Every few weeks, I post about some discovery I’ve made that’s going to revolutionize my writing process. But usually about a week after my post, I’ll realize that my new technique isn’t really that great, and I’ll quietly abandon it. For instance (I can’t actually find these posts, but I know they exist), there was the time I wrote about how I was outlining my novels on tiny chits of cardstock (nope, don’t do that anymore), and then there was the time I started extolling the value of writing your drafts in longhand.
But a few weeks ago I posted about how I was going to try to regain my sense of play. And, weirdly, it’s actually sort of happened! Partly this is because my expectations were so much more modest. I didn’t want to actually write a novel. All I wanted was to feel some sense of joy in creation.
Some people would say, “Oh, just freewrite. That’s the way to do it!” But not for me. When I free-write, it all just ends up being nonsense. I feel like I need to have some core idea in order to do anything.
So I started off with a big notebook, and I said, I will write a novel in this notebook in longhand, and I will not copy it into the computer, and that will make it not-very-serious, and hence I’ll be able to just write without thinking too hard. Basically, I’ll start with an idea, and I’ll write, and just see what it turns into.
Nope. Didn’t work. The problem is that I knew I was writing a novel. That meant the pieces needed to fit together, and as soon as they started to not fit, I got anxious and felt bad.
But then something cool happened. I turned the page and I wrote the first scene for another book (a totally different idea). And the scene was okay, but I didn’t like it very much. I was like, meh, it’s just more words.
And I felt depressed for a few days. But then I went and I took the advance copy of my actual book–Enter Title Here–down from my bookshelf, and I started reading it, and I suddenly realized, “This isn’t that good. There are things here I want to change!”
It’s not that I disliked the book, or that it didn’t make me feel. It’s just that I knew I loved this book, and yet I still felt not-entirely-in-love with the first scene. So I was like…hmm…and I went back to the scene in the notebook.
And I reread it.
The scene was okay. Not amazing. But okay. So I took out my computer and rewrote the scene, copying it into a Scrivener folder. And then I started working on the novel in my folder.
But at the same time, I kept writing in my notebook!
So far I’ve got fifteen thousand words in the Scrivener folder. And the notebook (which I estimate to be about 40k words) is completely full. I’ve actually moved on to a second notebook (I brought three empty notebooks along for the writing residency I’m about to start).
The notebook is basically a sketchbook. When I wake up in the morning and I’m feeling edgy and afraid, I open the notebook and I just start writing. Usually it’s in the voice of my main character. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s in the third person. Sometimes it’s in the voice of another character. Sometimes it’s a little outline or a sketch. I number each section, to keep them apart, but they have nothing to do with each other.
I don’t feel obligated to finish any of my little sections. If it’s starting to flag or to annoy me, I just stop. Sometimes I’ll only write down a line of dialogue, and I’ll say “Nope!” and move on to the next thing. Otherwise I’ll write half a scene and won’t want to write the rest. My conception of the novel has changed fairly radically. Some of the sketches are ‘forks,’ they’re not even really a part of the novel I’m writing. They’re scenes or sketches that I might put into the novel if the novel was very different.
Nor am I bound by chronology. The novel itself is strictly chronological, but the sketchbook isn’t. I’ve written something I thought of as a final scene, and I’ve also written a bunch of stuff that might go into the second act (currently my scrivener file isn’t even through act one). Sometimes it’s not even a scene. It’s just freeform musings in the character’s voice.
In my Scrivener file, it’s very different. There it’s all business. I started at the beginning, and I’m proceeding more or less in chronology. When I change something, I go back and make sure the entire text agrees. This is the actual text of the novel, and I’m writing it in pretty much the same way I usually try to write books.
And the really interesting thing, to me, is that almost none of the words from the sketchbook (aside from that first scene) have actually made it into the Scrivener file. Usually when I get to the relevant part of the actual novel, I find that the scenes I wrote in the sketchbook weren’t quite right, and that to copy them would be a disservice. Usually I don’t even look at them. I just write.
The sketchbook is actually just for me, so I can work things out and get into the right headspace. But it’s really useful. On two occasions, when I’ve been stuck on the novel, I’ve gone into the sketchbook and written pages upon pages until I came up with the answer. There is some tension when I do this, but it’s not the sick feeling that I often get when I’m working on a novel that isn’t going well.
Anyway, we’ll see. Likely this technique will fail tomorrow or the next day, and you’ll never hear about it again!