I’ve been growing my own tomato plants for nearly 40 years, and for the last couple of decades, I’ve even used my own seeds. I started out with a French heirloom variety called Dona, whose seeds I bought in the 1980s from a producer in Saskatchewan when I lived there. That’s the original packet, on the right in the first image. The vendor made packets from his own repurposed catalogues (blue paper). How thrifty was that?! Those seeds retained viability into the 2000s, but eventually I harvested fresh ones. Knowing how open pollination works, I suspect my most recently harvested seeds, from 2018, are probably not identical to the original Dona strain, but they still produce good tomatoes.
Here is another half-hour video chat by three regulars from Writers Supporting Writers: Berthold, Mark, and me. This one rambles a bit among several topics: story structure, the role of the reader, and does fiction need a meaning? You can find it HERE.
The novels I write begin with notes. Well actually they begin with ideas, visions of characters, scraps of plot, and imagined scenes. All these early elements are recorded in a notebook, along with random thoughts that might be relevant. Some notes are written on scraps of paper that happen to be handy when an idea strikes. With luck, I manage to copy them into the Official Notebook, or at least keep track of them. This stage lasts for months, or even years.
Eventually, I start writing the first draft. On paper, with a pen. Right now, I’m still writing a page a day, sometimes more if I’m lucky. As the plot has developed, in an amoeba-like way, I’ve resorted to another set of notes that are sort of like, but not quite, an outline. Character sketches and motivations, rough timelines, problems to be resolved, things I know that the characters do not, and yes, actual outlines of the next section to be written. These notes are on a separate group of 8 1/2 x 11 (A4) sheets of paper.
Then there are the in-manuscript notes. Things like [CHECK THIS!] or [EXPAND IN REWRITE], or alerts to areas of weakness [CRAP ALARM GOING OFF!!!] or [WOULD SHE REALLY THINK THIS???]. And often, when I finish a writing session, I scribble a tiny outline for the next day at the very bottom of the page.
So I guess this proves I’m not really the pantser I thought I was. More like a “plantser,” I guess.
Some things to keep in mind about notes.
They’re useless unless read over as the work progresses. There’s nothing like rediscovering a good idea after publishing
Notes on scraps of paper should be transcribed into a notebook. The lost idea is always the best one
There should be only one notebook per novel, but a single notebook may be used for more than one novel
Dating the notes is helpful for cross-referencing (e.g., “See list of names in notebook, Nov. 21/20”)
Manuscript pages and pages of notes should always be numbered, and indicate the title of the work (even if provisional) at the top
A novel with multiple characters is a complex creation. Notes are helpful at every stage, from concept and basic plot to rewrites. Also, in working out plot problems and bringing characters to life.
But even more, some notes represent a debate between the Imaginer and the Editor. The Imaginer is the part of my brain that’s laying down the text of the first draft. The Editor’s role comes later, in rewrites and editing. But of course, the Editor is around all the time. Every now and then it plants a flag in spots where it anticipates extra attention will be needed. That’s where those “crap alarm” notes come from. And even some quite rude remarks.
Fellow writers, do you make use of notes to help you write? Do you have any note-related tips to share?
A bird sang, and Anna raised her eyes to the topmost twigs of the still bare maple. Far, far above the tree, a jet plane ghosted across the luminous blue of the springtime sky. No contrail, and flying ahead of its sound. Silvery-white, it looked almost translucent, beautiful. Anna thought how strange that dozens of humans were up there, perfectly ordinary people talking, eating, farting, sleeping, anticipating their arrival in some distant city.
The tubular shape vanished behind a medium-sized cumulus cloud that billowed pure white, its edges made incandescent by the morning sun. Anna waited, neck craned, to see the aircraft emerge–because you just do.
She waited. Nothing emerged. No jet plane. No sound, either, although it should have arrived by now. The cloud shifted its shape, sending out illuminated tendrils, elongating, transforming. But the flying craft had disappeared completely, as though vaporized.
Exactly three minutes later, the rain of blood began.
We writers give our characters quirks and habits to make them relatable and different from one another. Fingernail chewing, smoking, polishing glasses, using certain expressions. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget about them while creating the plot.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Once the reader has absorbed that this one mangles paper clips and that one wears polka-dots, are further mentions of those quirks really necessary?
I think they are. Real people keep doing things like that, and we want our characters to be real. And it’s just sloppy writing to forget details. Besides, some readers are incredibly fussy. I remember reading a library book in which a certain character had a cat. The cat didn’t play an important role in the plot, but it was mentioned several times. Toward the end of the book, there was a fire in that character’s house and quite a lot of action around putting it out, making sure no one was injured, etc. But the cat was not mentioned. I have to admit, I may never have realized that, had not a previous reader made a marginal note, “What about the cat? Stupid author!” Readers notice details, even trivial ones.
So another editing pass may be in order. Along with tracking down typos and patching plot holes, add a quirks checklist. Insert characters’ habits, tics, pet phrases, and oddities at intervals throughout the text. And make sure not to mix them up.
But don’t overdo it. Sprinkle, don’t shovel. Aim for a happy medium between “Hey, what happened to the polka-dot bowties?” and “Geez, if I see another mention of paperclip abuse, I’ll throw this book at the wall.”
Fellow writers, do you give your characters memorable quirks? Have you ever forgotten about them in the course of perfecting the plot, or attached a quirk to the wrong character? Or as a reader, been annoyed at an author who did that?
I enjoy writing dialogue. In fact, I’m one of those writers who lets characters call the shots a bit too much. Often, they just sit around and yak, instead of doing something to propel the plot.
Dialogue between two characters is basic and straightforward. But in my current work in progress, a group of five people is about to go somewhere and do something. (Let’s hope it’s something interesting.) Of course they’re going to talk about things, make plans, argue about details–and I’m already getting nervous about refereeing those conversations.
A few things come to mind right away…
If the whole group is there, or even just three of them, I’ll have to supply dialogue tags or other clear indications of who says what.
At least one person will be the silent type. When they do talk, they should say something important or at least funny.
Dialogue will be easier if most scenes include three or fewer of the characters, which means thinking up how to get the others out of the way.
In fact, I’ve already decided someone is going to go missing. Which means the others will have to organize a search while dealing with a number of other issues. That will, of course, require more planning, discussions, and arguments, many of which will take place over meals. (Can’t starve the characters, after all.)
By the time I’m done, I’ll either have mastered the art of managing the multi-character conversation or killed off two or three of the characters.
All you writers out there must have ways of dealing with group dialogue. Any tips or tricks you would like to share?
Images from Pixabay. Featured image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay.