Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hand Crafted, Artisanal Revisions

I’ve been spending this month revising. I have a few unfinished projects in the queue, all of them at various stages. As I move these stories through my ever-evolving process and out the door I’m experimenting with different approaches and methods. One thing that hasn’t changed is my need to see my work on paper.

I split my time pretty evenly between working on screen and by hand. I do enjoy writing with pen on paper and find that it accesses a slightly different thought process. It takes longer to write than to type, and that constraint forces my brain to use different strategies when working through the narrative of a first draft.

Typing in a hand-written first draft, changing it as I go, is an almost effortless way to revise. Once a story is typed in, I work on screen until I come to a point where I hit a kind of ceiling. I can see it needs improving, but electronically scrolling back and forth through the pages no longer gives me any new insight.

So, I print it out and take up a pen, or more usually, a pencil and two or three different colored pens, spread the whole thing out and start scribbling. Sometimes I write margin notes as if I were a slush reader. General notes like, “awkward sentence” or “pick up the pace here.” On another pass I’ll go through and rework passages, writing new material between the lines. I have large format sticky notes for when I need to add passages. I draw arrows and note page numbers where I need to move chunks of text around.

When I’ve filled up nearly all the white space on the printed copy, I enter in all the changes, doing even more revising on the fly as I go through. As you can see above, these pages are dense and it can take some time to get through them.

Next I get some eyes on it. If I’ve taken it to my in person critique group I have a new pile of paper and passel of comments to process. If it’s been critiqued online I’ll work onscreen.

After assessing and entering those comments in a final revision, it’s time for a last read through for grammar and style. This is a read aloud, which I do on screen and, ideally, in one sitting.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. Of course there is no right way. Many roads can lead to the same destination. For example, check out Jake Kerr’s excellent piece about revision here.

On screen or on the page, keep experimenting until you find your best way to tear down your draft and rebuild it into something better.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Commonplace Cloud

Nimbus II by Berndnaut Smilde

I love writing “by hand” (talk about a recursive phrase). I use my journals all the time, but I also use a grab bag of free services on the web to keep many of my “commonplace” notes.

Kelsey McKinney talks about how social sites like Pinterest are the descendants of commonplacing. Be sure to check out the article, which has pictures of commonplace books from one of my favorite places: the Harry Ransom Center

Saj Mathew over at The Millions talks about Tumblr as a Commonplace Book with a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of living in “an archival age.” As usual, I would argue with the hand-wringing tone of some of his concerns:  
“[W]e live in an archival age, in which memory has reached a point of near-irrelevance. With the right keyword, we can instantly recall any message, photo, or article instantly. That memory is never endangered by the specter of forgetting endangers memory more than ever.”
I think we go about our days remembering plenty, personal interactions and childhood experiences, for example. I would bet we keep a mental record of many more people, some we’ve only met on said social media. I don’t keep phone numbers in my long-term memory like I used to, but I have a collection of emails, web addresses and passwords. Our memory will change and adapt according to how we use it, but I hardly think it will wither away. It’s a surprisingly old argument, one that Socrates made against writing, as in writing by hand. David Malki over at Wondermark, points out that we wouldn’t even know about this opinion of his if someone (not Socrates of course) hadn’t written it down. 

But I digress! Social media sites can be a great way to commonplace. Actually, the ease of clipping, saving and sharing ideas, quotes and images has encouraged many people to commonplace without even knowing that it is a thing. Still, consciously using social sites to collect material for later use is a little different than using these media to curate your personal image for public consumption. Fortunately, as William S. Burroughs says:
“Everything is permitted.”
You can use these tools however you want. Here are some of the ways I commonplace on the cloud. 

I’m a highly visual person, so I use Pinterest to aggregate images for writing specific stories and for prompts. When I find an inspiring image on the web, I’ll pin it for later use. I follow other users who are busily collecting images that I find fascinating. It is also an excellent resource when searching for images on a particular topic. The open environment of sharing makes this a powerful tool of discovery both through searching and serendipity. I also use it for recipes. 

