Margin Notes: Does Marginalia Make You a Better Writer?

Do you scribble margin notes in your books when you read? I never really adopted the habit of keeping marginalia, but this past week I read Austin Kleon’s post, Reading with a Pencil, so now I’m thinking about it. He claims marking up your reading material serves as a gateway to becoming a writer. It forces you to read with a writer’s brain. I can see why he says it, but I wonder if it’s true.

Stack of books with pencils

Margin notes felt wrong to me when I was a kid. My mother trained me early on not to write in books. She took me to the library weekly, so there was a specific logic in her insistence I treat the books well. It carried over into how I kept my own books. I recall going through a very brief period at about four when I underlined (in pencil) words I recognized. I say recognized rather than read because “kitten” isn’t difficult to pick out with the book is The Three Little Kittens. But I outgrew the habit quickly, probably about the time my mother realized what I was doing.

Through school, I took notes separately, in my notebook. Teachers handed out all of our textbooks at the start of the year and expected us to return them in good condition in June. The habit was so well ingrained that by college, when I was purchasing my books, it took conscious effort to highlight the text. Even then, I reserved margin scribbles and highlights for my math and science books. As an English major, I mostly read novels in thin-paged editions I tried to keep clean. Ink would have bled through those pages. Pencil would smudge and become illegible. Writing in them felt impractical.

But occasionally I’d come across books with margin notes. At the library, used bookstores, in a friend’s loan. I read enough literary criticism and biographies of authors including references to marginalia to become curious. What process of reading resulted in these small comments? So I decided to give it a try.

Armed with a few sharpened pencils, I crashed on the couch with my latest book and set to reading with a pencil in hand. But it wasn’t a particularly successful experiment. I’d get involved in the book and forget to make any notes whatsoever. Or, I’d grow so self-conscious about needing to take notes that my reading slowed to a crawl.

Looking back having now read Kleon’s post, I understand that the slow, thoughtful reading necessitated by making margin notes helps you read more closely. It forces you to analyze the text in a different way. But at the time, I tried to take notes more because I wanted to be a person who left witty comments in the margins than from a desire to read deeply.

Which brings me to my question. Does keeping marginalia automatically give you a leg up on becoming a writer? It no doubt makes you a better reader. You read more thoroughly, think through the narrative on a different level. You engage with the content. And the act of writing notes has been proven to help you recall what you’ve read. But is that the same things as reading like a writer?

I once read a book on how to write romance–maybe twenty-five years ago, so I can’t recall the title. The author recommended taking a favorite romance novel and marking it up with a color code. Plot development should be underlined in one color, characterization in another, action a third, and so on. I gave it a very brief attempt before giving up. First, writing is not that clear cut; sentences serve multiple purposes at once, so what color to choose? Second, the slow, frustrating task had me ready to throw my colored pencils out a window after less than a chapter. I’d never make it through underlining the book. Still, the process of trying to separate out those differen parts of the text showed how well the author had entwine them. It served as a lesson on book structure, which was ultimately the point.

Marginalia can include the reader’s thoughts on many aspects of the text. Looking through books with margin notes, you’ll find lovely quotes underlined, disgust expressed at purple prose, and comments on the sanity of the protagonist. Readers focus on whatever captures their attention, but not everything readers note will be helpful to their writing process. I’d argue marginalia can definitely be helpful to the developing writer, but that the most helpful marginalia occurs when the writer reads with that specific intention. A reader who reads for pleasure and happens to make notes won’t engage on the same level as one hoping to improve their writing.

What are your thoughts? Do you write in your books? Is it something you feel helps you understand how the author approached their work? I’d love to hear some other takes on the subject.

Writing Goals: Planning for 2018

Writing goals, both making and working toward them, should be a year round process. But at the end of the year, it’s good to look ahead and sketch out a rough plan for where you’d like to go. You should also consider the bigger picture, and how your writing fits into your life.

