I’ve been thinking this week about a humor writing workshop I took not long ago (for, gasp!, adult writing!), where we were talking about story introductions.
One writer (who also happened to be an editor) said writing a compelling story/piece opening is like setting the table for guests. I haven’t been able to get that analogy out of my head ever since. We, as writers, need to welcome our guests and set expectations as a good host would.
What would someone sitting down in front of my manuscript expect, based on what I’m serving on that first page/spread (and through the title)? And when it’s time to stand up, would they leave that table satisfied? These are challenging but necessary questions for any host–especially if we want our guests to visit with us again.
There’s no use putting a soup spoon down and not serving soup! Or a lobster bib, but no lobster. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be considered.
If you’ve read “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” you know that author Anne Lamott swears by index cards for jotting authorly notes–and she’s not the only one. I have seen index card systems used by creators of all walks of life, ranging from children’s book author-illustrator Travis Jonker to decidedly children-UNfriendly writer Vladimir Nabokov.
My index-card usage system is a little weirder, but it works for me.
I temporarily store random bits of detritus absolutely wherever–scraps of paper, notes on my phone, even sometimes on my hand–and then move them to a more usable form whenever they get unruly (usually within a week or two).
“Ingredients” – meaning random facts, notes, quotes, themes, or what have you – go into my Commonplace Book
“Funny bits” – meaning things that I find funny (other authors’ bits, which aren’t usable as-is but may spark another idea) – I jot in my Things I Find Hilarious notebook.
“Recipes” – meaning actual, honest-to-God story IDEAS (or at least enough of a prompt to myself I could sit down and start to try to write something) go onto index cards. I sort the index cards (so far) into four crude groups: HOT! (meaning, I’ve GOT to write this), PBs (meaning picture books…but still murky or needing spice), Seasonal (story ideas with a built-in selling moment hook), and Misc. (which range from poem ideas all the way through YA novel ideas).
(This may sound complicated, but I assure you it only takes 10 minutes a week to keep this system going–which is why I like it.)
Anyhow, then I’ve got all these cards. Then what? Well, I look through them–and see what sparks enough interest/passion to write the thing right now.
In the meantime, though, how do I store my story “recipe” cards? I originally used binder clips and rubber bands, though both bent the cards in ways I didn’t appreciate. But one day, by mistake, I found an adorable option that I have a feeling other writers might like…
Despite appearances, this little storage drawer is not made of wood–but, rather, sturdy cardboard. Which means you shouldn’t put it anywhere where it could get wet, but also that it’s incredibly light and portable. Created by Chronicle Books, it originally came full of adorable stationery reproductions of the original 3″x5″ index cards that the Library of Congress used to keep track of thirty different beloved works of literature. I rehomed the original inhabitants to my stationery drawer and ‘Voila!’: story ideas at my fingertips.
You can buy your own on Bookshop.org if you would like to throw me a tiny commission so I can buy even more books:
Recently, a writer friend said she felt like she had nothing to query. We nodded knowingly at our computers (each one likely spilling over with files). This is a common feeling for creators, isn’t it? We all go through phases where, despite all our fine work, despite all the time we’ve invested, we don’t know what we are ready to share–if anything.
Paradoxically, the underwhelm we feel can be overwhelming.
I’ve thought about that sense since, and I’ve decided it’s a bit like choosing an outfit for an important occasion. How many of us have stared into our closet full of clothes and (against all the evidence right before our eyes!) decided we had nothing to wear?
It’s not that we have nothing. It’s that we’re tired of looking at the same things, over and over, in the same way.
But…maybe the answer is the same for manuscripts (or portfolio pieces) as it is for clothes. Instead of looking at the pile of all your writing, take each piece out and spend some time looking at it individually.
Especially look at the oldest stuff you have, the pieces that you may not have had the chops to tackle then–but maybe you do now. Or, perhaps society’s mood has changed…and what was once considered old-fashioned seems charmingly classic.
Sometimes you do need to invest in a new piece. But I suspect there are some real gems in your crowded writing or art files, just waiting for wise eyes to unearth them.
So take them out, try them on…tailor them so that fit you now.
#Cottagecore! #MCM! #Grandmillenial! There are so many aesthetic hashtags being bandied about these days. BUT…
What about #bookstorecore? The aesthetic, or lifestyle choice, desiring to live in, around, on top of, under, and beside #books and all the wonder their interiors hold. Ask yourself: would “this” <waves hands> be at home at The Shop Around the Corner in Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail?”
Work with me, people! Let’s get this off the ground–and into the zeitgeist.
Buy their books–and preorder if you can. Unless your butler is doing your shopping, you likely can’t afford to buy every single book you see that looks interesting. BUT if you love the author or illustrator AND you can afford it, buying their books is the very best way to signal that. Publishing is a numbers game, and book sales are the currency. Whether at your local independent bookseller, big-box store, the Scholastic Book Fair, or even through Amazon, each copy of each book sold truly makes a difference.
