Datebooks, calendars, planners: A year in the life of a writer

daytimerI should have known it wouldn’t work for me. I know that everyone else has transitioned into the new world of technology, and I have to say that I thought I was right up there with the most tech savvy of writers. But there’s one area of my writing life – and life in general – where I am singularly unable to evolve. I cannot seem to give up my real-paper daily planner.

It all started two, years ago when I decided to try to wean myself off the expensive Daytimer™ I had used all throughout my academic career. When PDA’s (remember those Palm Pilots?) first emerged, I was one of the first adopters among my university colleagues. I do have to admit though; I never gave up that Daytimer. In fact, I even bought one of those Daytimer covers that included a paper planner as well as a slot on the inside of the leather cover into which to slide the PDA.  What that really amounted to was using the paper almost exclusively and only removing the PDA at meetings so as not to be seen as a dinosaur.  But I never really did get the hang of the electronic calendar ‘thingie.’. At least I could never figure out how people clung to it both physically and psychologically as if it were their very lifeline. Those early days of Palm Pilots have to be seen as the birthplace of the dreaded “cellphone elbow” that is so ubiquitous these days, soon to be followed by “smartphone neck.”

These days I do use the calendar in my electronic devices. Of course I do.  What would I do without that little ringing reminder of today’s dental appointment and tomorrow’s meeting at the bank? And a significant number of my friends/acquaintances/colleagues are joined at the hip to their devices so send messages that I can immediately add to my electronic calendar.

But what would I do without my leather-bound Daytimer lovingly stationed on the edge of my desk with its week-at-a-glance that not only tells me what appointments I have this week, but also contains notes about what needs to be written when? It also has an add-in page where I can continue to add items that need to be done before I head south on a vacation two weeks from today, as well as make notes on what I’ve accomplished each day. I’m sure that an electronic calendar of one sort or another (there’s an app for that) can do much the same thing, but I have no intention of finding out.

To be clear, I also use my devices for note-making – in fact I wrote the draft of this post on a mini-IPad, but it will never take the place of either my paper calendar or all those journals I love so much!

So, to justify my existence just this side of the Luddites of the world, I offer you my top five reasons for using a paper calendar.

  1. It enhances my creativity by forcing me to find innovative ways to remind myself about appointments without benefit of that annoying little sound effect.
  2. It gives me an opportunity to ensure that the lost art of penmanship is not entirely lost in my own world. Since I write longhand less and less, when I do have to write someone a note, it is usually barely legible.
  3. The sound of the pen or pencil on paper soothes my racing writer’s mind. This might be a throwback to a simpler time in childhood!
  4. It enhances my ability to see the bigger picture of my week/month/year. Maybe others can do that with the electronic calendar, but I can’t.
  5. It requires me to physically connect to the notes I write. As dumb as it sounds, I have long been a person who remembered something more easily if I wrote it down. Tapping on a screen doesn’t seem to have the same effect. So, if I write down that appointment, I’m more likely not to even need the reminder.

As I start a new year, I have a new calendar and it’s a bit like having a clean slate that is actually physically present. I’m going to use it and stop feeling like a Luddite for not being able to wean myself off!

When is a book too long?

big bookI just started reading a book that clocks in at over 900 pages.  900 pages!  Just imagine that.  Before I bought it I read the online reviews on Amazon.  The reviews were good but one issue kept cropping up: the book was too long.  In fact, this particular novelist is known for her long books, usually in the vicinity of 500-600 pages.  I’d read several before.  I haven’t read a book that long since I read Herman Wouk’s wonderful “Winds of War” which is over 1000 pages in pocket paperback size.

This got me thinking:  How long should a book really be?

If you are to believe Chuck Sambucino (whose work in Writer’s Digest I do admire), any book over 110,000 words is too long.[1]  This seems entirely too didactic to me unless we’re talking about specific genres such as children’s books.  That would mean that many very famous and well-loved masterpieces are “too long.”  Of course, any bad piece of writing is too long even at 60,000 words which he further suggests is too short.  It’s not that cut and dried.

Kurt Vonnegut reputedly gave this advice to writers: “Start as close to the end as possible,”[2] which suggests to me that there is likely a place in every story that is the best place to enter it.  Indeed, I believe that this applies equally to non-fiction and fiction.  Starting too far from the end means that you’ll include far too much extraneous material.

