Monday, January 25, 2010

Roundtable Discussion: Lo-Tech Solutions to Author Problems

At the Mount Hermon writers' conference last year, one of the most interesting segments was a small group setting in which several writers, agents and editors shared their favorite gadgets for writers. They ranged from the new Kindle reading device to backup and storage solutions.
However, some of the most useful things are not expensive nor even electronic. Take the screen that I use in my office. Three-part screens can be ordered online for just over $100 or are often for sale in consignment and second-hand furniture stores. Mine is a sombraje screen (made from peeled cottonwood branches) and is characteristic of New Mexico, where I live.

Here is a photo of my screen in its current use. I am writing a novel based in the first century, and the main character's life intersects at points with that of the Apostle Paul. Those are little maps of his missionary journey at the top of the screen, and below (partially hidden by the manila file folders) are timelines of his ministry along with secular history.

I said this is its current use -- kind of a folding bulletin board. However, I usually have it between my desk and the door of my office. We have so much
company in my home that putting the screen there keeps guests from feeling they have to say "hi" as they go down the hall, and keeps me from feeling guilty when I am writing to meet a deadline and have people visiting other family members. It's kind of a compromise between a closed door and a welcome mat. And it works very well!

Low-tech is the way to go for me. I'm not against technology; computers are my friend - but I'm not a gadget gal. I've tried learning Scrivener but the timing was off, and I ended up back in Word to write my next novel (blessedly nearly finished). I'll try again when I'm less crunched for time. My low tech lovely is the simple writing journal. Each novel gets its own journal. Long hand writing helps my memory. I start rough sketching plot and character sketches long hand in a journal.
For my upcoming novel, Time & Time Again- an atmospheric, slightly chilling story, I chose this journal:

As I contemplate another novel, I have started a new journal. It's lovely to have these hand written books on my shelf beside the finished product.


A very lo-tech device I began using three manuscripts ago is my character collage. I've written about it before, but it's a useful way to keep my characters in front of me, and keep their physical traits straight. When I begin a novel I spend days creating and naming my characters. Occasionally I'll write several chapters using a name for someone only to find it isn't the right name. Then I have to go back and figure out who they really are. I know when it's wrong, and I know when it's right.
Once I "cast" my novel, I spend days looking at "headshots" until I find the face that goes with the character in my head. I print a small photo of it onto a sheet of paper, then go looking for the next character and add that photo to the collage. This gives me a visual of each person in my novel and makes them more real to me as I write.
That doesn't mean I describe them in intricate detail. I prefer to leave much to the imagination of my readers, because their vision of what a character looks like may not match the one I give them. Who hasn't seen a movie from a book they 've read, only to be disappointed that so-and-so looks nothing like they're supposed to? But it's a great visual aid for a writer. Case in point -- and it couldn't have happened at a better time: I'm watching Alex and Emma, and Emma says to Alex the author, "I hate it when ... authors use a name like John Shaw. I picture in my mind thin with a stylish mustache and then when you finally get around to describing him he's a fat old fart with a hole in his teeth." So the collage is mostly to keep my characters before me.
The collage also keeps me from getting away from my story for very long, because it's right there by my computer where I spend most of every day. Right now I'm looking at a beautiful 3-year old girl who's asking me to tell her story. I'm doing my best, Kinsey. I really am.

Bonnie stole my thunder about having a journal for each book, so I'll add that I divide mine with tabs for characters, plot, setting, and research. It's the most useful 'device' I have to help me write. My second-best gadget is a lighted notebook that I keep on my nightstand. It has a pen inserted in the top. When you pull it out, the writing area lights up. When you return the pen to the slot, the light goes out. I can't tell you how many times I have used it in the middle of the night when I have an idea and there's no way I would remember it by morning. It's not bright enough to disturb my husband, either. My son found it at Brookstone in the mall last year.

This is how it looks when it's lighted. It fits in the palm of my hand and is easy to grip as I write. That doesn't mean I can understand my handwriting any better - after all, it's probably 4:00 in the morning - but it gives me something to work with. Thank you, son!

Low-tech suits me fine! I need a reminder to remain focused on the moment in the story I'm writing. If I think about all the remaining chapters and trying to write a satisfying ending and meeting the d-e-a-d-l-i-n-e, deadline, I turn to cognitive jelly. So, from a cue I found in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, I made up this tiny sign--1" x 1.5" and put it in a tiny frame. "Write only what you can see through me." I write one sentence, one paragraph, one scene at a time. It's simple but a great stress reducer.



Tina said...

Love this post! I like Moleskine journals. My first editor gave me my first one. I scribble notes and thoughts as I write my books.

Patti Hill said...

I keep Moleskin journals in three idea-rich places: the bathroom, the bedroom, and the car. Note that none of these places are my office!

I want one of those lighted pads, Debbie.

Anonymous said...

I want one of those lighted pads, too. Went online to try to find one, but couldn't. Can you email us the info on it?

Bonnie Grove said...

As soon as the snow clears here, I'm heading out to get me one of those light up dealies Debbie uses.

I think I remember Patti talking about a low tech writing device she uses in the shower.....

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Silly perhaps, but I keep a handful of kids bath crayons in my shower. Inspiration tends to strike me at the least opportune times - usually with suds in my hair. But if I have those handy I can always scribble my thoughts onto the wall of my shower.

Just the other day my husband came out of the bathroom asking, "Who is Jude? Why is he eidetic? And what exactly does that mean?"

It's a life saver!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Ariel, I know what you mean. The shower! Is it because you are so relaxed that ideas float to the surface? I have repeated ideas like a mantra until I could towel off. Crayons are a good idea.
I'll try to find that info. There's no identification on the device at all. :(

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Okay, I found it at Restoration Hardware, not Brookstone. It's called 'Nite Note' and is on sale on their website right now.

carla stewart said...

I am so going to Restoration Hardware and getting a Nite Note! Thanks for the tip.

I'm a fan of moleskin journals too. The small ones that fit in my purse. I've written everything from the nursing home code where my m-i-l resides to penning the description of an elderly gentleman I eyed at a concert (who ended up being a beloved minor character in my WIP).

Sometimes non-techie is better.

Anonymous said...

There's definitely a time and a place for technology, but also a time and place for lo-tech! Was just singing the praises of being able to deposit my checks online the other today I went to deposit another one and the site was down! So much for high tech!

Patricia PacJac Carroll said...

I always have good intentions of filling in journals. And often find entries that tell me I'll write in them everyday - dated 2 years ago. : ) I like the tech. Need the tech and couldn't write without it. I'll take a laptop or netbook anyday. at least that I way won't lose the paper.

Diane Marie Shaw said...

Love the idea of the Nite Note, I must get one. I have writen ideas during the night without turning the light on, didn't want to disturb my husband. Not a good idea, I have ended up writing over what I wrote.
Sometimes my first thought in the morning is a phrase that is so incredible that I have to write it down immediately or I loose it. I try to keep a small pad of paper by my bed for such times.