FRIGHT WEEK!

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Lovely original image by jaime cooper, on freeimages.com.

Okay, I have a real post coming up for you, but I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately and I have a project to tell you about. And I am JUST. SO. EXCITED. And full of coffee. AND EXCITED.

Anyway.

This is like my favorite time of year ever. Working retail has effectively ruined Christmas for me, and has also effectively meant I rarely get home for Thanksgiving. My birthday is boring, and I’m not religious, so Easter doesn’t mean much. Valentine’s Day is overhyped.

So that leaves me with Halloween. Which is all right, because I can’t think of a holiday more meant to fit me–we can wear a lot of black, talk about serial killers, and not pretend to be thankful for things? ALL RIGHT. That’s like the best holiday an Emily could ask for. AND I get to dress up like a zombie? Megasweet.

AND I GET CANDY?

You’re fucking kidding me!

Anyway, with that said:

I’m going to do something a little different this year, and celebrate this lovely holiday with SEVEN DAYS OF FLASH FICTION. Yes. For the week leading up to Halloween (starting tomorrow, 10.24), I’ll post a mini horror story (1,000 words or less) with fun overfiltered horrorshow graphics ONCE A DAY. (Isn’t that font just full of camp?) Why, you ask? What good can this possibly do?

Probably none. But it’ll be fun.

An advanced warning, just in case you don’t usually follow this blog and don’t know me: none of these stories will be appropriate for little ones. Unless, of course, you take a laissez-faire view of parenting, and your bitty monsters have already seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or heard you drop the f-bomb in traffic. In which case, bring ’em on. 

We’ll see how I do. I don’t usually write a lot of horror, so this might be pretty terrible. But that’s what this blog is here for, right? Experiments. On you, my captive audience. Muahaha.

How to Name Things in Fantasy

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Accents and Names in Fantasy Cultures Part I: Names

Be consistent.

See? I just gave you like a thousand words’ worth of advice in one golden two-word sentence.

Now, of course, I’m going to follow it up with another thousand or so words.

This is going to be a two-parter, so hold on to your seatbelts. It’s going to be an invective-filled stunt ride of epic proportions, because these are two subjects where I hate. I mean, HATE. A lot of the advice I see online about them.

We’re going to start with names, because that’s the one I have the biggest bee in my bonnet about.

And the advice I see that I hate the very most:

“Don’t go with anything TOO funny-sounding.”

Funny sounding to whom, asshole?

There are a lot of different languages in the world, a lot of different dialects, a lot of different pronunciations, even regionally in the same country, for the same words. If you name a character Xilx, it looks pretty odd to an American, but there might be somewhere in Estonia where Xlix is actually pretty easy to pronounce, and really similar to a common name.

Here’s my thing, though. If you name a character Xlix, and you passionately want people to pronounce it Thomas, be prepared for no one to know how to pronounce it, ever. Whether you’re all right with that or not is up to you, but it’s just how it’s going to be. You’re writing in English, and native English speakers aren’t too familiar with Xlixian pronunciation. If you MUST spell it X-I-L-X and pronounce it T-H-O-M-A-S, you have two options:

1) Make sure that never, ever actually matters in the course of the story, or:
2) Write a scene detailing the pronunciation INTO the story. You know, something like this:

“Xlix Morton,” the Lector called, peering down at his name on the bottom of the scroll.

Xlix shuddered, as he did every time someone pronounced his name. Zlicks, usually, or the even more awkward Zliz. And who could blame them?

It was a horrible sound, like a sneeze through several layers of snot. Like flies buzzing, landing on somebody’s carcass. Had it not been so horrible, Xlix might have gone his whole adult life allowing people to mispronounce his name. Because, of course, this was unfailingly the conversation that followed:

“Actually, sir,” Xlix said. “It’s pronounced Thomas.”

The Lector’s lips compressed into a flesh-colored thread. “You’re putting me on,” he said. “How d’you get ‘Thomas’ out of that?”

And there it was. Unwillingly–furiously–Xlix’s mouth formed the nonsense words his mother had given him, every time he cried about it, every time he complained, every time he tried to stay home on the first day of school, knowing the conversation that was soon to follow:

“All the letters are silent,” Xlix said, hating himself. “And there are a bunch of letters added in.”

