The Commonplace Book Pt. 3

Alright, so we talked about the commonplace book and I told you that I use mine in a very particular way in order to focus on my current project more fully. I gave you a basic overview of what I do, but now let’s take a closer look. We’ll start with the first part.

Section one is the most normal part of the book. This is my calendar and goal section. I don’t bother to separate my regular appointments from my book goals because, let’s face it, my life revolves around my books, not the other way around and anything written down elsewhere requires three alarms and a shock collar. That does not mean I won’t still miss the appointment. But it does mean you have a better chance. I try to use the daily inserts rather than a full month view and I like the undated because then I don’t feel like I’m wasting paper if I take a month off from planned projects.

So, most of what goes here is my goals and let’s discuss that. I’m not the most deadline loving person. I sometimes sorta wish I was more organized, but, yeah, not gonna happen. I’m pretty sure you figured that out if you’ve been following this blog. Some things are easy, other things depend wholly on whether or not I managed to finish the higher priority task for the day. As an eternal optimist, I have the tendency to think I can finish something quickly. The perfectionist in me makes it take twice as long as it should. I can accept mistakes, but I cannot accept a job half done. I so I do things multiple times. One day, I’ll be able to time myself properly. Or not. Cause what’s the fun in knowing everything? And, well, this is not the sort of job where you get to say ‘this will happen like this’. You have to be open. And you have to be accepting.

Anyway, I am loose on deadlines because the other option is to constantly be stressing over it and, really, what good does that do? Goals, however, are a different story. I do believe in goals because, especially in small doses, they let you keep on track and you’re more likely to realize there is a problem while it’s still a small one. I have two types of goals, the major and the minor. I try to only set out three major goals at a time. The less you set yourself up for, the less pressure you’ll feel, the less likely you are to get tense and end up blocked. Examples of these goals might be to finish the planning stages (this is not the same as outlining. If that is your bag, awesome, do that here, if not, that’s okay; I have other, more organic versions of this), research, and first draft.  I put these one the calendar and I journal about them as often as I can. I do this, because it keeps me connected to the task. You have to understand that, if this is going to work for you. This is not journaling for the sake of journaling, nor is it a frantic attempt to cram yourself into a particular shape. You can go over your ‘deadline’ on these goals. Stay loose. The point is to keep your eyes in the right direction and journaling and general dates help. Simple, yes?

 Minor goals are the small, daily steps that get you closer to where you want to be. These can apply to anything to do with your writing; marketing, tribe building, classes, and more.These I am even less rigid about. Pretty much, I lay them out daily, but no more than a week in advance. If you go to Barnes & Noble, you can pick up one of the WTF pads that give you multiple different options for daily (and weekly) planning while keeping your sense of humor. Usually, I start my days making these goals and here is why. If I set these out first thing, they get me moving without me actually being aware.

I have mentioned my schedule before and I’m not going into heavy detail because my schedule will do you very little good. This is something you need to do for yourself. What are your weaknesses? Can you do a little coffee drinking phone play in the morning and then get to work? Or, like me, do you need to throw the phone as far as possible until after you’ve done a full day’s work? You have to be honest here. Like, I know what that stupid phone does to my work day if I don’t ignore it at least until lunch. And yet, almost every morning, I pick it up anyway. Yup. It isn’t that my self control is that bad. It’s just reflex. I better make sure nobody died in the night, check my fan pages, maybe rough draft a blog. And, well, next thing I know it’s three in the afternoon. This is the sort of honesty we do not want to have. But, if you want to make writing your life, you need to get control of your monkey mind. So play with goals or grab your dictionary and play word association to get things limbered up, whatever. Most likely, though, you first need to detatch from the technological umbilical cord. Next week, I’ll try to post about overcoming that.

Okay, so goals.

I keep a little daily/weekly goal journal in this first section, as I mentioned before. This is not a regular journal. If I’ve got something on my mind, I have other places to write about it. My goal journal is literally just me checking to see if I’m moving forward, as I’ve said. This is basically you giving your inner boss permission to do an evaluation. I do this because it is easy for me to lose track of days. Seriously, I lose whole days. I also tend, to get lost in Facebook. This is a mental bitch slap (but gentler) to get me thinking about certain things. Like, I don’t want to spend my life on Facebook. I want to be a writer. I want to publish excellent books. By keeping an eye on my goals, I can see what’s working and what’s not. I can ask myself daily how I’m doing and if there is anything that can help me do a little better.

