Another Writer’s Tool Discussed

“This is a very good story,” the Editor said quite a few years ago.  I was fresh out of grad school with a story I’d written and wanted to shop.  “It isn’t in our line of business – ” (they were a company that printed a lot of inspirational material.  They were one of the well-known companies, and if I were to name them, they would be recognized.  They had printed fiction in the past).  ” – but this is too good for you to send to a Vanity Press.  Keep submitting it – and don’t let yourself get discouraged.  It’s tough out there, but you’re good.”

That was nice to know, of course, and she gave good advice, though issues arose that kept me from submitting for a number of years.  She hesitated, as though carefully considering what she wanted to say, then went on.

“Are you only working on the one story?”
I said I was.
“Oh no, dear.  You need to have more than one underway.  Otherwise, when you finish your current work, you will be knocked sideways.  Grieving, actually, and there will be nothing to distract you. and you’ll be lost.”
Well, that was nice of her, I thought.  But it sounded strange.  I was, as I said, fresh out of grad school, and I knew everything (just ask me at that time).  I didn’t give it another thought until I finished my story, finally and for all.
She was right.  I was lost, at loose ends, missing my characters, following them, forming them, making sense of my ideas and getting acquainted with them.  Seeing where they were going and helping them get there, polishing their descriptions and speech, making them as wonderful as I could (Reveling in polishing, I’d call it now).  And when the last word was done, the last paragraph polished, there was nothing more to write, the story was told –
I was empty.  And, as she said, I was grieving.
I remember that month or so.  I wandered around, doing my bread and butter stuff, riding the train into the city (1 ½ hours daily in which to jot and polish and daydream – gosh, I miss it!), walking through a season of rain (the sun was, actually, shining) and wondering what, oh what I was going to do.  Grieving, she said.  What?  These weren’t real characters, for heaven’s sake!  I mean, I made them up out of my head.  Didn’t I?  (Did I?)
Ultimately, I had another project underway, but it took a while.  I was ready this time.  I’d had an idea for another story, and I wrote up some notes about it – character thoughts, notions on where it was going – what I call ‘blips’ now.  I housed them in a notebook.

Be careful what you start.  I am a pack-rat.  I started notebooks for everything I was working

on.  I liked the ones I used in college: 6″ x 9″, three subject notebooks, or 5″ x 7.75″, all spiral bound.  They were fairly portable, but not too small (that gives me a hand cramp). 

Three ring binders didn’t work, even when I was in my briefcase-carrying mode because (1) they were cumbersome even with a shoulder strap briefcase, and
(2) someone apparently laid a curse on me at birth: ‘All her three ring binders will end up with one bent half-ring, which will cause her manuscript pages to jump off the ring and tear’. 
It is a dreadful curse, and if you combine that with my dislike of misaligned punched holes, three ring binders, even the expensive ones that hold The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, are ruled out.  Marble notebooks are nice, but if you muff an entry, it is a  bit of a production to tear out the offending page.  If you do it too well, the corresponding page on the other side of the stitching will cast loose its moorings, and if you do not, there is a rather odd-looking flap of paper left.(Warning: the spirals in spiral-bound notebooks end up squashed and distorted and will also foul up your paper.)

Writing instruments are important, too, I’ve learned:

  • Pencils smear (I don’t like smears, whether on my forearm or on a page)
  • Fountain pens, which I happen to love, have water soluble ink that tends to fade rather badly. (see the image at right, which I had trouble reading when I photographed it) 
  • If you use permanent ink, your pen will get gunked up rather badly.  This is not a problem with the kinda-sorta throwaway pens, but with the Mont Blanc I inherited from my father, which has the 18K nib, it is not optimal.
  • Rollerballs have ink that sinks through the paper, so you can only write on one side of the page.  The other side is a complete loss.
  • Felt-tip pens can be fun, but they can smear.
This leaves me with good old ball-point pens, preferably blue.
Over the years I have developed a good system:

When you have an idea, jot it down.  If it seems to have possibilities, jot it in a notebook.  (Some kind of minor ideas are jotted in separate sections of three-part notebooks. 

When you transcribe a page, mark it.  I draw a diagonal line across it.  If the whole page is transcribed, cut the upper corner off.

Never throw them away.  They may be worth something in five hundred years.  On the other hand, I myself won’t be worth much by then.  Sigh.

Still, it’s another tool writers can use.  (And it beats paper towels – see THIS POST…)

Polishing a Draft

So, you have finished your story.  It is complete.  The tale has been told and was done rather well, if you say so yourself.  You ‘compile’ the manuscript (for, after all, you are using Scrivener) and you then print the thing.  The result is a two-inch thick pile of bright white paper with printing on it.  The manuscript.  Finished!  Hurrah!

Wordsmithing as I do it.  The logic is hidden by the lack of prettiness…
The delight lasts only as long as it takes you to flip to a random page, and read…
“Did I say that?  What a passive construction!  What was I thinking?
You seize a pencil/pen/whatever, circle the offending phrase, write in what you should have written if you had not been under-caffeinated, and then sit back, scowling, and look at the rest of the manuscript.
…And now you are in ‘polish’ mode.
It’s been a while since I did this, and I had forgotten how enjoyable it is.   Wordsmithing, pure and simple, is a pleasure in itself.  It is, however, annoying when you have been envisioning a finished manuscript and, looking down at it, pen in hand, realized that the thing is anything but.
So you sigh, assemble the things you will need, and go to it.
What do you need?

Just the basics, ma’am, but in all available colors…
Pens.  Lots of them.  They tend to grow legs and walk.  I have one that was made by an artisan using chestnut wood salvaged from an colonial-era house on the seacoast.  Chestnut isn’t seen any more since the blight destroyed most of the chestnut trees.  That’s a pity because the wood is very rot-resistant and has a wonderful color.  Then there are the gel pens that are a delight to write with and have thick, visible ink.  The problem is that the ink tends to sink into paper and go through the other side.  Not pretty. 

Authentic Marvin
the Martian Pen

I also have a special Marvin the Martian pen I bought years ago at a Warner Brothers store and carried to various meetings over the years.
You need highlighters in various colors.  Why?  Well, what if you highlight something in pink and then think of something else that needs to be done with the highlighted passage, but is different?  Pink won’t work, it’ll be confusing.  Besides, hot pink is something of which I can only stand so much.  Purple, I think.  Or maybe blue…
Post-it notes, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, are very useful for marking places (‘Oh – that’s right!  I edited to here!’), marking thoughts (make sure you don’t get cheap imitations because they’ll fall off, and you will face your greatest fear: that your inspired edit will be lost forever and your powerful intellect, having decayed rather badly, will not be able to retrieve the perfect word in the perfect location.)
But you go cooking along, making corrections – until it suddenly occurs to you that the reason that the beginning of the novel seems to plod just a wee bit, with lots of information being made available rather quickly is that you have been going about it the wrong way, and it would work out better if you start in with the third chapter, scrap the first and second chapters, and then adjust as necessary.  You greet this revelation with a cry torn from your very entrails as you realize that the entire beginning of the @#$%! story has to be reworked.

Is it a disaster if it makes the whole story better but drives the writer mad?
You brew another cup of tea (did you read my post about tea?), get out the materials, and go to work, muttering under your breath even as you see that it truly will do better.  You bid farewell to the end of year release, the editor’s feedback, the new story that has been nudging at your elbow and presenting lusciously tempting scenes…  You buckle down –

Will pester for catnip…
And pray that your work is not interrupted by the dreaded ‘attractive nuisance’ that likes to grab your hand as you mouse…