Poor Xlix, right? If a name’s that different from its apparent pronunciation, there’s a story behind it. A story, undoubtedly, full of hatred and embarrassment. And your readers should know that story–otherwise, they’re missing a key ingredient in your narrator’s character. Why is ‘Xlix’ pronounced ‘Thomas’? Is his mother from another planet, where names are crafted in writing for aesthetics, but pronounced however you please? Did his mother tell him that’s how his name was spelled as a joke when he was little, and she hasn’t had the heart (or–been alive) to correct him?

So, unless there’s a story that needs to be told, try and write your funny names in a way that can be pronounced phonetically with little difficulty in the language you’re writing in. Jin’s full name, for instance, is Evinanjin–which looks a little funny, sure, but you can sound it out and get close enough to know who I’m talking about.

There are some occasions, however, where I think unpronouncable names are just fine. An unpronouncable name can, in fact, signify alienness, or otherworldliness: a magic spell, for instance, might be full of unpronouncable words, or the name of an alien dimension. In these cases, the very unpronouncability of the words puts space between the reader and the name–and you WANT space. You WANT mystery. So maybe that’s okay. In my new novel, Little Bird (which is coming out in less than a month, by the way), the force of evil over the river Darking is called the d’r’j inaj. Why? Because I want it to be a secretive thing, mysterious, terrible. Something the western part of Aurian and Jin’s world is unfamiliar with: therefore, they can’t bloody well pronounce it, and neither can you. (Though, if you want to: dah-raj inaj is how I do it (the raj being pronounced the same way as the British one, the inaj rhyming).

But here’s the thing. If you have one alien from planet Zth named Arrlx, and one named Bthw, you can’t also have one named Joseph. Or, if you do, there needs to be a reason for it–maybe they’re from different continents?

Names create feeling and background, and you have to stay consistent with them, especially in fantasy. Think about it as relative to Earth: you know Mandy James is probably a girl from an English-speaking nation. Jimena Gonzalez, on the other hand, is probably Hispanic. Soobin Kim is probably Korean. Fumiko Nakamura is probably Japanese. Or, if that doesn’t help, picture the five people with these last names:

1) Sarkisian
2) Filipov
3) Chen
4) Knudsen
5) Giordano

Very different pictures, eh? No, you’re not being racist. You just assume, given context, that Mr. (Miss?) Chen up there is probably Chinese–and if he’s not (maybe he’s adopted? Maybe his family moved to Denmark when he was a little boy, so he’s actually a Danish citizen? Maybe she married a Chinese man?) there needs to be a reason.

The same in your fantasy world, please. Xlxtr and Brian can’t share a state of origin with no good reason. And you can use those names to serve as a quick indicator for personal appearance if you’ve kept them consistent, just like Chen quickly indicates a person of Chinese origin, or Knudsen a person of Norwegian.

So, to recap: make your names as funny as you damn well please. People are reading, after all, and not reciting in front of a critical audience. While you might not want to make a name superlong, just because you have to keep typing it over and over again for the rest of your novel, no one other than a hideous uneducated hick-creature is going to stop reading your book because the names look funny. However,

1) Keep your names consistent with place and physical features, and:
2) Make sure they aren’t TOO similar. If your main characters are Jennifer and Jinnever, that’s going to cause some people some trouble, and rightfully so.

A last note, before we commence part dos:

Y’know who the king of difficult-to-pronounce fantasy names was? JRR Motherfucking Tolkien. That’s right. Anyone remember Maedhros? He was the eldest son of Feanor, in the Silmarillion?

No? I’m the biggest geek in the goddamn room? Okay. Anyway.

That name is pronounced MY-throse.

Not shitting you.

So, case in point. You can be successful and use cray pronunciation. When I found that out, I didn’t throw my book across the room and regret ever finding out what happened with those damn Silmarils. I just went: “oh. Wow.” And went on with my day.

Yet Another Author Invite

Chris writes vampire stories. Or maybe they’re musical biographies. Or maybe they’re a mixture of the two, with an excellent dash of dry humor and witty voice thrown in…if you write outside the box, this could be a good opportunity for you. Also, Toten Herzen might be my favorite band.