I really don’t believe that here is any ideal length. If a story sustains itself for a long session, then that’s probably right.  However, over the years I’ve challenged students to take their best 1000 words for example, and edit it ruthlessly down to half that length.  Then, I’ve said, you’ve got really tight writing.  You have to do it without losing the message of the piece and leave out every extraneous word.  They hate it because they want to keep every bon mot, every personal device and turn of phrase.

When William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings,” this is exactly what he meant.  (Note: This phrase has been variously attributed to Anton Chekov and Oscar Wilde, among many others. I’m going to stick with Faulkner.)

Not every word we write needs to make it to our reader.  Keeping unnecessary material suggests to me one of two things: either you are a serious narcissist who believes that every word you write is precious, or you are seriously in need of an editor.  And in that royal “you” I include myself sometimes.  We all do it.  I’ve even argued with editors about their opinions on some things to leave out. They usually win.

For beginning writers, I think that the biggest pitfall in keeping the story to the essentials is including too much backstory.  Backstory is for us – the writers – so that we can come to know and animate in our own imaginations our characters and the places they where they live and breathe.  This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction.  Knowing how to reveal and how much to reveal is the key to a tight story.  When I’m reading I can always tell when a writer wants the reader to know just how much research he or she put into a story.  And I shouldn’t be able to sense that.   Just as in our interactions with people around us, our interactions with books can have TMI: too much information.

I think that it’s wise to understand that your notebook s and the material contained in them are first and foremost for you, the writer.  Making a decision about how much of that you need to share with your readers is one of the keys to good writing.

I’ll let you know how I feel about the 900-word book – if I ever get through it!

[1] Chuck Sambucino. Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post. Writers’ Digest online. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

[2] Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing. http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/538

One writer’s New Year’s promise – to herself

Happy New Year 2015And so that time of year upon us again.  You know the one – where news organizations begin publishing their greatest stories of the year lists, the weather networks offer us a list of the ten worst storms of the year gone by, and the rest of us tally up what we’ve done, and more precisely, what we are planning to do.  I have never been a person to make New Year’s resolutions.

First, as a professor for the bulk of my working life, New Year’s has always been the first Wednesday after Labor Day – the first day of classes on my particular campus.  Now that was the time for making a new start.  But January 1?  Not so much.

This year I’ve been thinking about what the word resolution really means.  Who knew that it had so many different nuances of meaning?

According to the Oxford English dictionary[1] it can mean (among other more specific things) any of the following:

  • “A firm decision to do or not to do something;”
  • “The action of solving a problem or contentious matter;”
  • “The process of reducing or separating something into constituent parts or components.”
  • To resolve to do something means to “Decide firmly on a course of action.”[2]

Clearly, when people say they are making New Year’s resolutions, they mean they are making a firm decision to either do something, or refrain from doing something.  A firm decision.  I’m thinking that making a decision is not necessarily enough to actually get you to act on that resolution.  Perhaps we need something more.

That got me thinking about making promises.  What does a promise have that a resolution doesn’t?  Back to the Oxford English dictionary I went.

  • A promise is “A declaration or assurance that one will do something or that a particular thing will happen;” which seems to me to be a synonym for what a New Year’s resolution is, but…
  • To make a promise means to “assure someone that one will definitely do something or that something will happen.”[3]

So, I guess semantically they seem to be much the same, at least as far as their denotative definitions go.  But what about that connotative definition?  In my mind they are different.

A resolution to me seems a bit business-like, clinical, removed.  On the other hand, a promise seems more personal, closer to the bone.  For me, the promise holds more sway.  Keeping promises is a value that I cherish, far above the notion of keeping resolutions.  So, what am I promising myself this year?

My 2015 promise to myself is to finish what I start, and that includes what has already been started but not finished.  Oh, I don’t mean finishing those manuscripts that in my heart of hearts I know were just for practice.  I mean finishing the ones that I know are meant to be finished.  That means that between now and the end of 2015 I have to finish two novels.

I think that those of us who write – whether for personal growth and a sense of accomplishment – or for a living (or both for the ideal writer’s life) all have unfinished business.  Maybe you’ll join me in making 2015 the year of getting the finish line.  Let me know how you’re doing!

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

[1] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/resolution?searchDictCode=all

[2] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/resolve?searchDictCode=all

[3] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/promise?searchDictCode=all