Good morning! It’s the end of the week, and that means you can stop by Friday Feedback to get help with a work in progress. It also means another great mini-lesson, and today’s guest author is Linda Urban!
Linda writes picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels. Her titles include A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Hound Dog True, The Center of Everything, Milo Speck Accidental Agent, Mouse Was Mad, Little Red Henry, Mabel and Sam at Home, Weekends with Max and His Dad, and Road Trip with Max and His Mom. Her books have appeared on more than 25 state reading lists, as well as best books lists from The New York Public Library, Kirkus, the National Council of Teachers of English, and IndieNext. Linda has a BA in Journalism and an MA in English from Wayne State University in Detroit and pursued further graduate study in Film and Television Critical Studies at UCLA. For ten years, she served as marketing director at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California.
Linda’s joining us today to talk about notebooks!
One of the most important things I’ve ever written is this:
Like so many people who love to read and aspire to write, I had been gifted dozens of beautiful notebooks over the years. Hardcover, softcover, leather bound, handmade. I’d purchased at least as many for myself. And I almost never wrote in them. I was so afraid of making a mistake, or saying something inane, or making any mark I thought might be unworthy of the paper I was writing on.
The notebook page you see above was one such journal. Hardcover. Thick paper. Bright white. I loved it and knew instantly that THIS would be the journal of all journals – a document of our family’s holiday traditions, the sort of thing that my children would find upon my death and sue each other for custody of, it was so poignant and lyrical and full of meaning. On the first page, I hoped to begin with something simple. A Christmas shopping list. For my husband’s first gift, I intended to purchase a Southern treat I knew he’d love. These special, mail-order only grits from a company called Hoppinjohn’s. Do you see what I wrote instead? Yes. Papa Johns.
So long perfect notebook!
Or maybe, hello perfect notebook.
Because for the first time ever, I crossed out my mistake and kept writing. The burden of heirloom writing had been lifted and now I could write ANYTHING!
In an instant, my notebook went from being a performance space, with the expectation of perfection and a someday-audience, to a practice space where experimentation, play, and messes were not only okay, but expected.
And it has made a huge difference in my work. My notebooks are full of observations, experimentations, doodles and drafts. Jumbled amongst the writerly stuff are to do lists, drawings by my kids, theater programs, and recipes. And while that might sometimes make a particular item a tiny bit more challenging to retrieve a few weeks later, most of the time it prevents me from feeling too precious about things.
This is a page of observations from a trip to the dentist’s office. While I have not written a novel set in a waiting room, I can’t say it won’t happen. And the practice of observing small details has most definitely come in handy.
This is a notebook page I made during a revision of Milo Speck, Accidental Agent. I was working out the relative size of our hero, Milo, to the beings and features of Ogregon. These doodles didn’t just help with revising what was already in the manuscript, it sparked inspiration for an entirely new scene.
This is a brainstormed list of participants one might find in a small town parade, like the Bunning Day Parade that structures so much of The Center of Everything. You see I’m also working out some of the book’s themes and character choices as well.
Since messing around with my own notebook, I’ve grown more and more interested in the ways that other creative people use notebooks and if you’re similarly intrigued, I highly recommend you take a look at Syllabus by cartoonist and University of Wisconsin Prof Lynda Barry (whose Tumblr is a must-follow). Also eye-opening, the notebook Frances Ford Coppola kept while working on The Godfather (scroll down to see the actual pages. That is annotation!), and this great collection of notebook pages from JK Rowling, Kurt Cobain, and Sylvia Plath, whose sketches of the furniture at Yaddo are both delightfully wonky and a model for keen observation.
Your Assignment: More important than studying other people’s notebooks, however, is to get busy getting messy in your own. So, my prompts for you today are twofold.
- If you have a nice notebook that you haven’t been using, take it out now. Open randomly to any page. Make a mess.
I KNOW IT IS HARD!
You’re expecting someone to scold you. Or you want to scold yourself.
Ask yourself why that is.
What principle or belief is at work?
Now set a timer and for five minutes, write about why you hold that belief. Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve? Is it empowering you – or holding you back?
Does that belief in any way inform your internal editor?
- Find another page. If you like, you can turn to the front of your notebook, but if you’re feeling really rebellious after exercise one, let randomization be your guide.
Set your timer for ten minutes and observe the space you’re in. You don’t need to write in complete sentences – in fact, it might be better if you don’t. Take time to notice. What do you hear? What sounds are closest to you? What sounds are furthest away? What sound is missing? How about touch? What temperature is it? How humid? Are you sitting? Standing? What surfaces are you making contact with? What do you see? What is just out of sight?
Turn the page. Now consider a setting from your work in progress. A protagonist’s bedroom. That awkward Thanksgiving dinner at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. The dragon-tamer’s office. Whatever. Now set your timer for 10 minutes and do the same sort of observing. Doodle, draw, write, draw lines and arrows.
Now set your timer for another 10 minutes and write a moment where your protagonist enters this space. Let her observe. Notice how her emotions, her agenda, her experience shape her observations. Don’t worry if what you write has little to do with your story-in-progress. This is notebook work. You’re not performing for a reader. You’re practicing. Get messy.