Posts Tagged notebooks

How to write down story ideas so you can remember why they were brilliant

ideas1I have a friend who is a graphic designer, and he’s as adept with words as he is with images. Recently he said to me: ‘I don’t know how you get a book finished. I have all these ideas but my imagination’s like a rope that frays into too many ends.’

(You see what I mean? He should definitely write.)

‘Do you make notes?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but when I look at them they’re dry and dull.’

Aha, my friend. You’re making the wrong kind of notes.

The wrong kind of notes?

Years ago, I used to keep a dream diary. I found it a few months ago and expected the entries would be indulgent nonsense, without the meaning, resonance or early-morning mind that makes a dream a good experience. But no; in those fragments the experience came back, just as odd and wondrous. Now I’m not going to bore (or scare) you by quoting one here, but what I will tell you is why they still worked.

They were written with a dream-head. They captured experience as well as logic and explanations.

What’s this got to do with making notes?

In Nail Your Novel (original flavour), I wrote that you should keep your earliest draft. If a scene has lost its sparkle, look back at the first time you had a go at writing it. Yes it will be shambling and embarrassing, blurted onto the page. But it will also contain emotional language, straight from the things you were feeling as you discovered it. This is the freshness and immediacy that can disappear with editing, or when you try to refine, get formal or explain.

It’s also the quality that can disappear when we write notes after a brainwave.

ideas2So when I write down an idea, I make sure I include this raw response. I write them as a stream of consciousness, like a dream. Because that’s what comes to me first: the certainty of what I want the reader to feel. If possible, I’ll also keep a talisman that will allow me to replay it again, and indeed might have been the initial inspiration – a scene in a book or a film, or a piece of music. (We know all about that here, with our Undercover Soundtracks.) There will be practical elements too, so it’s not complete gobbledygook – eg ‘man sees woman in coat that’s just like his wife’s, assumes it’s her and follows her’, but those look dry when you read them in isolation.

Stories are emotional. You want to make sure your notes help you remember the impact that made you so excited, as well as the hows and whyfores.

Do you find your ideas have dried up and died when you read your notes? Do you have any tips for keeping it? Let’s discuss!

Psst… My second novel Lifeform Three is coming very soon. It’s a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury. If you’d like to hear as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. If not, as you were 🙂

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Four tips for writing good prose

Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.

First of all, what is good language?

I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.

But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:

‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.

Tip 1: Be clear

Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.

So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?

Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:

‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier

‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens

There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.

Tip 2: Develop an ear

Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:

 ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:

  • ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
  • ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
  • ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.

Tip 3: Suit the material

The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.

More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.

Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.

Tip 4: Using notebooks

In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.

Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr

How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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