Sometime last week, while lamenting once again that I cannot currently afford to enter a writing correspondance course (namely, the Christian Writer's Guild), it occured to me that I might be able to do something about it. After all, the library has a wealth of writer's reference books, and I've been taking advantage of that for some time now. So I decided to "homeschool" myself. I bought myself a notebook and a Pilot Precise pen (well, the pen I had) and began reading books not as a reader, but as a writer, critiquing and taking notes all along the way. Writer's reference, fiction, YA novels and childrens books: the genres that I'm interested in writing myself, and the self-help books to get me there. It's amazing how different the process is. Certainly not quite as enjoyable, but definitely more enlightening. If a line hits me as especially funny, I jot it down. If a find myself skimming over a few lines to get to the more juicy parts, I jot that down as well. Basically, I'm just disecting each book in order to discover what works and what doesn't. Mastering the craft.
One thing I came across since I began "schooling" myself was how a book-in-progress is like a living, breathing thing. It has a mind of it's own. As long as you're there for it, devoting your time and energy to it's care, it showers you with affection and small tokens of appreciation. But the minute you turn your back on it, and walk away for a few days, it becomes like a sulking child, difficult to manage and refusing to tell you what's wrong, no matter how long you persist in asking. As a way of warding off the story's disconsolation, I have developed a new system that works for me, and perhaps it will work for you as well.
The basic concept of "sticking by your book" is probably nothing new to seasoned writers but for some reason, it had never occured to me before. I came up with it because I am one of those people who thinks they never have time to write. It all goes together with what I just stated, about your book-in-progress being a living, breathing thing. You (meaning me) must no sooner consider leaving it behind than you would your newborn child, but rather, take it with you wherever you go. Obviously, we cannot all carry with us a sheaf of pages all day long, but you can carry a small notebook in your purse, or even a blank index card or two in your shirt pocket. When you are not writing, you can still be thinking of writing, going over scenes in your head or patches of dialogue or character traits. When you have time to spare (for me, it's waiting in my car out in front of the school for my kids to come out, for you it may be waiting in the doctor's office or during your lunch break) you can do a few, simple exercises that you can make up yourself, take as little or as long as you like, and that will keep you connected and focused on your project.
Here are a couple of sample excercises that I made up for myself.
1. The "Name 5 things". Totally off the top of my head, I'll scribble down 5 things that are on my character's desk right now. Or describe 5 pictures that are hanging on her livingroom wall. 5 items that are sitting out on her countertop, 5 things she might have on her to-do list, 5 things she'd have in her junk drawer. It doesn't really matter if I use them in the story or not, what matters is that I'm getting inside her head and seeing her world more clearly.
2. The "interview". As if you were doing an article for the paper, ask any (or all) of your characters a series of questions from what they had for breakfast to what's one thing they'd like to do before they die. Again, it's not about material for your story (though it is, in a way) it's just about getting to know your characters.
3. The "what if". Just for the heck of it, jot down what you think would happen if something totally unexpected happened to your character (pick one) right now. What if a car suddenly pulled out in front of them on the road? How would they react? What if a prank caller called? How would they respond? What if they forgot their backpack/purse/wallet in the last scene? How would they find it?
4. The "that's interesting..." Pay attention to anything that peaks your interest that day. An unusual name. A word you haven't heard in a while. A story you overhear. Write it down and see if you can incorporate it into your story (or save it for another one).
I'm sure there are others you can come up with. It's all about baby steps. Baby steps that keep you and your book connected and flowing like a well-oiled machine.
If you try it, let me know how it works for you!