I’m not a big fan of the term resolutions. Resolutions are things you start ignoring by the middle of February. Instead, I prefer to set goals and then come up with systems to help achieve them. The system becomes the habit, and the goal the result. But how do you make and keep your goals? What makes them different from the forgotten resolutions?

writing-goals-planning-for-2018

If you took time to look over your 2017 goals last week, you may already have a good idea what works and doesn’t work for you. But regardless, I have a few places for you to start.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • Focus on goals that are within your control. You may wish to sign with an agent, but whether you do depends on whether your writing is where it needs to be, and you connecting with the right person to represent you. Instead of making “get an agent” your goal, determine what you need to do to make it happen. Maybe you want to send out ten queries by the end of January, or five queries per week. Other goals within your control might be to complete the research for a project you’ve been considering, finish a first draft, or to send a short story out on submission — and keep sending it out if you get rejected.
  • Don’t be afraid to think big. Huge goals can be manageable; you just need to break them down into smaller bites. So if your goal is to write your first novel this year and you haven’t started, don’t shy away from it. Instead consider the typical word count for a novel in your genre and divide that by the number of weeks in your writing year. Now you have a goal of how many words you’d like to write each week to get that first draft done.
  • Consider the calendar when setting your goals. Are you going to travel a lot this year? Take that into account when scheduling your  writing goals. Chances are you won’t get much writing done if you’re touring the capitals of Europe. Also think about busy times at your day job, or commitments to host for the holidays.
  • Create a Balance. If you’ve chosen a major goal for the year, that might be your entire writing focus. You’ll break it into smaller, sub-goals that will keep you occupied all year. But you can also balance your year with several smaller goals, or a mix of larger and smaller ones. Some goals might be for later in the year; you might have one you start in January and aim to complete by late March, and another that starts in April. Wrapping up a few small goals early can be great for keeping you motivated.

Creating Systems for Your Goals:

Once you have your goals in mind, you want to determine what it will take to accomplish each one. Set yourself mini-deadlines to keep things on track. For instance, if you want to get an agent, you might set that goal of sending out a number of queries per month. But before you can do that, you must write the query. You also need to come up with a list of agents you wish to submit to, and decide which ones you want to query first. Your eventual system might include a schedule for researching each batch of agents, including what they rep and their submission guidelines, and personalizing your query slightly when it seems appropriate.

If finishing a first draft of your novel is important, schedule your writing sessions each week on your calendar. Set alerts so you don’t forget. And if you’re concerned about making enough progress, try giving yourself a “catch up” writing day once a month. Maybe make yourself accountable by joining a writing group, or finding a writing buddy, if you haven’t already

Checking in with your goals should become part of your overall system. Again, mark it in your calendar, for the end of the month or once a quarter. Just take a half hour to look over your goals and see how your system has been working. Is everything progressing well? Or do you need to tweak things a bit?

Be Flexible:

At the end of the day, these are your goals. You determine what they are, and how to achieve them. If they are truly important to you, you’ll find a way to get them done. Don’t hesitate to change things up mid-year if your ambitions have shifted. And if things are going better than anticipated, you can always add new goals later in the year. Ultimately, the idea is to keep on writing. Good luck!

A Daily Writing Habit: Do You Need to Write Every Day?

The idea of a daily writing habit prompts frequent discussion in writerly circles. Do you need to write every day to become a good writer? The short answer is no, of course not. Many successful writers do not write every day, for whatever reason. Their day jobs make it impossible, they prefer to write for long blocks of time on the weekend, etc. If writing daily rubs you the wrong way, or simply is not feasible, do not panic. But if you can manage a daily writing habit, I encourage you to try, because writing daily has its advantages.

daily-writing-habit

What Can Writing Daily Do for You?

  • Creativity is like a muscle; the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. A daily writing habit helps you train your brain. When you sit down at your computer or pick up your notebook on a very regular basis, your brain understands it’s time to create. If you write every day, even just for a little while, you will see a change in how ideas flow. Everyone knows that feeling of being “rusty” from not writing for a while. The opposite is true, as well. Writing daily helps prime the pump and keeps your creative mind nimble.
  • A daily writing habit helps you fight a tendency to procrastinate. If you plan to write three days per week, it is easier to put off that day’s writing. Whereas, if you write every day, you don’t have to decide whether to fit a writing session into your schedule. There is no questioning “Is this a writing day?” because the answer is always yes.
  • Writing daily can also help lessen the pressure of deadlines. It’s no guarantee that you won’t need an all-nighter or two to finish a manuscript, but it certainly makes it less likely than if you’ve been procrastinating for weeks.

