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A Way to Get Ideas and Also to Make Them Good: Free Writing

I was taught about free writing many years ago as a journaling technique (and it works for that too) but I’ve found it to be incredibly valuable for coming up with ideas, and for figuring out how to fix plot flaws or stalls.
First you need a pen and paper. It can maybe be done on a keyboard, if you write extremely slowly, but it isn’t nearly effective. Your handwriting doesn’t need to be neat or even particularly readable. Get a pen that flows well, and the paper should be at least 8×10–no tiny little notebooks or napkins for this. You have to feel like you have all the room in the world–a regular spiral notebook like you used in school is perfect.
Make sure you’re not going to disturbed for a while. You want to make sure you can do this for at least thirty minutes without interruption. For me, Starbucks is perfect for this (as long as you’re wearing headphones) because you can just turn off your phone. At home, people might walk in or you might feel the need to check on the Internet. But of course you can do it at home or anywhere else you prefer. Just maybe not at work, or in front of the TV.
Put the pen on the paper, and start writing everything that comes into your head. Not just ideas for your project, but all of your internal dialogue as well. As in: “Okay, I need to come up with an idea for this short story I’ve been asked to write, about pineapples. I have no ideas. This is awful. All right. What do I know about pineapples? Well, they grow in Hawaii, right? Maybe I could do a story set in Hawaii? I’ve never been to Hawaii though. I’ve seen it on TV a lot. There was the Brady Bunch episode in Hawaii. Probably not enough to set a story there. So maybe I could do a story about someone who has moved here from Hawaii, and is homesick, and becomes obsessed with pineapples as a way to deal with the homesickness? That could work. I’ve been homesick. Boarding school was horrible. Maybe they’re at boarding school? Okay, then what? Well, maybe there is some kind of crime syndicate operating in the new town and she uncovers it because of her obsession with pineapples. No, wait, maybe she gets a job working with pineapples and that’s how she stumbles upon it, because they’re using pineapples in their crimes. Why would that ever happen. All right, so maybe…”
Basically, you’re letting your entire thought process spill out onto the paper, and by doing that you’re harnessing it. If you only try to write down the good ideas, or the ideas you recognize as workable, you’ll miss the tiny little sparks that could burn into big ideas.
It sometimes takes a long time. You’ll be writing “I don’t know. That’s stupid. Why can’t I come up with anything? What time is it? Oh man, I only have an hour” for what seems like forever. But: it works. It really does. All of a sudden one tiny little piece of an idea will connect with another, and a whole, brilliant idea will come pouring out of you like a stopper has been pulled. It’s the most amazing feeling, like a miraculous release.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with literally no ideas AT ALL other than “I want to write a YA novel” and stood up with characters and a fully-formed plot.
It works just as well when you can’t figure out a problem in something you’re writing. Your brain will be noodling on it, but sitting down and writing every little thing you’re thinking somehow makes all the ideas you have fall into place.
The important thing to remember is that no one–NO ONE–but you will ever read this stuff. That’s part of why I like to do it in cursive in a notebook rather than typing it–no one COULD read that. So you can write down every bad idea you have in order to make room for the good ideas, and no one will ever know.
It’s one of those things you might have to try to really believe in, but I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Just make sure you commit to really doing it, with time and a whole lot of large empty pieces of lined paper.

Oh, and when I first learned how to do this, back when it was a method for journal, the people who taught me were big on lighting a candle and playing baroque music while doing it. You can listen to Vivaldi on your ipod if you want, but should probably only do the candle thing if you’re at home. Or write in a place that has candles on the table, maybe.

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Tools for Writing in Public: The AlphaSmart

alphasmartI have a lot of different ways of writing when I write in coffee shops (and I’ll probably talk about them all at some point) but one of my favorites is also the one people seem most surprised and impressed by: my AlphaSmart 3000. The AlphaSmart is essentially a keyboard with a small screen that shows four lines of text at a time. You can’t really edit on it, and it wouldn’t work at for anything that needs formatting (so, I don’t use it when I write screenplays). But man oh man, it is wonderful.

Here’s what’s great about the AlphaSmart:

  • It’s very light. I have put it in backpacks and then forgotten it’s there.
  • It’s super-durable. I have dropped said backpacks on the ground really hard before remembering it was in them. It rattles if you shake it but works just fine.
  • It has the same size keyboard as most laptops.
  • It runs on AA batteries. So you never have to worry about recharging or running out–just pack a couple extra batteries if you’re worried; but don’t be. It runs FOREVER on those batteries.
  • It’s cheap. I think I got mine on Ebay for $45.
  • You can write on the beach with it. I do this sometimes. I wouldn’t want to carry my laptop or iPad on the beach, but the AlphaSmart… I just don’t worry that much. And writing on the beach is FANTASTIC.
  • You can carry it with you pretty much anywhere, and it’s great anywhere, but the VERY best thing is when you travel or commute. It’s perfect on buses and subways because it fits on your lap, can be shoved into a bag without being folded or whatever if you have to stand, and people are much less likely to steal it than a laptop, because it just doesn’t look all that impressive. I like taking it on airplanes, too, because you don’t need to make a big deal about bringing it through security. And you can use it (easily) with the tray table folded up.

