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ANNUAL REVIEW
Category: Writing
Tags: Writing goals planning taking stock

ANNUAL REVIEW

As we all race around, trying to finish projects at work or home as well as prepare for the festivities of the most important (at least for most of us…) holidays of the year, there is not much time or space for sitting back and relaxing. As of today, the final pre-Christmas week is upon us and panic sets in. It’s at this point that I begin looking forward to the days between the holidays, when the pressure of Christmas expectations has been lifted and I can kick back, read a bit, watch some good films and maybe even have enough leisure to reflect on the accomplishments – or lack of same – during the year just coming to a close.

                As writers, many of us are able to work at our own pace, not necessarily held to account by large corporations and their deadlines. Unless of course, you happen to be one of the lucky few among us who have climbed bestseller lists and do have to produce those manuscripts to a schedule. If so, congratulations on your success. You don’t need to read any more of this!

However, for one such as I, an apprentice writer eager to learn and develop my skills, taking the time to perform my own personal annual review, as happens in real, live day-jobs, is a worthwhile undertaking. How many stories did I write, revise or edit this past year? How many made it into print? Did I submit pieces to any contests or lit magazines? Which of the goals that I bravely set down for myself in January of this year actually came to fruition or are at least works-in-progress? Of course, this assumes I actually did some planning in the previous January.

                As luck would have it, a new January is just two weeks away, offering us a new opportunity to set goals, if we haven’t been doing this previously. It can only help if I, as a semi-professional wordsmith, set down on paper some targets at which to aim. This doesn’t have to be a solemn contract with myself – unless I want it to be. But a modicum of pressure can help concentrate the mind. Maybe it’s less intimidating to think of this goal-setting as a to-do list that will keep me busy and out of trouble all year. Another way of thinking of it is as a roadmap. Traveling is always easier if I know the direction I need to go and what I expect to find at the end of the journey.

                Merry Christmas to all and may the New Year bring many opportunities for you to show off your word prowess!

Taking Notes

 

Memory Almost Full

 

We generate far more actionable information than is encoded in all of our combined genetic material, and carry much of it into the future. We’ve been pumping out persistent data since that first caveman’s painting on a wall, and we’ve kept on pumping ever since. We crank out something like 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, more than a billion, billion, bytes. The question is, what do we do with information that is useless, taking up a lot of space, and how do we decide what has no reason to be kept?

Back to the caveman, that primordial writer, and to us — the art of taking notes.                                                                                                              

I must confess, I’m not a master of this art, but I’m a serious practitioner. I take a lot of notes, and maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

There are all kinds of notes. The quickly scribbled, possibly brilliant, ideas that come to you while you’re watching something stupid on TV, or washing dishes, on your way to work, or at work, in some foreign place, you witness something, an epiphany you know you will forget if you don’t write it down—gone like a dream you wake up from.

There are bits of information that might turn out to be relevant for future plots: fragments of poems, and ideas, diaries from trips to other places, photos, plans, codes for house alarm and route, translations. Details—how things smelled, or felt, or sounded.

I’ve accumulated many notebooks. I have notebooks by the TV, in the car, and on my desk, and in my pants. Men used to carry notebooks in their pants. ‘Little black books’ they were called. I started using them in collage: class notes, addresses, important dates. I still have dozens of them stashed away with names, past lovers, places, books I wanted, clever quotes and such. Some are from fifty years ago. Why am I saving these?  You never know when one might hold some data that’s exactly what I need—although this is extremely doubtful.

Back pockets are hard on notebooks. Those early black books lasted twelve or thirteen months. But thirty years ago I found the perfect replacement. A police notebook, heavy leather, cover holds a pad—one of those things the cops flip upon when they’re making an arrest. I’ve had the same one all these years.

I’m probably one of the last to have a little black book. They have been replaced by cell phones that hold gigabytes of information; even photos saved in seemingly into a galaxy of space.

Travel Notebooks. 

I am one of many who keep travel notebooks. I count four now scattered on my desk, for no good reason, possibly romantic, semi scrapbooks interspaced with ticket stubs, recites from hotels, boarding passes, restaurants, and currency exchanges. They take up desk space, but one might hold information needed later.

I see half a dozen other notebooks in arms reach. One has data that pertains to an unfinished novel that has been through two revisions and a viciously professional, expensive editor who found so much wrong I put the thing aside. Another notebook’s for a magnum opus has gone through three revisions. I would like to finish it before I die, but not sure I want to devote the rest of my life to it. A hundred fifty thousand words—it should be two books, one of many problems.

All in all I count a dozen notebooks on my desk and nearby table, far too many. I’m a data hoarder, but determined to get rid of some of my accumulation, one page at a time if nothing else.