No rule of writing says that you must write every day. Even writers who do write daily will take time off here and there. Writers are human beings, and all human beings need to take breaks from their work, no matter how much they love it. Nor is writing daily a cure-all for every writing issue. Everyone faces a block now and then. But if you’re serious about writing, or trying to improve, or looking to build up new habits for the new year, give writing daily a try. Join my December Writing Challenge, or just promise yourself to write every day. You might find that writing daily works for you.

 

December Writing Challenge Kickoff

It’s the December Writing Challenge Kickoff!

Writers, start your engines!

Writing-Challenge-Fireworks

The truth is, this is a low-key challenge. No huge word counts or goals for the month. Just write every day. For full rules, you can check yesterday’s post. Today I’m here for the official writing challenge kickoff, and to provide you with a few more tips to keep you writing through December.

Life goes a little crazy in December. Writers who crave quiet can find it difficult to carve out time to work on their current projects. Thoughts turn to lists of gifts to buy and plans to make. Everyone wants your attention, your time, your participation. Your boss needs something done before the holiday break. Your kids want you to take them to see Santa. Hanukkah starts on the early side. Your in-laws plan to visit. Suddenly your sister’s turned vegetarian, throwing a spanner in your holiday dinner menu. And you love it all, because the holidays are a wonderful time of year. But… you also love to write.

Tips for Getting to Your Desk

Make yourself a priority. The key to writing regularly is telling yourself, and everyone else, that writing is just as important as any other vital thing on your to-do list. Commit to your writing, and to yourself.

  • Schedule your writing time on your calendar. Write it in like a doctor’s appointment. Set an alert to remind yourself when your writing window begins.
  • Make writing dates with your local writer friends. Agree to meet and do a writing sprint or two at your local coffee shop. No treats or talk until you’ve put in your half hour minimum for the day.
  • Tell your family what you’re doing. Explain that yes, you still plan to do all the normal holiday activities, but writing can’t take a holiday this year and you need to write every day.
  • Set up a signal to let family know it’s your writing time. Whether that’s a sign on your door, a place you sit that’s “writing only,” or a writing sweater you put on, make it clear. When you’re writing, they need to leave you alone unless there’s a blood-or-fire emergency.
  • Don’t limit yourself to your desk/computer. Grab a pen and a notebook and find somewhere to hide. Dust off a corner of your attic, pick a favorite spot in your local library, go to the café that has no wifi and write your heart out for a while.

Writing should not be something you steal time to do. You do not write at the expense of other things. If it matters to you, it’s earned its own space. Assign it time, and honor that commitment. And remember, all the words count, and it all adds up.

Happy writing! Don’t forget to check out the #DecWritingChallenge tag on Twitter to see who else has joined the challenge and for ongoing cheerleading. Plus, spread the word about today’s writing challenge kickoff! I’ll be back here later today with this week’s Friday Links.

2017 December Writing Challenge

2017-December-Writing-Challenge

The 2017 December Writing Challenge kicks off tomorrow. Every year I issue this challenge to help writers get some words down during what’s arguably the busiest month of the year. Between holidays, family obligations, a slew of events, travel, and year-end expectations at work, many writers find their days completely packed. For those writers finishing a month of intense creativity for NaNoWriMo, taking December off from writing can seem particularly appealing. Hence this challenge.

If January is the month for resolutions, December is the month for distractions. But if you plan to set yourself some writing goals for 2018, you don’t want to lose your writing momentum now. No writing in December makes it hard to ramp up again once the new year starts. So I challenge you to write this coming month. Make yourself, and your writing, a priority.

2017 December Writing Challenge: The Rules

Because December can be crazy, this writing challenge is simple. I challenge you to write every day during the month of December. Unlike with NaNo, you aren’t aiming for a specific word count. Write as much or as little as you wish. But every day over the course of the month, sit down with your notebook or in front of your computer and do the work.

Write whatever you want. Work on your current novel. Get some editing done — including new words, not just deleting them. Try your hand at a new format, such as flash fiction or a personal essay. Focus on one project or have several going. Keep your eyes on an upcoming deadline. This challenge is for you, so you decide what to write.