Evernote, while not exactly a social site, has the most diverse uses, and is really the core of my cloud commonplacing. It has powerful organizational tools like tagging, keyword searching and notebooks for sorting disparate information. I use it to collect quotes, notes, and research for this blog and for the fiction I write. I keep market research and copies of all my writing contracts here too. I have a list of books to read along with their local library call numbers. I’ll be adding a comprehensive index to all my journals here soon. Evernote works across all my devices so I can access or enter information at home, work, on my phone, or even my old iPod. 

I use Goodreads to keep track of the books I’ve read. I post very brief reviews/summaries, more to jog my own memory about the content of what I’ve read. That said I’m happy to socialize and meet people through these social tools.*

There are dozens of other places out there, Imagr, Instagram, Google+, Reddit, and new sites being built every day. Explore what they have to offer, but don't forget to consider the ways that you can best use them to your own purposes.

* Certainly, I have nothing against being social! I use Twitter sporadically for random thoughts and links, and Facebook mostly with people I’ve met in real life or know through writing. Of course the ease of socializing 24/7, is terribly dangerous to artistic productivity.

Friday, April 4, 2014


Pages from a commonplace book
“[W]e read how Milton composed, Montaigne, Goethe: by what happy strokes of thought, flashes of wit, apt figures, fit quotations snatched from vast fields of learning, their rich pages were wrought forth! This were to give the keys of great authorship!”         ~Amos Bronson Alcott, 1877
Commonplacing, or keeping a book of reading notes, began in Renaissance times. The practice grew up with the very existence of books themselves. It was taught in universities in England and Europe in the 17th Century. Authors from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Mark Twain to H. P. Lovecraft kept commonplace books. The practice has been, and remains, an excellent way to compile information and to build knowledge.

A commonplace book is not a journal. It is not overtly introspective and generally not chronological. Gathering a hodgepodge collection of random quotes, thoughts, and overheard quips that resonate or sparks ideas, is more akin to scrapbooking.

The value of keeping a commonplace book goes beyond simply recording useful quotes and references to mine later. Copying out a quote and noting some thoughts about it is a way to read actively. This kind of deep reading is necessary if you want to improve as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, popcorn reading for simple pleasure is also necessary and lovely, but if you want to grow as a writer you must seek out different and, yes, difficult texts and wrestle with them. (This is why I also love reading and committing marginalia.*)

A commonplace book is different than a journal but that doesn’t mean it can’t be contained in one, which is what I do.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many ways of journaling. Really, my journals are a constant, evolving experiment. In the past, I’ve carried around a thick book that took a year or more to fill. These are heavy to lug around, and I do like to always have my journal with me, so this year I’m using a series of smaller books.

My journals are always a mishmash of everything: New ideas, outlines, notes, meta thoughts, early noodling drafts, personal rants, and lists of things I’m grateful for. I keep commonplace notes in with all the rest. I have quotes from books about writing and popular science. I have a bottle of library paste handy so that I can glue in articles I clip from magazines. I’ll also write down thoughts about the fiction I’m reading, like why a particular story rung me like a bell, or how a writer approached character, or musings on why some some element of a story didn’t work for me.

I read through my journal every couple weeks to highlight sections and add marginalia. I also build an index in the back of each journal as I go. With both commonplacing** and journaling, I may or may not come back to a particular passage. For me, the act of writing out my (or some other writers’) thoughts helps me progress to a new level of understanding of not only writing but – as Douglas Adams would say – Life the Universe and Everything.

* Marginalia, a topic definitely worthy of it’s own blog post. Stay tuned…

** Today, commonplacing is showing up across a panoply of different technologies. I also use Evernote and Pinterest; some people use Facebook and blogs as commonplace books. This is a rich topic, but since this post is already past due, one that I’ll be blogging about on another day.