Running is one of the best ways I've found to percolate ideas from the recesses of my brain to words on a page. As activities go, it's a writer's best friend. But those runs can be long. A lot of ideas can come to me in an hour. With no way to write them down as I'm on the move, I turn to short term memorization. I make a little story of keywords and memorize that story as a single sentence, adding details to the story as new ideas come to me, until I return from my run, commit my story sentence to paper in shorthand, and then decode my notes, unpacking them in long form, usually on a computer. Here's an example from yesterday:
Can't read my writing? What's the matter with you?
Okay, here is a transcription, with explanation to follow:
"Riding in on a dazzling pillow turtle painted apple and broccoli, to the clock tower for a Stentigram; then I wrote a blog post -- AGA smile!" (I blame this ungrammatical sentence on my boneheaded decision to run beneath a blazing afternoon sun that pushed temps to the mid nineties. My mind sort of melted, and the words came out wrong.)
No, my story sentence is not compelling in any traditional way, but I found it memorable enough to stick in my mind over 7 miles of local running trails. With it, I was able to capture and carry 10 ideas generated on the go.
Can you guess which of the words in the example story sentence are key words?
Dazzling: This key word I chose to help me remember a "Daily Thought" I conceived of: "Dazzle them with similar wrapped in different."
Pillow: To remind me of a plot point to include in my novel-in-progress.
Turtle: For a Facebook post idea, about a turtle I almost stepped on along a running trail.
Apple and Broccoli: For a new habit idea, to allow myself no calories each day until I have eaten an apple and some broccoli.
Clock Tower: Another novel plot point.
Stentigram: A coined word combining the words "stentorian" (denoting another plot point idea) and "Instagram" (to remind me to post a request for beta readers for my new novel).
Blog Post: To remind myself to write not this post but a subsequent one...
AGA: An acronym for that blog post's concept: "Anchor chart Google Approach."
Smile: Another Daily Thought: "My smile needs nothing from you."
I hope you will give this a try anytime you have multiple ideas and no place to put them. It takes practice to piece together an increasingly lengthy and absurd story mnemonic, but it gets easier -- and I trust you will find it well worth the productivity dividends you soon accrue.
BONUS: Photos of another example, including five pages of decoded notes after the story sentence, transcribed in the car immediately after a run.
With all due trepidation, I admit that until a few days ago I was not a Harry Potter fan. What can I say? When, years earlier, I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, I was not feeling the magic. In my defense, this was in the midst of a dark, mugglish phase of my life.
I know, I know. Why should you keep reading such a scandalous affront to good taste? Who is this guy? Can a person trust such a person?
Wait. Shouldn't you be happy for me? Like – OMG, the grand story awaits you like a glorious banquet!
That is the sort of thought resonating through my mind when I recommend X book or Y movie or Z tv series to a friend who somehow missed out when most of the rest of us were all-in. The Fault in Our Stars. Baby Driver. Breaking Bad.
I hope you're feeling this feeling for me now. I imagine that you are. And this imagined feeling I ride like a wave.
It is why I have moved along at last to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (I am on page 36.) Already I find myself with a newfound awe for Harry and Rowling. I will share a few outsider's insights...
But first, a bit more backstory:
No doubt you saw at least one of those "Which Hogwarts House Do You Belong In" personality tests that made the rounds to commemorate Harry's 20th anniversary on 6/26/2017 – that being my birthday, by the way – coincidence? – perhaps not.
I'm a sucker for personality tests. When I came across a Hogwarts iteration, it reminded me that my Myers-Briggs results (INFP) purportedly correlate with the personality of none other than Harry himself. I couldn't resist taking the Hogwarts test to see whether I would be sorted as Gryffindor.
Here are my results:
So: Huffleclaw: predominately Hufflepuff yet also significantly Ravenclaw in nature.
Cool, I thought.
Since so many folks these days share their Hogwarts affiliation on social media, identifying as such in their bios, I wanted in on that action.
Here's my bio as of today:
Once you post a Hogwarts affiliation, you're duty-bound to read the whole Potter series if you have not already done so. Anything less would amount to sheer hypocrisy.
Yes, I am all-in. Committed. Happy. This stuff is better than good, it's otherworldly. I am feeling it.
Which brings me back to page 36 of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Thus far, my biggest takeaway is: J.K. Rowling is a genius (duh) in ways myriad but particularly in juxtaposition – contrast – commingling opposites.
Here is a table I created to enumerate the excellence:
Is it any wonder the Harry Potter books constitute the best-selling series of all time? Such unforgettable juxtapositioning essentially weighs reality against fantasy, disappointment against ideal, hell against heaven.
Don't we all want a secret identity, secret powers, a destiny with a higher purpose, adoration, respect and Quidditch?
Don't we all feel trapped by circumstance, holed up in a metaphorical room under the stairs or a chamber offering only a catflap of a connection to the outer world?
Rowling paints our anguish and desire on the page with colors magical, breathtaking, and bold. We appreciate the art.
But enough with the analysis. I have 998,712 more words to read.