As a nod to the true insanity of some people’s Decembers, I allow you up to two days off. Aim to write every day, but if you need to skip it once or twice, you have those two free days to use. Maybe you want to take a break for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Perhaps your New Year’s Eve plans require a nap instead of a writing session earlier in the day. Or you need a full day to clean in prep for your relatives coming to visit. Again, your choice.

A Few Tips

  • Even on your busiest days, try to squeeze in a bit of writing. Even 15 minutes will do, though I encourage you to aim for at least 30 minutes.
  • If you’re having a hard time finding sufficient time to write, try breaking it up into two smaller chunks over the day.
  • Do have a backup project or two at hand, so if your writing stalls on one thing, you can still work on something else.
  • Do commit to yourself and to the challenge, but don’t beat yourself up if you end up missing a few days more than planned. The point is to write enough that you don’t lose your momentum. Aim for every day, but regardless, just do your best.

I’ll be back tomorrow and periodically throughout the month with more tips and pep talks for inspiration. Also, keep an eye out on Twitter (@NepheleTempest) for additional cheering throughout the month under the #DecWritingChallenge tag. The 2017 December Writing Challenge starts tomorrow, so I hope you’ll be joining in. Happy writing!

The Return to Slow, Steady Writing: A NaNo Wrap Up

After NaNoWriMo, it can be difficult to remember that slow, steady writing should be the norm. NaNo provides participants with a fun month of frantic output, a crazy goal that might seem less crazy by month’s end. But most people cannot sustain that writing pace. Even a full-time writer, with an output goal of 2,000 words per day, won’t generally keep that up every day, month after month. Writers need to take days off. If they maintain a daily writing habit, they still build in a “day of rest” or breaks between projects. Everyone finds themselves working overtime to hit a deadline on occasion, but it’s important to limit those situations.

If you’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, you might be nearing the finish line: 50,000 words. Or, you may not. Plenty of writers fail to hit that goal, but still find they’ve achieved a lot of words in a month. Other writers never intended to hit 50k, but used NaNo to motivate their work. However you approached the challenge, the key takeaway now that the end is near should be that words add up. Whether you write for an hour a day or five, the words you craft in that time build, day in, day out. There will be days you only write a little bit, days you rewrite and end up with fewer words than when you began. But over time, words add up. Writers write, words add up, and yes, you can do this.

slow-steady-writing

Many of you already know how this works. A good number of you even follow the idea up with action. Plenty of people refuse to join NaNoWriMo each year because they have no wish to push themselves to write fast. They prefer to show up every day and put their words on paper or pixel, until they get where they’re going. But whatever your feelings about NaNo, there is a great deal to be said for the momentum it helps develop. While the challenge emphasizes output, it encourages work ethic.

In a few days, I’ll kick off my annual December Writing Challenge here on the blog. I’ll post the complete details later in the week, but the basic thrust of the challenge is to write every day in December. Keep going with that NaNo novel. Start a short story. Work on your next contracted project. Play around with a few different things. You don’t have to write for a set time, although at least 30 minutes a day makes a great goal. There’s no minimum word count involved, just slow, steady writing. So as you wind up your NaNo projects, or just continue your typical writing routine, mark your calendars for Friday. You’re going to write your way steadily into the new year.

Friday Links: The Politics of Reading and Writing

When I talk about the politics of reading and writing, I’m not referring to who won the election. In reading and writing, politics involves being “politically correct.” I put that in quotes for a reason. Because is it really about politics? Or is it about doing what’s right? Social media buzzes with talk about diversity in publishing and books written about lived experiences. Authors debate the dangers of piracy in this digital age. But at the end of the day, everyone deserves a place at the table. Writers should be paid for their efforts. Piracy breaks laws.

Certainly this simplifies things. I won’t argue that there’s no room for discussion on these subjects, or not plenty of shades of gray. But sometimes when we’re writing and thinking about how the results will be received, the most straightforward answer works best. Think about what’s right. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This week’s links offer some thoughts on the politics of reading and writing, along with more general interest articles. I hope you find them thought provoking. Enjoy, and happy writing!

This Week’s Links

Maggie Stiefvater talks about piracy. – The author shares her story about book piracy, and how it has affected her personally.