Buy from independent retailers. Having said that, when you buy a book from your independent local book retailer, you are NOT ONLY helping your favorite author and illustrator, you are helping ALL authors and illustrators–as well as the book industry as a whole. Truly. Outside of libraries, there are NO bigger advocates for books, literature, and connecting people to them than your local bookstore. The price difference is often minimal and many stores even offer customer rewards for repeat buyers. So please, when you buy, consider doing it at your local indie. Bonus: with many of them having online ordering now, it’s never been easier!
Give books–or bookstore gift cards. One way to support authors and illustrators is to consider giving more books as gifts instead of your usual. Or, give gift cards to bookstores to those friends and family members with eclectic tastes or whose bookshelves are constantly evolving or whose tastes you’re less sure about.
Donate books to those who actually need them. Another low-pain way to support creators is to consider how you shed books. While there’s nothing wrong with reselling your books, you may consider, instead, donating your books to places that put books directly in the hands of those who may not be able to afford them otherwise. While many people may understandably choose to donate where it’s easiest (like at a Goodwill or similar), also consider other options like Little Free Libraries located in economically disadvantaged areas, or even donating through prison book programs. Alternatively, consider giving books to your local Friends of the Library chapter to support book sales that raise much-needed library funds for supplies and programming (including author visits!). Books donated to Friends will be sold to the public for library fundraising–or sometimes even added to the library’s own catalog!
For the price of a stamp, you can give a creator the will to continue. 😂 (This could even be free if they’ve got an online form on their website!) Okay, so it’s smarmy, maybe. But fans telling an author or illustrator that you, or your kids, love their work is a lot rarer than you might think. As much as we think of our favorite creators as stoic, mission-driven superheroes, writing and illustration is a solitary and often lonely business. So dropping them a quick email to tell them how you love their work, sending a piece of fan art, or waiting in line at a book signing: all these things can help buoy them during the rougher times–especially for creators who may be dealing with book bans or other negative pressures.
In fact, I keep it inside my Commonplace Book–in the back pocket.
Would you like to see it?
My very specialized “Stuff I Find Hilarious!” notebook isn’t for story ideas, really; it’s just a place for me to “notice” what makes me laugh when I’m writing, drawing, or (esp.) reading other picture books. I stole the idea from uber-talented (and hilarious) illustrator Ruth Chan during her SCBWI webinar last winter.
I’ve loved having this repository of perfectly Elayne-ish humor ever since–and, as a huge bonus, it’s a great notebook to look through whenever I need a laugh!
Side note: I wasn’t joking about the notebook being kept in a pocket, was I? (This particular one used to be a jegging pocket, so it’s nice and stretchy, which means it holds things pretty tightly, too. I attached it to the inside of the Commonplace Book with fabric glue and it’s held up very well.)
How often have you gotten a great story idea while in the middle of something, but by the time you sit down to put the idea into action, POOF!–it’s disappeared–and you are left to instead curse yourself for losing it (whatever it was)?
Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as just writing down your ideas! At least, not the way I did it: in a horrifyingly Byzantine combination of paper scraps, email, Google Photos, index cards, and a huge virtual cork board in Scrivener (once I had amassed dozens and dozens of saved thoughts, looking at it onscreen was a nightmare). And don’t even get me started on finding things when I needed them!
So, when I took David Sedaris’s Storytelling and Humor Masterclass a year ago, I came to appreciate his straightforward system. He takes a tiny notepad with him anywhere he goes, and then at the end of the day, he transcribes the “good stuff” into his diary. (Well, diaries…he’s had quite a few over his writing life.) However, even with his far simpler method, I’d need to have a pen and notepad with me at all times–not ideal for someone who sometimes forgets her keys! So instead, I leaned into my natural process: writing temporary thoughts on whatever is handy (or recording them on my phone)–but then, Sedaris-style, I transcribe the best of them…into this.
I made this Commonplace Book out of a huge sketch pad. I had to both glue and packaging-tape the tabs in so they wouldn’t keep falling out, but I’m pretty happy with it now!
What goes in a Commonplace Book? Anything I might want to return to later: doodles, quotes, tidbits, poems, pictures and more. And because of the alphabetical tabs, I can both organize these bits easily but also easily cross-reference things.
This format makes it very easy for me to revisit thoughts: for research, find connections, and remember what originally inspired me. (I print out and paste in digital bits.) Otherwise, I write or draw it, in erasable pen, which makes it easy for me to erase and make room anywhere I need to. (I love these Pilot FriXion erasable pens.)
Now my Commonplace Book feels even more important and intimate than a journal. I guard it with my life!
Just like writing, there’s no set process that works best for everyone. But whatever system you use, make sure it’s working for you–ideally helping you not only do the bare minimum but actually making your writing life easier and more creative. For me, this is the best I’ve found so far.
The famous (and beloved) writing craft books I spoofed above are:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
I really wanted to include Story Genius by Lisa Cron…but couldn’t find a good pun for it! 🙂 As far as I know, there is still no book called Killer Hooks, but it’s a commonly used phrase within the writer’s community–the distilled form of the writing pitch, which will (hopefully) draw in readers–and editors.
You can see my full list of recommended craft writing books below. * If you click through to purchase through Bookshop.org, I may earn a small commission. *