When the Muse Strikes
I don't know about you, but most of my ideas for writing come to me in the shower. There I'll be, rinsing the shampoo from my hair, and suddenly a line flits through my head - a line so beautiful, so perfectly balanced between the universal and the personal that if I do not capture it immediately my muse will torment me with silence the rest of the year. Generally this situation ends with me haphazardly wrapped in a towel, running down the hall past the rest of the household - who have now learned to politely look the other way - to the dry erase board on the refrigerator where I can scribble out the thought before it evaporates into the ether.
If this is a situation familiar to you, then you may be what I call a messy writer. Messy writers are those for whom organization is not always advantageous, or even possible. This short guide offers five rules I've discovered help keep me on track once I've started a writing task. I hope you'll find them helpful.
Rule 1: Own Too Many Pens
This is perhaps a rule for all writers, but I've found that I need to keep at least three pens in every room in the house so that I am never caught without some ink. Displaying writing pads in various areas is also a good idea. If you'd rather not be frowned upon by your green-conscious peers, always leave your laptop or computer running with an open, blank word document into which you can simply dump your thoughts.
If you travel, bring a notebook and a pen or pencil. Many handheld devices such as iPods and smartphones include some kind of notepad feature. If you forget a notebook, pull that app up and type away. If that fails, text your idea to a friend who understands your brand of insanity and will save the message for you.
Bottom line: Always have a tool with which to record those perfect lines. If you lose them, it really is your own fault.
Rule 2: Limit Your Fact-Intake
At some point, most writers need to do some research. For me, this usually involves a trip to the local library. On my trip I bring at least two notebooks, a few pens, my laptop, a rough outline of what I need to research, and a giant mug of coffee. Research days are an all day event for me because invariably I will end up looking for one topic, discovering tangential questions that need exploration for a more thorough understanding of my subject, and from there the wiki-syndrome takes hold.
If this is you, there are two questions you need to ask yourself before you click the shiny blue link: 1) How important is this to my subject? and 2) Do I need to know about this today or can it wait for another time?
Learning to space out how much superfluous information I take in at any one time has greatly improved the expediency with which the first draft of a story gets written. If I don't have too many extra facts floating around in my head saying, "Oh, put me in here! I'm a neat little detail your readers will enjoy!" then I get the core of the piece out quickly. Once that's done, I can explore the intricate connections between different elements of my subject to my (and my readers') heart's content.
Rule 3: Binders Are Essential
Currently, I have three binders. I just bought a new one yesterday. Each binder is dedicated to a different writing project. One (3 inches thick) for my novel, one (2 inches thick) for my short stories and one (1 1/2 inches thick) for my poetry. Even though most of the time a random scrap of paper gets treated to my bursts of inspiration, those scraps invariably end up in one of those three binders. If they don't fit one of those three categories, the scrap goes into a file folder for use on another day.
Each binder contains information pertaining to the project it is dedicated to: rough drafts, outlines, character profiles, research, critiques printed out from here or drafts written on by friends, tangents from the same story line, etc. Everything I've written or gathered on that subject goes into that binder and stays there, even if it never gets used in the final product. Always save everything when you're putting together a major piece of work because you never know if you'll need to bring some miniscule character arc back into the fold to make the plot more believable, or revise back to the original bit of dialogue because the new version sounds out of character.
If you work only on a computer, save all of the information related to each project in a separate file clearly labeled with your project's working title. If you have bookmarks to internet research, put them in a sub-menu of the same working title. Even if all of your information is spread out, if it is all shares a title you should have no trouble finding it when you need it.
Rule 4: Editing - Make It Happen
It often happens that the minute the last word of a draft is written, new ideas are popping up in my head. It makes it difficult to go back and edit an already completed story, even after I receive great critique on it. Why revisit something I know so thoroughly when new worlds are waiting? Because that's what authors do. Writing is something anyone can do. Writing because you love the craft and want to excel in it is what authors do. Part of excelling is learning to sit down and edit what you've already written.
I tend to edit during dry spells of inspiration. Not only is it easier to concentrate on just that world, but it also sometimes gets the inspiration flowing again. I'm not going to go into how you should edit - that process looks different for every writer. Personally, I print out a double-spaced copy of my draft and proceed to tattoo it with corrections and ideas and questions. Then I retype the whole thing in a new document. A couple weeks later, I do it all over again. Other people edit their original draft. Still others ask for critique before doing any real editing.
The point is, do it. Edit your story so thoroughly that it looks like a brand new story. Add in all those tangential details you couldn't let yourself get caught up in before. Then take some out when it gets to be overkill. Read the story from the beginning, then backwards, then start in the middle, then hand it over to someone else to read diagonally.
When you're certain you've done all you can do to it, then you can start seriously working on the next big thing.
Rule 5: Don't Over-Extend Your Imagination
Unless you are a creature from the next stage of human evolution, writing ten novels at once is probably not the best idea. Writing down basic concepts for stories is great, and whenever that sort of idea comes to you go find your version of the dry-erase board. But when it comes to actually drafting an undertaking like a novel, limit yourself to one, maybe two projects at a time. Writing for multiple different stories can lead to all sorts of writing fiascoes and it doesn't allow you to fully immerse yourself in your projects.
True, sometimes you'll end up stumped on one project and then it is best to either edit what you've already got or go ahead and start working on a different one until the ideas start flowing again. But if you've got a serious lead going, and the words are coming at anything more than a trickle, try to stick to that main project so you get it done. Nothing feels quite as good as writing the end - even if it doesn't mean the end of working on the story.
I hope these tips are useful to some of you. Organization is not always easy for us right-brained folks, but with a little determination it can be done - and it will improve your writing process. If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments! I am always looking for tips on the subject myself.