Should You Throw Away Your Books by Garbage People? – The Reading Glasses podcast discusses what to do when you learn an author you love has a problematic personal life. Includes an interview with Jessa Crispin.

How Long Is Writing Supposed to Take? – A writer/editor wonders how long it actually takes to write a book, and if there’s such a thing as too long.

The 2018 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge. – Mix up your reading list next year! This challege offers some suggestions.

November Is Here, Which Means You Can Add These New Scifi and Fantasy Books to Your Shelves. – Check out these new SFF releases for the month.

The Problem with ‘Problematic.’ – Francine Prose discusses the pros and cons of the discussion around diversifying books. (Note, this is not arguing against the need for diversity, but talking about the ways in which the problem is being discussed and where some lines have been drawn.)

Best Books of 2017. – Publishers Weekly offers their somewhat-early list of the best books for the year.

How Do I Pitch to a Publication? – Good tips for anyone looking to pitch to magazines, etc.

Ready, Set, Write: Turning Off Your Internal Editor

Ready, set, write. It sounds incredibly easy to do. You sit down at your keyboard or a notebook, and get to work. But most writers hear the nagging voice of their internal editor from the first sentence. That voice says you’ve started at the wrong spot. Or it insists your opening sentence is boring. Maybe you should start with a different scene. Are you sure that’s the correct point of view? Your internal editor pokes and whines and insinuates as you write, growing louder with every paragraph. It makes you doubt yourself, and slows your progress.

ready-set-write-woman-writing

Silencing Your Internal Editor

Writers everywhere have their own methods for silencing the nagging voice in their heads. The one that tells them they’re doing it all wrong. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working on your first draft. Post your favorites over your desk or tape them to the edge of your monitor. Maybe create a mantra or two.

  • It’s just a shitty first draft. No one writes a beautiful or perfect first draft. It’s supposed to be a brain dump. Plenty of time to make it pretty when you start to revise.
  • I’m figuring out who the characters are. First drafts help you flesh out your protagonist and the rest of your cast. Get to know them, determine what they want, and how they’re likely to behave while getting it.
  • Only reread the previous day’s output. When you sit down to write, don’t allow yourself to read anything older than what you wrote in your previous session. Out of sight, out of mind. And again, you have plenty of time to revise once you’re done with draft #1.
  • I don’t have to know everything yet. First drafts are for fleshing out the plot just as much as the characters. If you don’t know what happens next, skip ahead to where you do have an idea. Put brackets and come back later to fill in the details.
  • Everything is relative. Remember that the things you write start to build on each other. You may reach a juncture at page 50 or 150 or 250 that gives you wonderful ideas for shoring up earlier scenes. Sometimes you need to build the castle before the foundation.
  • You cannot edit a blank page. There’s no point in trying to perfect what you haven’t written. Write first, edit later. By this I mean the entire book. Editing a single sentence in a void is almost as bad as trying to write one perfect sentence from the start.

If your internal editor becomes particularly persistent, try some other ways of distracting yourself. Put on instrumental music to fill your head with some other sound. Scroll down the page so your screen is blank (or turn to the next page in your notebook), then take a short break to walk around; when you come back, start writing without looking at what you’d been picking over before you left. Change the font color of the last section to white so it’s invisible, then keep writing. Go for a run or hit the gym to get your blood flowing — you’ll feel more creatively inspired.

Every writer must face their internal editor, but only you can determine how much power you’ll give to your nagging voice. Whether you’re piling up words for NaNoWriMo or fighting to meet a contract deadline, there will be days when reaching your writing goal feels impossible. Remember that the internal editor is you — you at your most critical and insecure. Remind yourself that you are not alone in your efforts, and the only way to reach the end is to keep pushing through. Good luck, and happy writing.

Friday Links: Stories Only You Can Tell

This week I’m focused on the idea that there are stories only you can tell. Writers sometimes struggle to find their unique voice. But often the problem lies in trying to tell a story that has no personal connection.

Last weekend, at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, I listened to a number of very different keynote speeches. Tetsuro Shigematsu shared tales of family, of his relationships with his sisters, his father, and how they influenced the stories he told. Amal El-Mohtar spoke of belonging, of the sense memory of scent and how a whiff of something familiar and beloved can draw you into a community. Mary Robinette Kowal spoke about mechanics and voice and that something else that draws you in–or rather her charming puppet did. Liza Palmer talked about being real on the page, and the importance of being real in life first. These writers, and many others over the course of the conference, dug deep into themselves to tap into their stories. They shared personal moments, and in doing so, chose specific details to make the narrative relatable.