When I’m trying to get a lot of (non-screenplay) writing done in a short time, I keep in it my car. That way if I get some unexpected free time I can grab it and go into the nearest Starbucks, or a park, or if I’m ten minutes early somewhere I can just sit in my car and type on it for a little while.
When you’re ready to get what you’ve written onto to your computer, you open a text document (word, or whatever), plug in a cable to the AlphaSmart and the computer, and hit send. It’s like you’re typing into the document (so if you have AutoCorrect on in Word, it fixes your spelling mistakes as it goes).
The bad stuff:

  • It only holds roughly 25,000 words. Then you have to move it to your computer and clear up files.
  • There is no word count function (on my version anyway; later versions might have it) so you can’t really know if you’ve hit your daily quota.
  • Mine does a weird thing where it switches punctuation so I have to do a find/replace; friends who have them don’t have that problem and it might be because I did something weird to it.
  • A friend pointed this out and it’s true; when you use it strangers constantly interrupt your writing to ask what the AlphaSmart is and how it works and whatnot.

As I said I have an AlphaSmart 3000; there are several versions (the 2000, the Neo), some more expensive than others. I’m really happy with mine. You can find them by searching on Amazon (they have 12 just like mine, right now, for $25-$58) or on Ebay. Make sure the cable comes with it.

Five Splashes of Soy Milk (out of five splashes)


How to Create a Perfect Writing Playlist


I love the chatter and background noise in coffee shops, unless people are actually talking near me or the store is playing any music at all, at which point I have to put on headphones.

When you’re writing, you want to be focused on what you’re putting on the page. Pausing to change songs is a problem, and so is pausing to enjoy songs. You want to be able to turn on your ipod and then not touch it again. You want every song to be perfect background to your creativity.

Here’s how to make that playlist.
It’s not about hand-picking all the right songs; it would take forever and you’d get impatient and make the list too small and you’d get bored with it. The much better way it is to just get rid of all the wrong songs.

First: Make a new playlist with every song you own –unless you already have a smaller playlist that is just songs you like. In that case, copy that one.

Next, get rid of all the songs you’re going to stop writing to skip past. Songs you secretly hate, but own because they’re by your favorite artist, or because your friend bought you the album, or whatever. We all have them. There’ll be good excuses below to explain why they’re not on the playlist even though you loooooove them (in case your bff, who keeps buying you Prince albums, sees the playlist). Sometimes you can remove whole artists or albums at a time this way. And don’t feel bad–I hate “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols and that does not in any way diminish my love for every other song they made.

Now, get rid of anything that will pull your focus.

  • All albums that are just spoken word— Seinfeld wondering what the deal is, Rollins telling about that time he was in an airport, that sort of thing.
  • All the songs that tell a story. Anything that has a strong character singing about a specific event. Because chances are, you’re not going to be writing about that character or event in that moment. (If, for instance, you’re writing a sex scene, the single worse song that can come on is “The Gambler.” This is a proven fact. )This can go fast if you go through your show tunes albums and just pick out the few that AREN’T like this.
  • All the songs that don’t work as single songs but require the song after it to immediately come on. Songs from concept albums–a lot of Pink Floyd songs are like this, for instance. If hearing the end of one song and not hearing the beginning of the next is like missing a step, your brain will screech to a halt while you notice it.
  • Songs you love too much, or anything that could be called your “jam.” If when it comes on you have to stop everything to listen to it and drum on the table or whatever, it needs to go. Put it on a different playlist.
  • Songs that make you think strongly of a specific scene in a movie. If you can hear “Maniac” and think of anything other than Jennifer Beales dancing, well, that’s surprising. If you’re not writing, right then, about a person dancing, it can get in the way.
  • Songs that invoke a particular memory or emotional reaction in you. I love REM’s “Losing My Religion,” but every time I hear it I spend anywhere from 45 seconds to fifteen minutes thinking about the guy I loved and lost when I was nineteen. This is not good for writing. Or “Eye of the Tiger,” the best song possible when you’re trying to motivate yourself off the couch, is not a great one when writing a death scene, say.

When you’re done, you should have a whole bunch of songs that are pleasant and ignorable. Songs you like but don’t make you pay attention to them. Of course as you write, you’ll find there are still songs on the playlist that pull your focus or that you never realized you hated. Make a note of them, and remove them from the playlist next time you’re at your computer. It will happen less and less often.

Oh, and play the list on shuffle, always. If you get used to a pattern, your brain will complain if it’s missing.