Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Yet Another Benefit of Journaling

I’ve written about my journal before. How it’s a relatively recent phenomenon and how I’ve come to enjoy it. Turns out it has real benefits for someone in my situation.

I was about to start the final draft of the fifth Penns River novel, Pushing Water, when my father took ill. I set it aside until that situation worked itself to its inevitable conclusion, then again while we got Mom situated in an assisted living facility close to The Beloved Spouse™ and me so we could keep Mom out of as much trouble as possible. I finished Pushing Water in early March but still had enough stuff going on that I wasn’t ready to jump right back into a new book.

First drafts and edits are entirely different animals for me. Editing I can always sit down to do. Pretty much all I need is time. Drafts are a different matter. That’s much heavier lifting and I need my ducks in a row before I can start. This is why I outline. The outlines are flexible and I leave plenty of room to write things up as I see fit at the time. The thing is, I’m not much for writing things down as I make them up. Charlie Stella has described my writing style as “documentary,” and that’s pretty accurate. I don’t make things up when I write so much as I describe things that have already happened, at least in my head. My outlines are the equivalent of a journalist’s notes.*

The book I’m outlining now is a bit of a departure for me. The plan is to write it more as a series of vignettes that describe life in Penns River, though there will be a couple of primary crimes that will keep appearing through the story. This is a different challenge from picking a crime early on and writing the whole book around it. It won’t be quite so linear, and I need more ideas to make everything come out as interesting and not feel padded. Given the lengthy period of inactivity that’s been enforced on me since I first started thinking along these lines, I don’t know what I would have done without the journal.

I don’t think I’m unique among writers in that I get ideas I’d like to write that don’t have any place in the work in progress. I’m not just talking about major story lines that can carry a book all by itself. I mean little character-based anecdotes that I like and can do something with, just not in this book. For example, with I was writing Pushing Water I came up with an idea for a relationship for Detective Ben Dougherty that could be a lot of fun, as well as tell us a lot about Doc. Problem was, I already had one of those in Pushing Water. Compounding the issue was I noodled out the whole plot line for the new idea and no way would I remember it by the time I got around to outlining the next book.

William Goldman once said he never kept notes because he’d remember any ideas worth using. I agree with that in principle, with a twist. I’ve come to realize I might not remember an idea because it wasn’t worth using at the time I came up with it. That doesn’t mean it might not have legs in a different context a few stories down the road. That’s where the journal comes in handy. Just because I wrote an idea down doesn’t mean I have to use it in the next book. It also doesn’t mean it’s not available three books from now when it might fit well and I’m sitting there with the terrible feeling that I once had an idea that would fit here perfectly if only I could remember it. (Sorry, Bill. You’re still The Man.)

What I’m in the midst of now is working through those notes, as well as newspaper articles I’ve saved from the real-life equivalents of Penns River to see what’s worth using, what needs to stay in storage for future reference, and what belongs in the “What was I thinking?” file, a/k/a the recycle bin. I have close to 40 “index cards” in a Word file I’ll print on card stock and use to build the outline when it’s ready. With my average chapter coming in at around 1500 words, I need 50 – 60 chapters in total. I figure another couple of weeks and I‘ll be ready to start organizing. I’ll let it sit while I write a short story I owe and then will get to work describing the events I’ve chosen to happen in Penns River.

(* - I am aware of the school of writers who refuse to outline because they believe the reader can’t be surprised at a plot twist if the writer isn’t surprised when he writes it. News flash: I’m just as surprised as you when I come up with it. Having set it aside I can now concentrate on how best to describe it so the reader gets the full effect.)

1 comment:

Priscilla Bettis said...

Thanks for the insight into your writing process. I started a writer's journal recently. I'm surprised at how many fun story ideas come up during the day. And yes, I pop them in my writer's journal so I can get on with my current WIP. If I'm angry, it's also a good place to blow off steam so I can work without my head being all muddled up.