The Opening Sentence

I’ve done this twice before and on both occasions been overwhelmed by the lack of response. All authors need help, a word in the internet’s ear and I don’t like taking without giving. In the past I have laid down a few rules, the intention being to give authors who write ‘outside the box’ a chance to get their work noticed. There obviously aren’t many authors writing outside the box, and I’m still not prepared to allow romances on a blog predominantly themed towards heavy rock, vampirism, black magic and weirdness!

But in spite of previous attempts I’m going to have another go…

Authors, would you like to have a feature here at The Opening Sentence?

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Condiments are People Too

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Photo cruelly cropped from a lovely original by icaro leite, at freeimages.com

Five Totally Worthwhile Condiments

Okay, guys. I should’ve done a writing post today, and I know it.

But the fact is, I’m sick n’ tired of talking about writing. I talk about writing all the goddamn time, and there’s so much more to my life that you, my captive audience, need to know all about.

Like how I feel about condiments.

Let me explain myself. I’m not talking about the make-your-own mayo, squeeze-your-ketchup-tomatoes-by-hand kind of condiments. Those are great, of course. I have my tomato relish and celery sauce recipes in my mindbrain, where no computer crash will ever rob me of them.

But sometimes–sometimes. You have fries, or Wheat Thins, or toasted baby arms, or whatever crispy snack you prefer, on a plate, and LEGASP, no time to make your own ketchup, like a proper frontierswoman. Should you abandon all dignity and head for the Heinz?

Hell, naw. Have standards, you tramp.

My fridge groans with condiments. The door shelf sags outward under the weight of a glass jar and bottle invasion. Want mustard? I’ve got like fifty kinds of it. Want soy sauce? I don’t even know what that is any more, be more specific. I know, I know, premade condiments are just full of preservatives and food coloring and GMO death omg. But get off your high horse for a minute. Stop thinking about how every particle of nourishment that passes your lips is poisoning you. And admit it: sometimes you just want to grab a goddamn bottle out of the fridge.

So, for today’s post, instead of nattering on about plot holes and guns going off in the third act, we’re giving you five of Emily’s trusty premade condiment staples. Why? Because why not. You can’t tell me what to do. Long live the rebellion. Aspfhrrgsgfl;.

(A NOTE–I wouldn’t actually buy any of these things on Amazon. The prices are, on average, about three times what I pay in my hometown. But I wanted to show you what I get. Because I love you.)

Pickapeppa Sauce–Pickapeppa is a minor god among somambulent sauces. Where others sleep, Pickapeppa mainlines coffee. Where others whisper, Pickapeppa roars.

Pickapeppa has a sweet, almost molasses-like tang, with orangelike afternotes and more sourness and sweetness than heat. One of the ingredients on the bottle is ‘peppers’, but don’t worry, the only people who’re going to find this spicy are your ninety year old grandmother and her toothless daschund. I used to love it on burgers, in my meat-eating days, but it’s good on everything else ever as well. I even put it on vanilla ice cream once (yes, because I am insane).

Doubanjiang–You like Sriracha? You think dotting your morning eggs with Sriracha is spicy and adventurous? Fuck you, buddy. (Actually, I love Sriracha too. Poured straight into my mouth. In shots.)

Doubanjiang (Pi Xian being my chosen variety, though it’s hard to find, at least in a relatively rural area) is what Sriracha became when it grew up and got some years of working experience. It’s a red broadbean paste made in Sichuan province, traditionally left to ferment and mellow, sometimes for years, in large clay pots. (Is the cheaper stuff made that way? Is Pi Xian made that way? I have no idea). There’s a spicy version, which tastes deep and spicy and a little earthy, and a non-spicy version, which, to me at least, tastes a little bit like miso paste. I use the spicy version in mapo tofu, but it’s also great on eggs, as a dipping sauce for fried tofu, with plain rice, or anywhere you require red spiciness ever again ever.

Banana Sauce–The first time I tried banana sauce, I wasn’t completely sold. I saw a bottle at my local asian market, and it was cheap, and I was like what the hell, why not.

Two years down the line, banana ketchup has become my permaketchup.

It doesn’t taste that different from bottled ketchup, really. A little sweeter. The kind I get is deep red in color and has an unusual gloppy texture. Seeing as it’s made from bananas, I’m guessing it has enough red food coloring in it to kill you slowly. But man oh man, is it addictive. It’s a Philippino thing–they use it on all sorts of stuff, spaghetti dishes being the one I’ve seen the most when I google ‘banana ketchup’, which I do more than I’d want to admit–but, not being from the Philippines, I should probably leave that up to the folks who’re masters therein. Me, I just put it on everything I used to put ketchup on. Thank you, trusty bottle of banana ketchup. Thank you.