When writing fiction, writers dig just as deeply into their psyches to make their stories sing. Every story you write is your own story, whether you mine true-life experiences or let your imagination roam. Find the bits that touch your heart, make you laugh or cry. The choices you make will reveal your unique voice, and will result in stories only you can tell.

This week’s collection of links is something of a hodgepodge, but I hope you will consider them in light of the above. Think about it while reading great books, while working on your current project, while going for a run. Enjoy, and happy writing.

This Week’s Links

I Talked to 150 Writers and Here’s the Best Advice They Had. – A great collection of tidbits from a wide selection of authors.

How a kid who didn’t read a book until he was 17 grew up to become a literary star. – Short interview with award-winning YA author Jason Reynolds.

13 new Halloween reads to chill, amuse, inform, and terrify. – Some books to add to your seasonal TBR pile this weekend.

23 Writing Competitions to Enter Before the End of the Year. – A varied list of competitions with upcoming deadlines.

50 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books. – Some wonderful nonfiction to break up that pile of novels you’re working on, inform, inspire, and entertain.

The original synopsis of Harry Potter that J.K. Rowling sent to publishers has been revealed. – A few caveats: Rowling probably sent this (or something similar) to agents, and ultimately her agent sent it to publishers. It’s just the first page, as visible in the new British Library exhibit. Finally, it is definitely the synopsis, not the pitch or query as was declared by BuzzFeed elsewhere. But it gives a great idea of the pacing and level of detail for a synopsis. I’d guess this runs about 2-3 pages total.

Cold War Noir: 10 Novels that Defined an Anxious Era. – Given current politics, these types of novels are once again all the rage.

Necessary Whimsy: Vampire Bunnies and Other Weird-But-Fun Halloween Reads. – For anyone looking for a little humor with their  horror this year.

Prepare for NaNoWriMo: Get Ready to Write

With just two weeks left in October, it’s time to prepare for NaNoWriMo, otherwise knows as National Novel Writing Month. Every November, thousands and thousands of writers around the world attempt to write a novel in 30 days. No prize awaits them. There’s no guarantee of publication. But writers still churn out hundreds of words each day, hoping to hit the goal of 50,000 by November 30th.

Why do people challenge themselves to write so much in a short period? Some do it for fun. NaNoWriMo has become something of a party over the years. Writers gather with other local participants to write in coffee shops or bookstores. Online forums provide a way to reach out and chat about your work-in-progress. Others use the energy of the event to force themselves to finish a first draft. Professional writers often join in, working on current projects or starting new ones. Writers with thoughts of publication know that 50,000 runs a bit short for a traditional novel, but NaNoWriMo still offers great motivation to get to work.

prepare for NaNoWriMo

Are you a plotter or pantser?

Plenty of writers just open up a new Word doc on November 1st and start typing at random. It can be entertaining to see where your imagination takes you. But if you prefer to plot, or you want to make sure the words flow daily, it’s a good idea to prep for NaNoWriMo. If you have at least some idea of where you’d like your story to go, it will help you build your word count and avoid facing a nasty bout of writer’s block.

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

Technically, you’re not supposed to start writing until November 1st, but you can still put together some notes.

  • Determine your major characters. Figure out who your protagonist is and what they want. Name some people. Give them jobs and relationships.
  • Do you at least have an idea for your book? If you do, dream up a few scenes you’re really looking forward to writing and sketch out a few short notes about them. (Not the scenes themselves, of course. That would be cheating.)
  • Get some research done. If you have to do some leg work or reading about your setting, the time period, characters’ careers, etc., now is the time to do it. Plus all that wonderful detail and vocabulary you dig up will help you increase your word count.

There’s nothing wrong with deciding to use NaNoWriMo as a time to play. But if you plan to use it to work, just a little bit of prep will help you make the most of your experience. And don’t forget: the manuscript you finish on November 30th will be a first draft. So don’t waste time editing while you write. Plenty of time for that later.

Good luck to everyone participating this year!