Monday, May 17, 2010

What writers do on their days off

A newly rewritten chunk of Masks has gone out to my little circle of beta readers, which means I have to leave my story alone for two weeks in order to get some much-needed perspective. Which brings me to the question of what writers do during periods of enforced idleness like this.

And the answer is—we write anyway. At least I do.

A couple of years ago, my wonderful friend Amber Peters found what turned out to be the perfect gift for a writer. It was a leatherbound book with lined pages—your basic journal, presumably bought from Barnes and Noble. I know, I know, what’s so special about a journal? Only the fact that Amber knows me far, far too well.

I’d had people give me journals before. I have, in fact, a shelf of journals and sketchbooks more or less gathering dust. It’s an inescapable fact of the writing life—people will insist on giving you journals and/or pens for every occasion, apparently because they think writers don’t buy their own paper or carry their own pens. (Please note: I am extremely picky about my pens, and if you give me one I may or may not actually use it. Ever. I have used gift pens as crude hole-punches, very small levers, improvised knives—everything but writing utensils.)

But while other journals were selected for the cute slogans on their covers or the cunning ways in which they fastened shut, Amber knows what a serious writer needs in a journal—namely, something that can survive a nuclear war. She got me a slightly larger-than normal, leatherbound, unusually dense journal with the usual clever design embossed on the cover, not printed. This means that after several years of being carried around in backpacks, bags, and unusually large pockets, its pages are still quite readable and it looks new except for the corners being slightly bent. This is a Serious Journal.

So naturally I had to fill it with Serious Things.

I started out writing a story in it, then realized that I didn’t know enough about the story to just write the thing in there from beginning to end—I’ve gotten to the point where I’m wanting to rewrite things even as I write them, and therefore it’s easier to compose at a keyboard. So I converted the journal to something I needed more, but hadn’t known I needed. I call it my Book of Good Dreams, after a phrase I used on the first page that I belatedly decided would describe the entire volume.

Here is the real bugger part of being a writer: you will always have more ideas than time, except when you need an idea (at which point you’ll certainly come up blank). At any given moment, I have three or four story ideas ricocheting around my head like pinballs. One is usually the object of most of my attention, but the others are definitely there. I may hear a song on the radio that inspires me to add something to one, or I may find myself musing on it for an hour or so while my train is stuck on a siding. But if I have deadlines, I have to work on the main story, and the others are what is technically known as distractions, draining my creative energy when I should be spending it on my primary project. Eventually I lose interest in them as I get back on task, and they vanish. Or they did, until Amber bought me this journal.

Now, when I have a story idea I just can’t leave alone, I write it down in the Book of Good Dreams. It’s enormously helpful for getting ideas out of the way of my real work, and stupendously helpful months or years later when I decide I want to write one of the secondary ideas. I found I’d been forgetting half the important details of these stories when I set them aside, but by writing them down in this journal, I could go back later and find the better part of a short story, serial, or novel all laid out for me. “I’m going to have to figure out some way to make this character vulnerable—oh, I gave him that weakness? Good for me!”

If the stories get more than a certain number of entries, they graduate to their own dedicated journals so they don’t hog the whole book. Consequently, I have a very sturdy book full of pretty good ideas, each labeled with a cryptic “slug”—a one-word label that identifies all the entries in a particular story, regardless of what I may end up titling the thing. (Recent slugs include “Runner,” “Badlands,” “Knight”, and a few others.) Not only does it clear my brain, it’s also phenomenally entertaining. “Wow, I have an entire storyline in here about the Lady of the Lake and it is freaking amazing! Who cares if the train is stuck?”

So for the next two weeks, as the reading circle is reading and marking up a chunk of Masks for me, I will be playing with other ideas, some of them from the Book of Good Dreams. (Except tomorrow, when I will be running an interview with another author—werewolves! Show up!) The book is only half full so far, and I can’t wait to see how the second half will turn out …

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