Now, I know the first section sounds really boring, absolutely counter intuitive to creativity. But I’m going to lay this on you. When you have a child and you want to teach them without stealing the fun, you have to have structure while keeping what’s inside that structure as loose as possible. If you try to teach the ABC’s to a toddler by sitting them down with flashcards, good luck, my friend. Do it by making a fun game where they get to sing and jump on the couch, the information will stick fast. This boring structure is necessary; it is a small part of the bigger whole, but intrinsic to giving you a sturdy plan for what you’re trying to do.

Reality might seem intrusive, especially when you happen to write fantasy. Think of this like the tether on a spaceman’s suit when he goes out for a spacewalk. He can still enjoy the stars and floating around, but it keeps him safely attached to the ship so he doesn’t float off aimlessly into the vastness of space where he’s in deep poo long before he even realizes how far off the reservation he’s gotten. Which is extremely possible when you write epic fantasy. One second you’re writing about dragons, the next you are detailing the royal bloodline of King Wump Wump and the rules of a country you don’t even plan to visit. This goal calendar is the focus point. It draws the line between where you are and where you want to be. I also suggest using this to keep track of things that strike you. If you happen to visit a place that inspires you – even if it’s not part of this book – you can always make a little note of it here to be put into the Vision Quest on your computer when you get home.

This is all part of the game I play with myself called ‘How Long’. It used to be a WoW game and I adjusted it to real life a while back.

You know when you have this really great treat in the kitchen. Maybe it’s a pie? Maybe it’s your favorite ice cream? Or maybe it isn’t even food. Maybe it’s a book or a video game. Anyway, once you indulge, that’s it, you’ve had it. It may still be great, but the anticipation is gone. I talk a lot about loving your journey and this is where the reality of it becomes clear. Rather than madly chasing my deserts, I taught myself to enjoy delayed fulfillment.

Lately, I’ve been trying to apply this to my writing. In other words, instead of grabbing my notebook every single time I get a little inspiration, I try to control it. The problem with immediate gratification when it comes to those moments when the idea hits and a character starts talking is two fold. One, it can pass as fast as it shows up. And, two, it is like the spaceman drifting through space. You have no tether. Hell, you don’t even have a ship. You just have a tiny flash of light in the deep, dark depths of an endless space and you don’t know if it’s a star, a moon, or just Uranus. You don’t know where you’re going or why. You are just trying to find your way with a flashlight that might, at any moment, die and leave you without so much as a candle to guide your ass back home.

Now, I’ve tried keeping the idea notebook where I just enter these little things a bit at a time and that might work for some. My problem is that I might have four or five books trying to come through at once. And I mean at once. Like, there are points where there is a full on bar brawl going on in my head between characters that all want me to themselves. A year ago, I would have crumbled right about here into a hysterical mess; like, not having ideas sucks enough. What the hell do you do when you have too many and they all want attention at once???? Like, even when I chose one and insisted I was going to focus on just that one, the next thing I knew, I’d be all blocked up asking myself a million questions like ‘where is this even going’ and ‘how does this end’ and I was a train wreck. I knew I was a writer, but I suspected that I couldn’t continue on with this pantsing habit and expect to ever be any good at it. I mean, four or five rewrites and I would still feel like I’d written a story that rambled all over the place without any real drive. They are stories without intention, I thought. And, yet, any attempt to outline or harness my characters and stories was an unequivocal mess. I used to joke and say I needed Tony Stark’s computer so that I could pluck my ideas out and place them in front of me in an exploded view so I could figure out the what when where. FYI, Scrivener is perfect for this, on the computer.

I’m not a quitter, you know. I wasn’t about to accept mediocrity based on not being able to manage my own brain. I’ve been looking for a while for answers, but a few things happened in the last couple years that made me both hyper aware of my issues and determined to find an answer. A few months back, I did the come to Jesus talk with myself and that was when I started the journey to finding the methods that work for me.