I used to marvel at writers who write a lot. Now, I'm glad to say, I am one of those writers. My secret is not innate awesomeness. It's routine.
Here's what I've found works:
Of course, my routine might not work for you. Then again, it might. Try some or all of it. Tweak some or all of it. Or not, and not. But do something. Good routines do not just happen – they are cultivated.
So get cultivating. Drop everything and ROUTINE!
Until recently, I did not realize how often I start sentences with the word so. That changed when I tried a new method of editing. This method, which is simple and obvious unless you share my male-pattern boneheadedness, facilitates a big-picture view. It helps me to notice repeated errors, patterns.
Rather than edit my novel's chapters within each individual Google Document, I now edit the entire manuscript at once within a Word document with Grammarly enabled. I have no stake in Grammarly, but I do recommend it. If you're not already using the free Chrome extension, give it a try. Here's an example of how a notification might look:
I am a grammar aficionado, but I'm not perfect. Editing a whole manuscript in a cursory fashion, focusing only on addressing issues noted by Grammarly, I see now what had previously escaped my attention.
Lately, for example, I've been pruning my current wily nemeses: so, actually, really, pretty. I had been employing these words to reflect teen speech patterns... yet global manuscript editing has empowered me to see how I've gone overboard.
Fellow writers, let's vow never to sink once we have gone overboard. Climb with me aboard the good ship Grammarly – and see what you've been missing.
The above title was carefully worded, and this post is meant to convince you to pay special attention not only to word choice in general but to words first and last. Briefly, I considered alternative titles such as:
1. "First Words and Last Words"
2. "First and Last Words"
3. "Words First and Last"
How do you suppose I came to my decision? Obviously the answer has something to do with the importance of first and last words. Do you see what I did there? That time I ended with the word "words" because that time I wanted "words" to be the last thought in your head.
First words announce and transition.
Last words echo.
So let's take a closer look at my proposed first and last word options. "Words" works because it immediately gets readers thinking about the topic of words, but I went with "First" because I think it better emphasizes the importance of first word choices. Similarly, "Words" as a last word is not as powerful as is "Last" for advancing my theme.
Now take a look at these lists...
First words used so far: First, This, Briefly, First, First, Words, How, Obviously, Do, That, First, Last, So, Words, Similarly, Now
Last words used so far: Last, last, Words, Words, Last, decision, words, there, head, transition, echo, options, choices, theme, list
Notice that first words are trickier to wrangle. "This," for example, is a pronoun, abstract and vague, not a great first word; but in the first sentence it's coupled with "title" as a sort of compound word unit: "this title," which is effective.
I try to be intentional in all of my writing, including first words and last. Do you?
This is a poem I wrote after hearing a story about somebody stuck in grief. This is for everyone, but especially for anyone who loves me. ❤️😃 #poetry #death #love #life
I've always loved quotes. There's something magical about a well-turned phrase that captures a particular idea in a memorable way. So when my friend asked me to help her gut out her pregnancy and her maternity leave by encouraging her with regular kernels of solace, I found a way to take an opportunity to be helpful and twist it to serve my own needs!
What came of this was my Daily Thoughts. Now, nearly two years since I pecked out Thought #1 on my phone, I can attest that my routine of concentrated brainstorming and wordsmithing has reinvigorated my writing. Here's how it works:
Most writing experts agree that it's best for fiction to "show, don't tell." Simply put, that means that a story should come to life like a movie or a virtual reality scene unfolding in brilliant detail in the reader's imagination. If you find yourself thrilled by a particular piece of fiction, chances are you are under the spell of a word-wielding wizard who knows how to put on a show.
Today, I experienced a "show, don't tell" epiphany. It came to me through my Bluetooth headphones, and it was music to my ears.
John Green's Paper Towns works brilliantly as a mystery, a comedy and a YA coming-of-age story in no small measure due to its strange, ingenious plot structure.
For decades, I hated running. Now I love it. IMHO, writing and running are sole mates.
(See what I did there? I saw the writerly opportunity and I ran with it.)
Running has transformed my body and my writing. It can do the same for you. Here's how:
Revision is a test of patience and endurance. If you fail this test, your writing will be under-cooked, not ready for public consumption.
Have you ever disliked a book or a movie or a song before liking it later? If so, it's probably because from day to day you are a different person in a different place in a different time. Your moods change. You change.
One key to revision is to keep cutting, shifting, adding and tweaking your text until you are consistently happy with it across many days and moods. Until the many versions of you are satisfied with the words you've put on the page.
So consider the following:
If you are writing YA and you'd like to breathe life into a badass character, pay attention to Margo Roth Spiegelman, who breathes life into John Green's Paper Towns.
Marvel, if you will, at the badassery of Margo's inciting incident entrance and speech. Be on the lookout for Green's expert sprinkling of the story spices of humor, action, intrigue, imagery, desire and conflict:
Authors find writing first chapters challenging for many reasons. Ideally, we should:
Phew! That's a lot.
Let's take a look at a highly effective first chapter, from Taylor Jenkins Reid's Maybe in Another Life. (Here's the first chapter.)
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.