The Writing Notebook City

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What’s The Writing Notebook? You’re about to embark on a book. Or maybe you’ve started already, even more than once, and got lost or overwhelmed or couldn’t find time to get beyond a certain point. Maybe you put the book aside until you were ready to tackle it again. Maybe you’re ready now. Maybe that’s why you’ve bought this notebook; you want to write something, to put your ideas onto paper. You have a book in you, and you want to get it out. Give yourself the next few months to write the first draft. Don’t worry about what comes after that. Get the first draft done. Then think about the second draft, the agent, the publisher, the cover design; all those things that make The Book feel like an undertaking much bigger than it is. For now, what matters is the first draft of your book. What matters is working out what this book is about. It’s hard work, this bookwriting business. It takes time. Time to get the words onto paper, time to procrastinate and come back to the story, time to work out what the story is. It might not always be fun or easy, but it will be meaningful. It will mean something in your life and that meaning and sense of satisfaction will seep into other aspects of what you do. You have to write the book in order to find out what the book wants to be, what it actually is. You can start with an idea, though by the time you get to the end of the first draft, you will probably - and hopefully! - find that your ideas have changed; that you’ve discovered something new about your characters, the settings, the narrative, even about yourself. Don’t try to control the book. Put your energy into getting as much as you can onto the page. Every story, book, novel, or travel journal is an accumulation of scenes arranged in an order to create drama, suspense, delight and 3

Write about three different journeys in the city. These could be your journeys, which you later rewrite as your character’s journeys, or scenes you write directly as your character’s journey. You could also write them as your own journeys, but in the third person. (For example, instead of “I took the train to visit my father”, you could write: “She took the train to visit her father...”) Choose three very different journeys to different destinations - north, east, west of the city - and by different means: on foot, by bus, by subway. You could tell the story of the journey from start to finish, or begin in the middle (“By the time she got to the park...”). You could also write it as a flashback (“What he remembered most about the ride from Main Street to his office that day was...”). Focus on the physical details of the journey: your character’s body, the weather, the view from the window, the people encountered. Use these three journeys to ground yourself in the landscape of the city.


What has set this story in motion? There’s a routine in your character’s life, or your own life, and then something changes. It could happen suddenly or gradually. It might be linked to how your character got here, or what brought you here, or it might be something unexpected. A murder, a new boss, a call from back home, a discovery, a diagnosis. Write three scenes with your character going about their day, and show how this change impacts on them. They could be in a supermarket when they’re reminded of their recent diagnosis, or think about the person they’ve fallen in love with. They could be walking to work when they get a call to return to their hometown. These are the moments when your character’s perspective on the world begins to shift or is questioned. They present a challenge for them, but also for you as the writer. Even if the moment is not entirely earth-shattering, make it dramatic. Not sure where to start? Start from where you are now, or where your character is, and describe the surroundings until something grabs you, a memory, a puzzle, a person. A book needs a mystery to be solved. Write about your own search, about what you’re looking for in this place.


How do your characters talk? Venture out and do some research. Eavesdrop and jot down what you hear. Listen to interviews and transcribe what people are saying. Use snippets of overheard conversations for your book. Get used to writing the way your characters speak, which is often different to the way we think they speak. Notice the non-grammatical sentence structures, the halffinished sentences, the non sequiturs, the way some people talk at each other. Write three scenes in which your character is talking to three different people about three different things, or about the same thing, or have them interact with the same person in three extremely different settings.


Write a detailed description of a character or of yourself. Write it in prose and as part of a scene. Maybe they’re looking at themselves in a mirror, maybe they’re being observed by someone else in a bar. Make sure you write about their features, their hair, how they move, what they wear, the details of their body, hands, chest, legs, feet. You can always edit out details later. Use this description to gain intimate knowledge of your characters. Always ask yourself what the purpose of any bit of description is. Is there a moment of silence, and in that silence, your character becomes hyper-aware of what’s going on around them? Is it to create suspense, to slow things down, to give a sense of time passing? Description can convey the complexity of a mental state: fear, love, desire, apprehension. It can convey a sense of wonder, of newness, of experiencing something for the first time. All description has one or more of these functions, and will place your reader, and, more importantly, you, firmly and clearly in the world of your book.


Write a scene in which your character thinks about outcomes and endings. If you’re writing a memoir or a travel journal, imagine how things will turn out. Describe how you anticipate your time in the city will end. If your character is solving a mystery or looking for something, write a scene in which they contemplate the possible outcomes of their search. Describe what they’re doing while they think. Notice what’s happening around them, the sounds of the city, traffic, birdsong, chatter, construction work, and how this impacts on their thoughts.


A week later... / After about a month...

By the end of the year... / Two years later...

Spend some time getting to know the other characters in your story. Write two scenes in which your character or you come into contact with other people in the city. Focus on different types of meetings: with friends, colleagues or clients, with cops or lawyers, parents and cousins. Set these meetings in disparate environments: a bar, an office, over the phone, on Skype. Include meetings across class, race, gender and age during a single day. Casual encounters can influence a character’s decisions or fate. Your character could bump into someone they haven’t seen in years, chat to a waitress, observe a fellow traveller’s behaviour. Write the scenes without planning ahead. Start simple and be open to the unexpected. Set the encounters in the present, or as memories, or in anticipation.


Air your frustrations! It’s good to vent. Do it in writing. As a writer, do as much as you can in writing; it’s important to have a record of your imaginings. You might be able to use this venting material at some point. Your frustration might really be your character’s, and you’re just holding onto it for them. Let it all out.


Make a list of future projects. Jot down stories and novels you’d like to tackle, stories you could write, or really want to write, or want to come back to, or wish you were writing now. Then return to the book you’re working on.


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