Looking Back, Looking Forward

Lately I have been using composition notebooks as my primary notebook. This was more a fallout from an after school sale than any other factor, buying a stack for the year at 50¢ a piece.

An investment well worth the cost.

These notebooks, for those who haven’t used one in a while, are stitched in the center, and folded. And here, on this center spread, I’ve formed a new habit.

When I get to these pages, I use both sides and write a journal that is themed ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’. I write about my goals, how they are doing, how they are progressing, things like page counts and monthly challenges.

I write about the stories and poems themselves, which are working, which are falling behind. Which ones I should be focusing on, and which need to rest a while?

Then I look forward. Do I want to keep all the goals? Should I try something new, or return to something old? Which things are going to be my focus, and which things will wait?

I fill both pages of the spread with this self-reflection, taking just a few moments of time. But important moments.

The good thing about this reflection is that it comes not at a calendar moment, like the new year, or my birthday, but at an unplanned one, just when the center of the book is reached.

I reached the center of my notebook last night, a center that took longer than expected to reach. Still, a moment of reflection found that the time had been well spent, spread over several notebooks now, instead of one.

Realigned, reflected, ready to write.

Plain Text Story Format

So, I have thing with file formats. Call it a rocky past, if you will. Lately I have been, as much as possible, using plain text files for my writing.

(I still use Excel for Excel things because plain text spreadsheets aren’t really a thing–which is a shame. But I do use plain text for my to-do list, which is turning out well.)

I use a format called Markdown, which I’ve rambled about before, but I wanted to post about how I organize a file overall.

The nice thing about this format is this will work in any program–Word to plain text–as it is just a manner of organization. Now to be clear, this is primarily my working file, and while you can use this as a final with some tweaks (for a later post), for now think of this as what you are using to draft.

The layout is simple, really. I put the infonotes at the top, break, and the story, with a slight tail of word storage at the end. A blank layout would look like this:

Title: (title here)
Author: (my name)








To use this, all you would need do is copy/paste that into a fresh document. These headings (which I usually format as Heading 1 just for visual effect), provide a skeleton to the file, and some guidance to the chaos that usually filled my stories.

The To-do section is as it sounds. I’ll make a list of items for the future. If I am feeling proper, I’ll use todo.txt formatting. I’ll mark done items with an “X” in front

# To do 

- change main character’s name
- move the setting from Mars to London
- look up fashion from 1870’s @library
X read about Inuit and Aleut +mythology

I use the same formatting both for the Characters and Locations sections: a Heading 2 style for the name of the character / place, and then followed by a description (or important details)

# Characters

## Victor Frankenstein

Smart guy, but kind of a jerk. He knows what he wants, and isn’t afraid to go get it. Love interest of main character. 

Blue eyes, tall, hiding a bald spot. 

## Jean Renee 

Lone wolf type character, she is traveling but won’t say to where (Stockholm). carries a blade in her umbrella. (or really an umbrella on her blade.)

likes crepes

# Locations

## Victor’s House

London, 85 Baker street. There is an exit out the side only he knows about, and a secret basement he doesn’t

## Warf

Three pubs, Ego Alley, Jones’ and The Lost Lady

For characters, you can set them up in groups. I had a military story, for example, and had them sectioned off by fire squad and rank to keep the names straight. Have ships? group them based on who is on what boat.

Locations, same idea–organize by city, then location; by planet, then continent; chronologically by when they come up in the story. However you want.

Notes is free form for a reason: sometimes you need free form. I’ll usually try to space them out by headings or white space, but overall, anything goes here.

Story is just that. Write here like you always do.

Archive is for things I wrote which, naturally, are brilliant, but for whatever reason don’t fit into the story. This is an archive of deleted sentences and paragraphs I want to keep, but not be a part of the published text.

And that’s it.

This structure allows me to have the spread of information I want. I can open a file and world build, or I can write away, knowing that I can keep things that don’t work as well.

The best part? This isn’t a program. So if something isn’t working, it is easily adjusted. For example, you are writing a short story, set in a single location, BUT the main character is a chef, so you have to keep recipes handy? Scratch ‘Location’ and ‘Recipes’ it is. Change things to work for you.

Now some may say, isn’t this what Scrivener does? Why not just use that? And yes, there are similarities in ideas. I do own Scrivener, and while I love it, not everything I write fits into its scope. Scrivener is a big app, and offers a lot of functionality, and sometimes you just need a single file.

This text file I can store in my dropbox and work on anywhere–on my phone, my computer. It is small, light, easy to read and future proof and completely customizable. I don’t have to fight a program to get something I want, just change a header.

And then get back to writing.

Seven things about My Writing

1– I have this thing with blue pens.

I’m not sure when this mess started, but shortly after my first blank notebook, I switched to only writing in blue pens. Sure, at first I’d use a black pen when I needed. I dare say there are a few drafts in purple out there somewhere… but not recently. Blue it is. Preferably cheap papermates.

Though, funny enough, the darker the ink, the better.

2– I skip the first page of a new notebook

First page jitters. There was this mental paralysis with the first page. I mean, it is the FIRST PAGE. This is the first thing anyone will see… not that anyone else was reading my notebook. The solution? I skipped it. Moved to page 2 and started writing.

Doesn’t that make page 2 by default, page 1?

Quiet you.

3– My notes / writing is chaotic

There is little in the sense of order in my notebooks, or in the manner which I tackle my writing. A journal note can turn into a blog post, jump into poetry. A character analysis from a fantasy novel can sit in between scenes from a horror short I am working on. I learned long ago to just write it down when it comes to me, rather than try to force focus. This does, however, mean there a lot of unfinished things in my backlog.

4– I read aloud while editing

I blame, and affectionately so, poetry for this. When I edit fiction I will read it aloud. Usually first as a whole, then parts over and over, listening to the sounds and word choices. Often I will restructure parts based more on how they read aloud then how they read on the page–making word choices based on sound and rhythm, rather than some more conventional fictional wisdom.

5– First Drafts are King

This is something I struggle with still, but it goes like this: If the first draft isn’t nearly the final draft, it doesn’t work out well. Work that needs a lot of edits somehow never turn out how I want. More often, I will take what I wrote (the thing that really needs edited), push it aside and completely re-write it fresh, reconstructing the story/chapter/section from scratch. But even then, there is a momentum issue, each word building on the previous. Often this has caused me to abandon stories.

6– I write short

This is something else I blame on poetry, but also on my own reading habits. I live in the shorter end of fiction, keeping words and phrases tight and scenes short. I’ve been working on this one, trying to change from a poetry / flash fiction flow to a novel one, but I struggle.

7– Most of the time, I do not write a story in order

Perhaps with the exception of flash fiction, I usually start with a scene, something that gets me, and jot that down. Then I’ll think about, talk about while driving, and word play with other parts and dialogue, getting the voices of the characters, and the scenes I do know flushed out some. These scenes and moments jump around in time and narration, forcing me to figure out how everyone got from A to B to C, especially when I started at H, then wrote E before dreaming of the sequel, X, Y and F.

During this time I am seeking the plot. But not just that, I call it THE THING, but the part of the story that makes it all click together. THE THING is the difference between a completely competent telling of an event and a great piece of fiction. Usually it alludes me, but when it hits, boom, lightning.