I’ve read all the books. Twenty years, obviously I knew I had issues before this. I’ve faced down writer’s block way too often to pretend that I don’t have creative nightmares in my closet. I would read books, do the exercises, fight with myself, swear I was going to just quit the whole thing, go find a regular job and just be happy with that. Then a character would pop up waving a fabulous new idea and off I’d go, drifting into space, so fascinated with the shiny the character was waving at me, that I wasn’t aware I was completely off the path until I was alone in the cold, dead reaches of nothingness wondering what happened.

My characters are, well, not me. A few of them might share a few of my traits and I gave one my favorite horse, but, generally, I don’t really know these people. They pop into my head, start talking, and I listen. Up until three months ago, that was how I did everything. The problem, of course, is that, when they stopped talking, I had no idea where they were headed to begin with. I’m this way about real people, too. Oh, we just met? Doesn’t matter, you are my new best friend! Until I get dropped on my ass and left for dead (joke’s on them; I’ll be surviving the zombie apocalypse and, no, they can’t come into my shelter). Enter the book. My messy amalgamation of appointment book, idea catcher, research assistant, and random crap collector. I focus it on whatever story is trying to come up and I let the characters do their talking thing, but I don’t do any writing on the actual book itself; this is where I get to know them so, when I do sit down to write the book, I know where I’m going with it and why. Six months ago, this behavior would have put me in a panic; what if I lose the story???

Now, however, I have a different plan. I hold on to my characters. I will sometimes write down a sentence or two, but, instead of writing six pages of them talking, I listen and take some notes. I put those notes into the spare file. Rather than losing my ideas, focusing on them while refusing to allow myself to just jump in and start writing blind seems to give them more depth. When I collect enough of these ideas to start seeing a shape, that’s when I pluck them out of the spare file and start the real work. I still don’t write the story yet. Instead, I do the ‘research’. This isn’t always learning stuff, like myths or physics. Sometimes, it is as simple are reading the sorts of books that get me thinking.

I avoid reading the sort of book I’m writing. However, the best part of working this way is that I know the general personality of the book. Is it, like Lord of the Rings, more of a history or mythology? Is it a children’s book? Is it magical? Whatever it is, I tend to get in the mood by making playlists and reading books that shift my thought processes. Just as an example, say this is a book about a father and his daughter and the lengths he might go to for her. Time to re-read Les Miserables. If it is a more natural focused book I might read Walden. If it is more of a drama, then I read stuff like Wuthering Heights.

Say I am writing a book about a woman who sees ghosts and whose family has always considered her a bit mad. Say her only supportive family member dies and she is left adrift in a very unfriendly sea of relatives who all think they know what sort of person she is. Let’s say our sad heroine finds a journal from the lost family member which encourages her to leave home and go find herself and maybe come to terms with her strange ability. The focus of this book is not the supernatural powers. They just outline how outside the main character is. This is a book of self discovery and self growth. So I might read Eat, Pray, Love to get a feel for that sense of self discovery. I might read biographies on Joan of Arc to get a sense of how the world might see my hero before she gets strong enough to stop caring. I’d probably do research on different mental issues that might make someone think they were seeing ghosts – or that a real medium might be diagnosed with. And, yeah, I’d read as many autobiographies on real mediums as possible. Now, this may sound like years worth of work. Doubtful. I am a fast reader and once I have a handle on the ‘voice’ of the book and characters, I don’t need to keep chasing leads.

Okay, so, I’ve gone on long enough today. This post is probably longer than the entirety of section one. The basic point here is that structure doesn’t have to be this rigid conformity to deadlines and creativity killing rules. You can have goals and direction without freaking out about getting it done. This section is all about guiding yourself (gently) in the right direction. This job is hard enough without floundering around lost or destroying your passion for the story with outlines and determination that your muse is going to obey. No, he/she won’t. And the more you try to force it, the worse your writer’s block will get. This book is designed to crack open the heart of the story while keeping you interested. What are your methods for helping yourself forward?

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