Duke’s Mayo–If you’re not from the American South, you might not have heard of Duke’s. This is because you’ve lived a sad, colorless life, and your southern-style salads are devoid of true meaning.

Why do people swear by Duke’s? Because it tastes better. I don’t know what else to tell you, but it does. It probably has a host of non clean living ingredients that make it taste better, but dear Jesus, I do not care.

I slipped up last week. My grocery store had Kraft two for one and I, like a moron, bought Kraft. After my first cucumber salad came out sad and tasteless, I went right back to the damn store and made everything okay. I owed it to my boyfriend. No one should have to take that Kraft shit.

Green Pepper Jelly– What a strange thing to make jelly out of, you say.

Your mom is strange, I say right back, sticky-sweet green goo oozing out of my face hole.

Green pepper jelly is sweet. You probably figured that out–it is a jelly. But it’s got this funky sharp and earthy aftertaste that’s worth talking about, and keeps it from being totally cloying (which is, to be honest, how I find most jellies after brief exposure). And it’s green. Which is, really, all I demand from most food items.

Useful anywhere you need a jelly, but I have two particular uses for which I adore it: one is inside cornmeal thumbprint cookies around Christmas time (I use green pepper jelly for the green ones, red pepper jelly for the red. How cute.) and the other is on Wheat Thins, in combination with cream cheese. I have no idea where I got that one. I think it was Mom. But it’s awesome.

And, bonus points!

Chow chow. Oh, chow-chow. What are you, exactly?

Deliciousness. Sheer, tangy, sweetie, yellow deliciousness. I put you on hot dogs for years. I’ll put you on soy dogs for more years. My collards are incomplete without you. Actually: any green I make is incomplete without you. I’ve forced you into chicken salad before, and I was sorry for it. You didn’t belong there. Next time, I’ll just serve chicken salad with a scoopful of chow-chow beside it.

Chow-chow is…a relish. Of some sort. It comes in both sweet and spicy varieties, both of which I recommend. I left it off my original list because I couldn’t for the life of me tell you exactly what’s in it, but by God, a condiment listing without chow-chow in it is sadly incomplete.

There you go. Non-writing silliness, and God Save the Condiments.

How and When to Fail

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As promised.

How (And When) to Fail

I know. You’re looking at the title of this post, and and the noble glitter of self-sacrificing patience has come into your eye. “Emily,” you say gently. “I don’t think I need help failing. It’s the succeeding I could use some help with.”

Well, surprise surprise. I think you’re wrong. (I always think you’re wrong. Haven’t you been reading my blog? Don’t you know that?)

Every writer, my dears, has a slush pile, and every slush pile exists because every writer isn’t churning out Nobel Prize for Literature winning palimpsests every palimpsesting second. If you continued writing every story in your slush pile until completion, you would

A) Have wasted a shocking amount of time, and
B) Have produced a shocking amount of things to start fires with.

And I note that ‘produced your masterwork’ is nowhere in that description.

For real, though, let’s talk about this. Some stories–well, they’re failures. You started them, something went wrong, the magic went somewhere else, you got distracted. The question is, should you let them rot in the wastes of Slushpilia? When–and why–is it okay to fail? The answer is simple:

When the Magic is Gone.

I want you to note: I am NOT talking about ‘when it gets a teensy eensy bit hard to write it for a day or two’. When this happens, slog on.

I’m talking about that moment you realize you’ve patched fatal holes in your plot so often your story is more plothole correction than story. When you read a few pages out loud to somebody, and they nod and smile and ask you “so what happened, again?” If you’re juggling so many corrections your outline looks like a football play, it’s time to consider giving it up and starting from scratch. You don’t need to edit, again. The damage is too great for a mere edit. You need to rewrite. Whether the story is worth rewriting, I can’t tell you–only you can decide that.

Being a writer is a little like being a magician in some regards: you put a lot of work into something, a whole hell of a lot, but the last thing you want is for someone to see where you’ve been working. Your story has to look as effortless and instantaneous as a big stage illusion–when people can see where you’ve had to work for something, it loses credibility as a world of its own. If you can’t patch it seamlessly, don’t patch it. Rewrite it, or leave it to moulder.

