Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


Today my 5-year-old drew this picture for me on a white board:

 “They look startled because they’re about to be erased,” he explained.

My son is normally quite sensitive about anything dealing with finality. Deflated balloons, dead flies on a windowsill, even a withered leaf can bring tears to his eyes. So I was surprised at his matter-of-fact tone.

“Where do you think these characters will go, after they’re erased?” I asked gently, bracing myself for the emotions around the corner. “Maybe back to Idea Land? Where they came from?”

Idea Land! Yes! A place where half-formed thoughts and two-dimensional characters could run around dead ends or play jump rope with tangled-up plotlines! Cast off characters — from different chapters, even from different books — could all meet up and hang out. Surely that’s where these stick figures were going in that car — and no doubt they’d run into countless abandoned relics from the novel I’m now revising. I let myself drift into this fantasy for a moment. The scenario appealed. Sometimes it’s hard to let go. 

My son snapped me out of my reverie. “No,” he said. “They get devoured.”

“Devoured? By what?”

“By the eraser, of course.”

I had just a moment left to snap this picture, and then these guys were gone.

I missed them. But minutes later he’d drawn a better picture.

I wished I could hit my delete button as boldly as he swiped that eraser. Sometimes I cannot simply cut — I have to retype completely, conjuring everything up again, and not thinking about what I’m lost. I’m always happier with the result. It’s the anticipation before the cuts that feels hard.

Do you cling to old ideas — saving them in a file, printing out scrapped pages? I do this even though I may never look at those files or pages again. I like just knowing they are there. Other writers are more ruthless. 

How do you make peace with cuts when you’re revising?

Having recently finished a draft of my novel, I thought I’d share my top three tools for getting a draft done:

1. A timer. Specifically, this one:

This is a visual timer made by a company called Time Timer. (I know, kind of a redundant name — they needed to hire a writer to come up with a better one!) I originally bought this when my son was in preschool; it’s the type of clock they used in his classroom to help kids with transitions or to help them comprehend the idea of “just five more minutes.” He’s since lost interest in it, so it now rests on my desk.

When I’m having trouble getting into a writing session, or feeling uninspired, I set it for 25 minutes. (Or if I’m really stuck, just five! I can do anything for five minutes). Something about seeing all the red — and seeing the red disappear — makes me feel “on the clock” and I use my minutes productively. Sometimes I set a goal of a certain word count in a time period. Sometimes my goal is just to keep typing until I no longer see  red. My optimal work sessions run in 25-minute writing bursts followed by a 5-minute rest. (This is a variation on the patented “pomodoro” method of time management).

You really could use any timer, even a stopwatch function on your phone, but I love this clock too because it doesn’t tick or make distracting sounds, and a gentle “beepbeep” signals the end of your session. And the constant presence of this oversize clock keeps me on task.

2. Post-it notes! I use them for jotting quick notes. Things to fix in the story that aren’t urgent, but are worth addressing later. Research questions to work on later. Page markers as I flip through print-outs of the manuscript. Reminders of my story goal, or a character’s objective in a scene — and I’ll place the note right at the edge of my computer screen.

Here’s how I sometimes use bigger sticky notes.

Yellow = a setting I’m interested in using.
Blue = a plot development. Something that happens.

I play around with these on my wall when I’m stuck, trying to match plot developments or scenes to interesting settings. This also ensures that characters roam around and don’t get stuck talking in the same cafe, or a room in a house.

See the blank yellow one? There’s a setting with nothing going on. See the blue one by itself? That’s a scene with no setting. Mapping this out in advance helps me to plan my scenes more effectively.

3. Freedom. This is Internet blocking software. I use it in conjunction with my timer clock. I may set the timer on this for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, and I use it in conjunction with my desk timer. I could still check email or tweet something from my phone, but I find I tend not to. Once I’m plugged into Freedom, I feel like I’ve “punched in” for the work session, and I am more focused. It’s sad I had to pay ten dollars for this application, when I could simply switch my wireless button to “off,” but for me this really works.

For more tips on drafting — and getting a draft done — I’ve posted at Sleuths, Spies and Alibis today: “Drafting, and the Aftermath.”

What are your favorite tools for getting a draft done? How do you get to “the end”?

After 78 years in business, my favorite office supply store, Bob Slate Stationer, is closing its doors. All three Cambridge stores will be gone by March. I was already mourning the loss of the two Borders bookstores nearest my home, not to mention the closure of two of my favorite neighborhood book stores in Seattle: Twice Sold Tales and Fremont Place Book Company. I heard about all of those closures in the space of two weeks. The loss of Bob Slate feels like the final kick in the gut.

I have regularly shopped at Bob Slate since I came to the Boston area for school in 1994. Admittedly, I have shopped there less frequently since so much of my work has gone digital, and since the main supplies I need these days — printer cartridges, bulk amounts of printer paper — are much cheaper at Staples. But I’ve still gone there at least once every couple of months for notebooks, journal-type books, planner books, greeting cards, business stationery, and pens. Pens! Bob Slate was like a candy store of gorgeous pens, which you could try out on tiny pads of paper without anyone frowning at you. I don’t even use pens that much anymore, but I have continued to stockpile them as if the world will end. I can honestly say I never left the store empty-handed.

Bob Slate was the kind of store that reminded me of why I wanted to write. Sure, bookstores inspire me too, with all their shelves of finished products. But those are completed stories. Bob Slates, for me, was always about the romance of possibility. Looking at shelf after shelf of notebooks, and reams of lined paper, I would imagine the possibilities for filling them up. I would spend up to an hour choosing my next journal, or the appropriate notebook for jotting ideas on my novel in progress, or the best binder for organizing my research materials. And while running my fingers over bindings, almost in a trance, I’d be playing with various ideas in my mind, or puzzling over plot glitches, or thinking about a character.

Walking into Bob Slate, I always felt ten years old again. When I was a child, my mother regularly took me to stationery shops or drug stores to buy new notebooks, which I chewed through at an alarming rate. I would run my fingers over spines and stroke the paper, deciding whether I wanted a fat five-subject notebook or a smaller one, depending on the scope of my project. I would carefully choose the color of the cover — maybe black or dark blue for a serious work, or hot pink for something light and fun. Or orange, for my Harriet the Spy notebooks, to match the color of that book cover. In Bob Slate, the years fell away and I was right back at age ten, choosing my tools with care and delight.

In our economy today, and our digitized era, paper and pens have become romantic. Fetishized objects of an earlier time. My buying them, in somewhat smaller amounts over the years, certainly did not save the store. But I hope the sense of possibility won’t become romantic. I feel a little adrift today, unsure now of where to go to get the same feeling I got at Bob Slate. I can tell you it’s not at Staples, a place where I usually want to get the hell out as soon as I walk in the door. Staples is about efficiency and speed. Bob Slate was a place to linger. It was a place to let ideas slowly unfurl, and a place to buys tools to help facilitate dreams on the page.

I’m busy, and most days I like to work fast and hard and get things done. It’s the subtitle of this entire blog. But sometimes it’s important to linger and dream and browse around, and I’m finding fewer places to do that these days.