Saturday, January 29, 2011

Free Writing

In the immortal words of the song: “Come on and take a free write…yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah….” (Anyone remember Edgar Winter Group?)

Recently a Sister of the Quill told us she was going to do some “free writing.” I asked her what she meant by that, and realized it was exactly how I’d started my first novel and the resulting series: brainstorming by writing.
Wonderful memories flooded back…
There was a tremendous excitement the first day I turned the corner from dreaming to creating. I had no idea how to write a novel, but knew I had to gather my thoughts. So I bought one of those chubby little spiral notebooks and, on that very first free writing day and every one that followed, I went to an outdoor bookshop café in Menlo Park called Café Borrone.
Perhaps it was the presence of all those books behind me in Keplers Bookstore, but the moment I sat under that magic umbrella with my magic toasted raisin bread chicken salad sandwich and magic notebook, I changed. I was no longer just a mommy, much as I treasured that title. I was a member of the intelligentsia, the literati, blossoming with confidence and creativity and dreams and energy and ideas. In that environment, it seemed incredible stories might come to life.
I sketched out my characters first, listing everything I could about them. I knew I had to have a main character, an unattainable eternal love, family, a sidekick/foil, employees, and bad guys. Not just one, of course, but a few: the ultimate one was known as SBG (super bad guy).
From time to time I remember looking up and rejoicing, incredulous that this could possibly be happening, that I was actually writing ideas for a book. Now I marvel that I ever imagined my first book would be published. Such idealism! Such hubris! Such a blessing that I was young and foolish enough to hope.
Then attention turned to the story. I’d write things in my weird private journalist’s shorthand like: “Char unwittingly sucked into dngrous intrnat’l intrigue w/bsnss. Difficult au, bk stirs up controv, or smthg in bk smeone dsn’t want knwn. He trvls wrld to solve myst & save own life…”
This is perhaps the most joyful part of writing for me. We’ve probably all found that the longer we run with ideas and let them go, the more intriguing paths appear and link to bits of research…and the more painlessly they translate into a full-blown story. Some of those paths are dead ends, like the character who wouldn’t work until I changed her gender: Alexandra Plumtree.
Those of us who “free write” regularly when eating alone in restaurants know the feeling of pride mixed with embarrassment. On the one hand, it’s a privilege to have such a joyous internal life that you can entertain yourself for hours on end. On the other hand, we can tend to appear, um, unbalanced. Many’s the time I’ve realized how crazy I look, scribbling on a napkin or receipt, wild lines connecting one part of the paper to another, or bold lines saying “NO, HAVE HIM COME TO ENGLAND HERE”. Or three big stars, inside a wobbly-lined box, “Oh! Oh! Actually, that was why he came in the first place!!!!” After two cups of coffee, the letters get wilder and squigglier, and the page becomes dark and crowded with writing, until it looks like the rambling nonsense of a truly crazy person…
But crazy in a happy way. --- Storm Petrel


  1. Eating out, having the hustle-bustle all around me with nobody demanding anything from me, plenty of dialogue to overhear and borrow, food to stir, tea to suck up through straws... I also love to write out.

  2. Free writing unlocks my mind in a way simply thinking doesn't. There is something about pen and paper; my hand and eyes seem to pull thoughts from my brain. It helps for me to do this in a cafe, where I am self conscious enough to turn inside my head and there is not the distraction of household chores.

  3. While I'm not sure I free write (and I sort of wish I did) I have enjoyed many a meal out while working on a manuscript. I've also enjoyed a number of brief conversations prompted by that stack of paper in front of me. I'm not sure what it is about writing in a restaurant that is so relaxing, but it works for me! Lovely post, Storm Petrel!