Speaking of rewrites:

If You Like It, Don’t Be Afraid to Write It Again.

Rewriting is tough. It sucks. You start to question your own usefulness on this planet, whether you’re going to be writing the same story, over and over again, until you finally die, and whether or not hell is going to be a sad Sisyphean endlessness of the same goddamn story from here to Ragnarok. (Do you like mixing mythologies? I sure do.)

But rewriting is useful. I actually like to do it, on some things–when my first draft, for instance, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting in the first few pages. A rewrite brings everything together–you’re writing, after all, in full knowledge of what’s going to eventually happen (I’m a pantser. No outlines for moi. Have I mentioned that?). When you rewrite, you automatically have more control over the story. And, oftentimes, a story you were unable to complete the first time winds up being a VERY good story the second time around, when you’ve had a chance to iron out the plot or what have you.

Again, though, I’ve got to tell you:

I don’t know when you’ve failed.

Only you know that, Skipper. But you can feel it in your bones–trust me on that one. And what you do after that is up to you. Trick is,

Failing is Always a Learning Experience.

There are some times when you’ve had a terrible idea, and your execution was terrible, and you’re just going to leave those five or ten pages to molder on your hard drive until the kingdom comes, and that’s just fine, kthxbye.

But even those shitty ten pages happened because you had an idea. And you’ll have that idea, should you need it, forever.

That failed novel idea about the laudanum-guzzling sailor with a speech impediment who solves petty crimes? It might not’ve worked out, me matey, but perhaps you could use him as a supporting character somewhere else. Perhaps, in your steampunk adventure novel, your main character needs to be told the airship’s moving hard to thtarboard at least once. My main trilogy character, Jin, was actually a supporting character in a failed novel I wrote about ten years ago–and part of the reason it failed, I realized when I looked back on it, was because Jin (then named Jinnever) and her unlikely husband were actually far too interesting to be side characters. They stole the show whenever they came onto the scene.

So they got their own story. A much better story than the one I abandoned, all those years ago. I stopped working on the old story and moved on. I’m glad I did.

Because failure isn’t the shitty thing it’s painted to be. It’s a learning experience, and a damned good one. Even when you’ve failed utterly, you’ve still created something, and there’ll come a day–maybe a week from now, maybe twenty years from now–when that something will come in handy.

And if you keep trying to hash out your failures forever–if you buy in to the whole ‘never give up’ mentality–you’ll write glossy, completed failures. And nobody wants that.

Only you can tell when something is working, once more: but trust me. You can tell. And it’s worth rewriting a few thousand (possibly tens of thousands) of words just to make that happen. No one likes failing–certainly not I–but if it has to happen a few times to make your successes possible, then that’s just how it is. Failure is a part of the writing process. A big one.

Why You Should Write Short Stories

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Hey, guys. Sorry this post is so late, but it’s been a busy morning. I made it. That has to count for something.
Anyway.

It’s been a busy morning because I’ve been finishing up and editing a story for an AU anthology (and waiting fifteen minutes for a damned cup of coffee, but that’s irrelevant). Doing it got me to thinking about something I hear from a lot of writers:

A lot of us–a damned big-shame lot of us–never write short stories. Or: we try to write short stories, and they turn into novels.

Why is this such a shame? Because short stories are like the Adderol to your novel’s cocaine. (Insert some less offensive metaphor here, if you can think of one that’s still apt). Finishing a short story might not give you quite the buzz finishing a novel does, but it’s still damned fun, and it’s a good deal less involved. You can crank out a five thousand word short story in a day, if you feel like it. You can crank out two, if you have nothing else to do.

And writing within a word limit can teach you a loo-oooot about plot pacing.

Think of a short story as a novel without all the fluff. You need a complete story–a complete plot, rounded characters, a believable setting–but you need it in a fairly small amount of words. You need, my dears, to learn the art of economy to make it work. You need to make your action–and your other stuff–fit the size of your undertaking.

So here’s some stuff to think about, as you write:

1) Choose an idea that fits your word limit.
If it’s one hundred word flash fiction, the action can be something as simple as dropping a flower. If it’s five thousand words, we want to know why the flower was dropped, what happens before and after, why the flower is significant, and all the action that descends from this flowerful droppage. If it’s more than five thousand words, we want more action. Honestly: we probably want more action if it’s over five HUNDRED words.