If you look carefully at upper center of this photo, you can see one labeled, ‘Trash’. Why haven’t I thrown it away? Needs one more look through, on some other day, not this one. Smaller notebooks have been used for less important and intentionally temporary items: deadlines, submit places, contests—scattered here and there.

My desk is a constant mess, but I have a cognitive map of where things are. When notes go digital into computer’s ‘Documents’, I’m never sure, and often forget what I named the file I saved them in. There have been PC crashes. We have all been there—the horror.

I take notes, on paper that will never disappear. They might get lost, but will be found, if not today, than some day later, possibly by chance as I am looking for an unrelated subject. Ah the joy of it, like finding money on the sidewalk.

I hope you are better than myself or keeping track of things, more organized, skilled cell phone users, but there may be one or two of you who know whereof I speak.

I’ll end with what I think is true story I read, about a playwright. He was tree trimming, and had stopped to rest upon on a branch. An idea for a play came to him and he went through the whole thing, from beginning to the end, and it was brilliant. When he set foot on the ground again it was completely gone, and never came back.

So keep on taking notes of thoughts in passing, but keep better track of them than I do. Never be without a pin and paper, in the car, airplane, or living room, have something you can scribble on. Save often and save early. I have two small tips.

  1. Numbering notebook pages, with an index on 1st page will help find specific notes, rather than having to look through all the pages to find one description, or a thought.
  2. Don’t be too brief. I look back at notes taken a year or two ago and can’t remember what the hell I was thinking about.

One good thing about notebooks, no one can steal our ideas, without breaking into house. Notebooks are a look into the past, more subjective than diaries, an endless flow of ideas, titles, plots and feelings ready to be shared. Some writers struggle to come up with a new ideas, some keep notebooks.

 

 

 

Get Your Frights on Winter Nights Tags: The Haunting of Hill House Netflix Stephen King Shirley Jackson Horror Genre

The last few weeks I’ve been hooked on Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ directed by Mike Flanagan. The series is loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Horror writer, Stephen King, describes the series as, ‘close to genius'.

Memories or Ghosts?

The story is told through two timelines; switching between one summer the Crain family spent at Hill House when the children were growing up, and their lives as adults in the present. The story is told over ten episodes in a non-linear way and we get to know what led up to a night in Hill House that changed the family’s lives forever. We also learn why the truly terrifying Bent Neck Lady haunted Nell Crain when she was a kid and still haunts her in adulthood long after leaving Hill House. THoHH plays with that numinous area between emotional vulnerabilities and supernatural possession suggesting that we are all, like the Crain family, ‘haunted’ in some way; perhaps by family trauma, relationships that went wrong or desires that never came to fruition.

Inspired by Poe

When I was at secondary school, we had to write a story in response to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, 'The Black Cat'. I wrote about a girl walking in a wood at night who witnessed a murder through the lighted window of a log cabin. She didn’t see the actual figures but events unfolded in silhouette on the cabin wall. I was really proud to be asked to read it to the class. My first published short story had ghosts and witchcraft, but since then I have generally stayed away from the horror genre because of its reputation as trashy entertainment, and the fact that it’s so easy to get it wrong and end up with something farcical.

Can we learn from the horror genre?

My opinons on horror changed however, when I went to a workshop at a writers’ conference a few years ago. The tutor explained how fiction writers, regardless of genre, can learn so much from the horror story. All stories need powerful antagonists, and horror stories have to deliver on that score. Readers must care deeply about the main character and at the climax of the action you know that your MC will be isolated and face-to-face with the antagonist.

Jekyll and Hyde

In many horror stories, protagonist and antagonist even merge into one, so that hitherto ‘good’ characters step over to the dark side. Indeed, the characters’ struggles with light and dark forces are major plot points in THoHH. This merging with dark forces also happens in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book. In the novel, protagonist, Jack Torrance, tries his utmost to resist the evil forces in the haunted Overlook Hotel, retaining traces of his humanity almost until the end of the story. In the film, lapsed alcoholic, Jack, quickly sides with malevolent spirits and carries out their evil bidding without resistance.

Why do we need ghost stories?

Kubrick said that, ‘The Shining,’ is a positive movie because any evidence of life after death offers reassurance to mortals.

Ghost-story doyenne, Susan Hill, theorises that we all enjoy thrills in a safe environment and in doing so prepare ourselves for the real frights and dangers in life. And Stephen King suggests that it’s much more diverting to be scared of ghosts than it is to worry about the true horrors of life such as serious illness, loss of loved ones and the grim reaper.

What about you? Do you like ghost/supernatural horror stories? Which ones are your favourites? Maybe you are a rationalist who has no truck with ghosts, real or fictional?

 
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