A Novel Approach, pt. 8, (Maybe the Notebook)

(Continued from yesterday.)

One trick I use to keep my ideas flowing when I steal five minutes to write is to begin with a simple word: Maybe. Start with maybe and you’re telling yourself that you’re not locked into anything. To put it another way, you’re giving yourself permission to experiment—or to completely screw up.

Again, remember that at this point, your work is private. Your “maybe” is just an idea, so you can follow that maybe as far as it will go without worrying about what other people will say. At this point in the game, you’re discovering things about your characters. Think of it as a maze that you’re constructing as you go along. Or, better yet, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you hit a dead-end, turn back. Start over. All you’ve lost is five minutes.

Along similar lines, another thing I’ve started doing is keeping a five-subject notebook. Again, the idea here is to keep myself from getting too bogged down in the “permanence” of the writing endeavor. When I see words on a screen in front of me, perfectly formed in Times New Roman or Cambria, I can’t help thinking that what I’m doing is really serious work. Additionally, I’ve found that spending too much time in front of a screen can get depressing after a while. So I’ve taken to carrying a notebook around with me and writing in it whenever I get some free time.

One reason I think writing in a notebook works for me is the simple fact that I’m switching to a different medium. When sitting in front of a computer starts to get old, uncapping a pen and making words by hand can be a refreshing break. At the very least, it frees me up to doodle a bit—which in itself can be very helpful.

Sometimes I’ll try to diagram the relationships between characters. Other times, I’ll map out a timeline, or even map out the development of my own thoughts on a subject: When I was twelve I thought love was such and such. When I was seventeen, I thought it meant this other thing. Now that I’m nearing forty, I tend to think of it as whatever.

As for why I suggest a five-subject notebook, it goes back to my point about having a few different projects going at once. Usually, I’ll reserve the first section of the notebook for free writing. It’s where I’ll do a lot of my five-minute open-ended exercises. I think of it as my warm-up. After I’ve done some free writing to get the gears in my head turning, I’ll move on to something more specific in a section of the notebook reserved for a particular project.

Sometimes, I might skip the free writing. On those rare, precious occasions when inspiration strikes out of the blue, I’ll flip to the appropriate section of the notebook and get right to work. Some sections of the notebook fill up faster than others. I tend to take this as a hint as to which projects I’m more passionate about. What really matters, though, is that having the notebook on hand means that I always have somewhere to record my ideas—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

(Continued tomorrow.)

A Novel Approach, pt. 7, (The Timer)

(Continued from yesterday.)

That timer I mentioned is a good tool to keep around for a lot of writing activities. You can Google something like “download free desktop timer” to get one for your computer if it doesn’t have one already, or if you’re into melodrama you can buy yourself an egg timer. If  you can wait for it, I’ll be coming out with the Official Marc Schuster Writer’s Timer early next summer. It comes in three colors and whispers encouraging phrases as the clock winds down.

You can do it!

Hang in there, champ!

I believe in you!

The reason I suggest using a timer is that a lot of would-be writers tell me that they just don’t have the time to write. And, okay, ideally you’d be able to block off an hour or so every morning to get some writing done, but who in the real world has that kind of time?

On the other hand, think about all those spare clumps of time you have on any given day. You’re on your coffee break. You’re waiting for your train. You just folded the laundry and you have a few minutes before you start making dinner. My friend Curt Smith takes advantage of every free moment he gets, and he’s written some of my favorite short stories, two novels, and a collection of nonfiction.

Those moments add up, and a timer can help you get in the practice of writing in short bursts. Just set your timer for five minutes, and start writing. I usually like to give myself a little prompt that’s related to the project I’m working on. Tell me about the protagonist’s car, for example. Or something open-ended, like What is the protagonist hiding from himself? Sometimes I’ll even ask myself a weird personal question like What am I forgetting?

Then I’ll start the timer and write until the alarm sounds.

The key to making this work is to keep it fairly light. Remember that you’re not writing something that other people will read at this point. You’re just putting your thoughts into words. Another way to say this is that you’re thinking on the page.

(Continued tomorrow.)

A Novel Approach, pt. 6, (Falling in Love Again)

(Continued from yesterday.)

But let’s say you’re already challenging the rules and you’re already working on multiple projects at once, and you’re still wondering how to get that spark back, how to go beyond simply loving your project (as if there were anything simple about love!) and, instead, falling in love with it all over again.

Let’s start with something very basic you can do to rekindle that flame: Ask yourself why you started working on the project in the first place.

I do this fairly frequently, and I usually do it in writing. Most of the time, I’ll write some fairly pointed questions in bold letters at the top of a page: Why am I doing this? What is this book about? Why does it matter to me? Sometimes I’ll set a timer and give myself five minutes to come up with an answer. It’s a little bit like taking a midterm exam, but instead of dredging my memory for the right answers, I pour my heart out onto the page.

Later, I go back and read what I’ve written. Sometimes it’s sappy. Sometimes it’s incoherent. But that doesn’t matter. It’s not like anyone else is going to read it.

What does matter, however, is that I’ve had a chance to recalibrate my bearings, to remind myself what’s especially meaningful in the piece that I’m working on, and thus, to some extent, to give myself permission not to worry so much about the parts of the project that are bringing me down or wracking me with doubt and self-loathing. The answer I come up with, in other words, serves as my North Star as all of the details and complications of the narrative continue to pile up.

(Continued tomorrow.)