But there needs to be action. There needs to be plot. There needs to be character. And it needs to fit the size of your story.

If you pick a plot that’s too simple for your word limit, your story’s going to be fluffy and dull. If you pick one that’s too complicated, it’s going to be confusing (and, therefore, dull). Character-based though much of my writing is, even I have to acknowledge the importance of plot as infrastructure–if you don’t frame your dwelling soundly, no matter how pretty it is, it’s going to fall down.

2) Keep within your word limit.
We’ve all done it: you started out to write a 10,000 word story, and you wound up writing a 500,000 word trilogy. Whoops! Tee hee! Aren’t you an adorable little overachiever? Doesn’t that just prove you’re soooo totally committed to your cause?

No. It just proves you can’t write a short story.

For those of us who tend to literary effusiveness, the short story is a tool, and one of some worth. It teaches us to trim, to cut, to cinch in our literary verbosity. It teaches us not to use three words (like I did in that previous sentence–natch!) when one will do. I started a novel, once, with some stunning (to me, at least,) visual imagery and a plot that moved like treacle. It took me owing something to a publication on VERY short notice for me to look at that half-finished novel and realize: all that time, it had been a short story. It didn’t have enough of a plot to work as a novel. So: I relieved it of its pretense and rewrote it as it was meant to be. And it was much better.

Valuable lessons learned.

3) What’s important?
This is a subset of item two, really, but it’s worth mentioning in a separate context. To keep within your word limit, you’re going to have to think pretty hard about what’s important in your story and what isn’t. Short stories will teach you how to kill your darlings, and they’ll teach you how necessary that sometimes is.

In a work of fiction under 10,000 words, the main question you need to be asking yourself is:

Does this scene do two things?

Does it show your main character’s bravery and get the toothpaste in the picture for that cavity-fighting scene that happens later on? Does it provide a crucial amount of the mother’s backstory while casually reinforcing how hard it is to find a good dentist in town?

If it doesn’t accomplish at least two purposes, you could probably use those limited words a little better. People say every scene needs to mean something in the course of your story, and yeah, that’s true. Otherwise, you just rewrote Tropic of Cancer. In a short story, however, take that advice and double it: now everything needs to have two purposes, and you need to be a literary Macguyver.

4) Experiment!
The other great thing about short stories, kids: you’ve got a LOT less editing to do when you’re finished. It’s easier to stay in control of a shorter story. There’s less time, as it happens, for your faults as a writer to boil to the surface. You can think about the bare-bones mechanics of the story a little less, simply because there are less of them.

Therefore: short stories are a great place to experiment. Been debating an attempt at second person present for a while? Write a short. Just kind of curious how a story written from the POV of a dying star would look? Dabble all you like. Want to write a circular tale where the end and beginning lines are both the onomatopoeaic sound of an elephant’s ear wax dribbling down a concrete wall? I reckon that sound is sshlrrp. Have fun. If you find something you like, you can craft a heavier plot and novelize later.

5) Learn to accept defeat.
I know, nobody likes to see that one. But there are times–a LOT of times–where the thing you’ve been trying so hard to save just isn’t going to work. You’ve tried to patch it up so many times it’s more deus ex-type patch than story. There’s a plot hole that’s too big, a character inconsistency that’s too prominent. And in these cases, you have two choices: either put the thing down, ostensibly to give it a rest but really probably never to pick it up again, or start over.

I’ve had to start a TON of short stories over, and while it’s never pleasant, let me say this: it gives you the experience to recognize when this needs to happen with a novel, and it gives you the courage to LET it happen. Not everything’s a keeper. Everyone has a literary slush pile. Don’t be ashamed, but likewise: don’t be afraid of the work. If you really feel like there’s something in there that could be saved if you just start over, start over.

Wow. That’s probably going to be my next blog: When to Quit. It’s an important thing and it never gets talked about.
At any rate, love.

EFR

Writing: Keeping a Notebook

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Okay. So that picture isn’t of my current notebook. That is, actually, a notebook of mine from college, a million or so years ago. I found it in my studio when I was going through some drawers. Looking through it, sampling its fascinating combination of French homework and pretentious teenaged bullshit–well. I guess it’s finally served its purpose, in that it inspired me to write something. Namely, a blog entery ooo-oon….

