Habits of Highly Effective Writers: The Magic Notebook

Ray Bradbury says that ideas are like cats and women: the harder you chase them, the faster they run away. Instead, inspiration comes at odd times and under strange conditions. It hits when you’re driving, or mowing the lawn, or standing in the grocery line. Or as you’re drifting off to sleep, or when you’re four-thirds of the way to drunk with your brothers on Christmas Eve.

All of this underlines the importance of one of the best habits a writer can take on: always carry your magic notebook.

When ideas stream through your consciousness, scrawl them down in the magic notebook. When you’re working later, you can review your ideas and work on what’s on your plate that day. This process accomplishes several things:

  • You stop forgetting brilliant ideas you had while away from your work area.
  • You can avoid writer’s block by having a list of ideas ready to hand.
  • You’re less tempted to abandon current projects for new inspiration, because you’re confident the idea will still be available later on.

Your notebook doesn’t have to be an actual pen-and-paper notebook anymore. Many writers use a digital audio recorder, or even a practically antique handheld tape recorder. Cell phones will do in a pinch with an integral audio recorder, or you can just call and leave yourself a message. The new app phones combine the best features of notebooks and audio. Me, I stick with my grid-ruled Moleskine notebook — just like Hemmingway and Morrow, but Odin knows I’m a bit of a Luddite.

One final word on the notebook for shower thinkers. By happy accident, my baby boy taught me a solution to the shower inspiration: tub crayons. These wipable, waterproof babies let you preserve those ideas without stepping out, chilling yourself to the bone and soaking the floor in the process.

Thanks for listening.

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Accountability: The Finish Line

Thank you, one and all, for your support with my accountability project for April and May. With your help, I reached my productivity goals. I know you didn’t actively help, but that’s the beauty of stating goals publicly. It was simply knowing I would post — and that somebody might razz me if I didn’t post — that kept me on track even when it was hard.

I’m making a shift in my working goals going forward. I don’t need the kind of immediate money I did for the past cycle. Instead, I’m going to spend the summer focusing on speculative projects. This requires a different kind of accountability and a different approach to goal setting.

  • I can’t put a dollar total on the goals, because speculative projects don’t earn money immediately.
  • I shouldn’t set a hard goal based on things out of my control, like “five hundred daily visitors to my blog.” This leads to frustration and eventually abandoning my goals altogether.
  • I will need to include a minimum earnings per month so I can keep paying rent and spoiling my wife and children.

I have a basic plan, but will announce it next Sunday. In the interim, I’ll be focusing on programs of assessment and accountability for authors. It might give me some good ideas.

As always, I’m eager to hear what you all have to say. Please comment with your own methods for making sure you get done what needs getting done — especially for projects with no hard deadline.

Thanks for listening.

Getting Ideas: Emperor Joshua Norton

For me, ideas tend to spray off of things I see or hear, like sparks shooting off when you hit flint and steel together. I was happy to discover recently that author Christopher Moore works the same way — at least sometimes.

Writers hone their craft by reading. Recently, I stumbled across the existence of Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed emperor of San Francisco. This legendary figure walked the streets of his city from 1859 to 1880. During his reign, he issued public proclamations that ranged from a demand for Sacramento to clean its streets to the dissolution of the US Congress.

Local businesses allowed him to eat for free, and he had complementary use of the city’s mass transit. Citizens would even buy his 50-cent imperial treasury bonds. His dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, were exempted from city leash laws. At times, enthusiastic new police officers or dog-catchers would arrest a member of the trio — to citywide outrage. When he died, donations sent him off in style with a procession that extended over two miles.

The Emperor, Bummer and Lazarus are recurring characters in Moore’s San Francisco vampire trilogy: Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me. Maybe I’m the only person for whom this is new information, but there it is.

Ideas are everywhere. It’s just a matter of feeding them when they scratch at the door.

You can find out more about Emperor Norton I of the United States of America at the San Francisco History Encyclopedia page in his honor. Stuff You Missed in History Class has a great podcast on him as well.

As a final note, another author wrote Bummer’s obituary. A (then) little-known journalist by the name of Sam Clemens.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

Ideas for Nonfiction (Part Two)

Continuing our list of ways to come up with topics for nonfiction articles, which you can then pitch to magazines and turn into fees and a portfolio…

Springboarding

I touched on this in detail in an earlier post. Keep a note pad handy while researching and writing your assignments. A fact might grab your attention, but be inappropriate for your current assignment. A small section of an article might have enough juice to warrant a full-size piece of its own. Maybe your article for a regional magazine could be recast to suit the needs of a local, or national, publication. If you jot down a reminder, you can come back to these ideas later and pitch them as unique stories.

Library Time

If all else fails, go to your local library or friendly neighborhood bookstore. Spend an hour or so skimming through magazines and reading what kinds of articles they’ve published lately. Think of related, but unique, ideas that will suit them. If you want to write for magazines, you should be reading them anyway. You can combine this idea with your personal expertise and a mind map for ferocious onslaught of idea generation.

The Shower

From what I’ve been told, I’m not the only person who does his best thinking in the shower. I don’t know why, but it seems like humans do their best thinking wet. Your omnipresent, ever-ready notebook will get ruined in the shower. A grease pencil or kids’ shower crayon won’t. I keep one in the little caddy, between my razor and the shampoo. If I’m struck by inspiration, I scrawl it on the shower wall and jot it into my notebook when I’m finished.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I’m certain others have their own methods, and I’d love to see some in the comments.

Thanks for listening.