Something New
Another option is to start a brand new project. I could start off fresh, open a brand new word document and start typing. This might be a good time to pursue those ideas that have been lurking in the back of my mind for a while that I haven’t yet tried to put onto paper.

Free Write
Natalie Goldberg says, “You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” Maybe the best idea is to simply write without any end result in mind. I could simply find a clean page in my notebook and see where it takes me.

I have options, I’m not sure which one to take!

What do you do when you don’t have a work-in-progress? Do you take time off from writing or start a new project?

For the Love of Reading

I’m a book worm. An avid reader. A book-a-holic.

Whatever you want to call me, I love to read.

I have loved to read since I was a kid and if it weren’t for my love of reading, I don’t think I would have discovered my passion for writing. The two go hand-in-hand, after all. As writers, we can appreciate the qualities that make reading so rewarding – we want to emulate those things in our own writing, we want to create good reading.

I’m not exactly sure when my reverence for reading began. I think it may have been in the third grade. I vividly recall our teacher reading to us, The BFG by Roald Dahl. It was even more enjoyable because he read the dialogue of the giants in funny voices – it was pure, engrossing entertainment.

It was around that time in my life I began to invent wild stories about grand adventures, keys to secret rooms and trips to unknown lands. These were the first short stories I ever wrote. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my love of reading and my passion for writing started right around the same time.

if you want to be a writerIn his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

I’ve been making a point to read as much as possible this year. I listen to audio books on my way to (and from) work so that each morning, I start my day with words, plots, and characters circling in my brain. I read before bed and end my day with my creative mind at work  as I fall asleep.

I’ve written three short stories in the past three months. And I’m certain my increase in reading has contributed to  my increase in writing.

Susan Sontag says, “Reading usually precedes writing and the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer.”

Someone – was it Anne Lamott? – also said, that when we read good books, good books will come out of us.

I read the lyrical prose of Janet Fitch in White Oleander and I wanted to write beautiful words. I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and I wanted to write a modern love story so heartbreaking it leaves you breathless. I read Water for Elephants and wanted to write a story about a time and a place in the past that feels so authentic it doesn’t feel at all like fiction.

Is there a special book that made you want to be a writer? What books inspire you to write, or to be a better writer?

If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway

As a writer, sometimes ideas come easy. Inspiration can strike while I’m in the shower, on the drive home from work, or while I’m reading. Ideas can take form from something someone says in passing conversation, the lyrics in a song, the words printed on a sign. But sometimes, our creative outlets are tapped. When you’re in a writing rut, nothing seems worth writing about.

It’s times like those, I find that I must write anyway.

William Campbell Gault says, “If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.”

writingSometimes the best thing I can do is write just to see where it takes me. I have to write outside my comfort zone, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes all it takes is changing my physical writing spot, like moving out to the patio to take in the sights, sounds and smells. Or ditching my laptop and taking a notebook to write from a coffee shop or a park bench – these are great places to eavesdrop on conversations and take notes!  A change of scenery and a change in the regular writing routine can be a simple trick to inspire something new.

But what happens when you get to the fourth page, or the tenth, and you still don’t have any ideas? We all have days when it seems no matter how much we write, or how hard we try, the writing just isn’t there.

And that’s okay. Not everything we write is publishable, sometimes it’s just practice.

Looking back in old backup documents, I recently found dozens of short pieces I had written over the years. I couldn’t  believe how many of them there were and it was fun looking back on them. And it was then, I realized, even if I never get to quit my day job to write full time, I can still call myself a writer because, after all, a writer writes. And I will always write.

What do you do when you’re stuck for ideas?

An Ode to Shitty First Drafts

We’ve all heard the quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

What an empowering thing for any writer. How liberating to be reminded that when we sit down to write, our first draft is probably going to be awful, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to write an assignment for a local newspaper, I was reminded of this quote. The blank document stared at me and every time I started to write a sentence, I deleted it or worse – stopped myself before I even put any words on the page. I was too focused on wanting it to sound good.

Finally, I said to myself (out loud) “Okay, this is going to be shitty, but I’m just going to do it.” It got a lot easier after that.

Once I gave myself permission to write badly, I was able to get out of my own way and just write. I simply had to remind myself that what I was writing didn’t have to be perfect. I had to tell myself that no one was going to see this draft but me, and that I just had to get the words down and I could figure out the order of them later.

Fortunately, writers have a lot to say about first drafts. Natalie Goldberg says, “If every time you sat down to write, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing.”

I can’t talk about first drafts without talking about Anne Lamott. She wrote a very helpful, very reassuring chapter on Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing which I wrote about here.

She reminds us that all writers write bad first drafts. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” No one sits down to write and gets it right effortlessly on the first try. She says the only way she can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. I find the same is true for me, too.