Using A Notebook

Let all that meta sink in, if you will.

Anyways, I think using a notebook is important, but not for the reasons a lot of people say it is. When I’m trying to think of something to write, I almost never thumb through mine. The statement ‘Ooh, I know I had a good idea, but I can’t remember it–thank God I wrote it down!’ has possibly never been uttered near my word processing device. Good ideas I usually remember no problem.

If you’re one of those people who tends to think of something really, really worth doing and then promptly forget about it, I guess it might be worth your time to have a notebook for the above reason. But, if this doesn’t happen often:
why write shit down?

Well, for one, I hope the big brawny ideas that come striding, lumberjacklike, out of your writerbrain aren’t the only reason you keep a notebook. I keep mine f’rinstance, mostly for minutae–names I like, facts I didn’t know, words I don’t recognize. Those things (along with  shopping lists, reminder notes, and confirmation numbers scrawled in the top margin) make up the majority of my little notebooks.

Are these things important, overall? Maybe. Probably not. But they give you a good and writerly habit: the habit of curiosity.

Good writing–dependable writing–is twenty percent genius and eighty percent follow-through. A notebook encourages you to explore the things that’ve made you curious–find definitions for new words, find out the history of funny names, look up a process or an item that you found interesting. If you’re not sure about a detail (such as: how much control does a game designer have over the game’s final content?) write it down so you can look it up later. This serves the excellent double function of making sure you remember things you might be writing incorrectly, and indulging that curiosity habit I’m talking about. Looking these things up might, after all, show you that you need to take your story in a new direction to make it work–or give you mental fodder for other stories, later on down the line.

Again: keeping a notebook doesn’t have to be a super-organized thing. It doesn’t have to be something you live or die by. But when you have a chance, it’s good to indulge.

My notebook from the Distant Collegial Past doesn’t look much different from my notebooks now. I still use the tiniest notebook I can write in comfortably–small enough, preferably, to fit in a back pocket. No, I don’t give a shit if they’re Molskine. I’ve got a whole slew of them in the studio: cheap drugstore notebooks, the kind you used to be able to buy at CVS for fifty cents. They’re not particularly organized, and once I’ve looked up what I’m going to look up from them I rarely look back at them, except when I’m cleaning or feeling reminiscent. They’re undated, because I’m not a damn scrapbooker, but I can usually figure out which ones are from when, more or less.

But the process of writing down things you notice, even if you never look at them again, will help you remember them better. That alone is a good reason to keep a notebook. And I have to say, though I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me:

How you keep one matters, too.

I know, I know. You’ve gotta do what works for you. I’m not going to stop you, but I do have to say: I don’t think it works as well to do it on your phone or tablet or what have you. I think it makes the whole process take longer, and speed is what you want–if writing stuff down in a notebook is going to be difficult, you’re not going to do it. A bitty book and a pen, in easy reach in your pocket or the confines of your purse, is faster than a six hundred dollar electronic device. Also, if it rains, your pen and paper will forgive you in a way your phone won’t.

So, once more: my notebooks don’t contain the genius-bombs that hit at four in the morning. Contrary to popular belief, those’re usually pretty easy to remember. They don’t contain lines of unabashed beauty, the unfinished sestinas of public transit induced anguish (at least, the ones past college don’t). They contain, mostly, a wilderness of strange names, snippets of conversation, odd questions (‘who makes slaughterhouse bolt guns?’, says one page of my college notebook). And, of course, phone numbers, shit in French, and life stuff (‘Remember toilet paper PLEASE PLEASE.’. Or, most mysteriously: one page with the word DACTYL written on it in block caps).

There are no fun clues to the person I used to be in there. No tinsel-sparkles of effervescent young genius. I rarely look at the notebooks, because they’ve already served their purpose: simply by writing this shit down, I remember it better. Most of the notes are meaningless to me now, useless (such as this random picture of the Pimp Coat of Christ, which I couldn’t for the life of me give you context for present-day:)

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But it helped me to do it. It gave me a reason to explore the world a little bit more, for a little bit longer. And for that, it’s worth doing.

How about you guys? Do you keep notebooks? How? What do you write in them? Do you feel like it helps you?