Lamott insists that the first draft is where you let it all pour out onto the page, no matter how childish or silly or terrible it may seem. She says to just get it all down on paper because, “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

The key is to not let that terribly written first draft stop you from going back to it and writing a second, and a third.

For me, the first draft is for figuring out what the story is really about, what story I’m really trying to tell. It’s about getting the ideas down, discovering who our characters are, their motives, and their flaws. Who are they and what do they have to say? Anne Lamott says, “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

I find that sometimes the story that comes out on paper is very different than the story I imagined I was sitting down to write. It’s easy to dream up an idea, to have a plot in mind, but it doesn’t always work out the way we imagine it would.

Jack Dann says, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey.” So while first drafts can be a struggle, they can be surprising.

Check on my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

Keyboard vs. Longhand: How do you Write?

I recently read this post on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog from the New Hampshire Writer’s Network. The  post was part of the Friday Fun series where each week, they pose and answer a different question. This week, they posed a question about writing with a keyboard versus writing longhand.

QUESTION: Early adopter or luddite? A shiny laptop and the latest writing software, or crisp paper and a fine pen? Which do you prefer? Why? If you use both, what drives your choice?

This inspired me to think about my own writing habits.

While I love the feeling of pen-in-hand, I find more and more I use the computer (or my iPhone) for note-taking and writing.

NotebookI still carry a notebook with me and always make sure to have good pen (or three) on hand at all times. In fact, I have notebooks everywhere; a fun-sized notebook for my purse, a notepad in my glove compartment. You’ll find notebooks in my desk drawers, my nightstand, the end table beside my couch. I have them in a variety of styles, spiral bound, Steno pads, and composition notebooks.

I am known for writing things down on post-its and scraps of paper, then losing said scraps of paper. So I’ve taken to using my phone to record my shipping lists. I used to be an avid journal keeper and always wrote in journals by hand. Despite my tendency toward typing in recent years, I love to write notes in beautiful cursive and fear that good handwriting is become a lost art form.

For my freelance writing work, I have always taken notes longhand on a notepad during interviews, but have recently come around to bringing my laptop for note taking. I can type so much faster than I write, that it’s easier to keep up and much better for accurately recording direct quotes.

I do most of my creative writing on my laptop in Microsoft Word. I don’t have much experience with writing software, however, this past November I tried yWriter for NaNoWriMo and enjoyed it. I have also taken to writing notes or starting drafts using my Gmail, composing an email then saving it as a draft to come back to later. As silly as this seems, I can easily access my Gmail from anywhere.

How do you write? How has technology changed the way you write?

NaNoWriMo : Not a Win, but not a Failure

I had hoped to start a winning streak. After experiencing the joy, the relief, and the satisfaction of winning NaNoWriMo last year, I was hopeful I could do it two years in a row. But I didn’t even come close.

I started out strong the first week. I was committed to making time for multiple writing sessions to write 1,667 (and often more) words each day. I started to struggle around the 18,000 word mark. I got through the excitement of the first few chapter and found myself unable to determine what happened next. I had a rough idea, I had an overall outline but it wasn’t enough. I had hoped the plot would come to me as I wrote, that I’d be able to write my way through the mushy middle of the story. But I was stuck.

I felt my trouble was that I didn’t know my characters well enough yet. How could I know where the story was going without truly knowing who my characters were at their core? So I started on a blank page and started writing journal-style from the points of view of my different characters. I got a few thousand more words out of that and got to know them a bit better in the process. But I still didn’t know how my characters were getting to where  I saw the story ending. And that’s when I knew I wasn’t going to reach 50,000 words this year. Instead, I made it about halfway to the goal.

Looking back at last year’s Nano, where I broke the rules by writing a work-in-progress rather than starting a new story from scratch, it was much easier to get to those 50,000 words because I was so familiar with my characters and their stories. Those characters have been with me for years, from their humble beginnings in a short story I wrote in a writing workshop years ago. My characters for this year’s Nano are still new to me. They are like new friends I am still getting to know. I haven’t given up on them, or their story. I just need to spend some time with them, and get to know them a little better before I can tell the story.

Participant-180x180-2Though I didn’t “win” NanoWriMo this year, I don’t consider it a failure. NaNo provided the push I needed to experiment with this story that’s been floating around in my imagination for a while.

And it has given me the motivation to treat every month as if it is National Novel Writing Month. While I often find 1,667 words a difficult daily goal to maintain, I will set a more achievable daily word goal for myself. Let the spirit of NaNoWriMo live on!

Congratulations to those who crossed the 50,000 word finish line, and good luck to you in your editing endeavors in December for National Novel Editing Month!