3 Powerful Ways to Use Scrap Paper During Story Revisions
How can you excavate the incredibly original thoughts and images that hide in the corners of your mind? Or keep track of the endless details that make the internal logic of your story consistent? Or truly grasp your story’s “about-ness”—that red-hot centre of your story that brings it to life?
Here are three ways I use scrap paper as a central tool in my revision process. Scrap paper (yes, specifically scrap paper) has become an indispensable part of my routine. In fact, I can’t even remember how I worked before discovering how scrap paper opened up my writing.
Why Scrap Paper?
Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you purchase a beautiful journal, determined that this time you’re going to fill it with tantalizing hodgepodge—ideas, thoughts, snippets of story scenes, you name it. But when you crack it open for the first time, you freeze. What could possibly be so illuminating and rich to earn a spot in such a pristine journal? You set it aside and eventually forget about it until the next time you set your eyes upon another unique journal in the store. Then you remember, maybe with a touch of shame, that you never use the things.
I’m going to show you exactly how I use scrap paper in three ways during the revision process. But first, I want to state firmly: it MUST be scrap paper. Unlike those journals, scrap paper does not feel precious in the same way. Grabbing any old scrap—an old envelope or the blank backside of flyer—will encourage you to perceive your ideas as somewhat un-precious, enabling you to excavate buried thoughts without reserve or judgment. Please, trust me on this.
Scrap paper is humble, and it humbles you. This makes you write with a raw honesty. I know this seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that have the biggest effect on us.
Not convinced? After using these tactics, I saw three HUGE improvements to my story revisions.
3 Ways You’re About To Improve Your Revisions
There are three key benefits to using the tactics I’m about to share. You will:
- Generate more surprising phrases, emotions, dialogue, and images while at the same time strengthen your grasp on the details that fill your story
- Build additional layers of your story while never losing sight of the original construction and intention
- Discover your story’s “about-ness” with a stronger intimacy and intensity than ever before
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Scrap Paper Use #1:
Two Scraps to Straddle Your Draft and Your Brain
This first tactic requires you to position your scrap paper in a specific way. Here’s how to set up your writing space: on either side of your laptop, or in front of your computer, place two “notepads” (I just stack several sheets of scrap paper). Place one on your right side, and one on your left like in this sketch I made of my setup. Keep them there always.
Wordplay on the Right Side
This is where you’ll use wordplay to deepen story patterns and generate original images. Be sure to grab the free set of wordplay game cards at the end of this post.
I want to confess that when I first added this to my revision strategy, I was fiercely resistant. The basic idea is that you will interrupt your rewriting/revisions with word games (and certainly it’s something you can do during the drafting phase, too), and the fact was that I didn’t want to interrupt my work. Wouldn’t it be better, I assumed, to stay focused on the task at hand? But I persevered. Why? Because I’d first heard of a similar strategy used by cartoonist, Lynda Barry, whose creative achievements I greatly admired. If she does it, I thought, then there’s got to be something to it!
Sure enough, after a few weeks I started to notice four huge improvements from practicing wordplay on scrap paper:
- No longer did I feel lags of energy or creative output, even when rewriting/revising for several hours at a time
- I put much more pressure on my word choice, meaning that I pushed for a greater depth, clarity, and originality
- Because of the associative (and dissociative) nature of the word games, I often discovered fresh directions at the sentence and paragraph level, which means that I was breaking out of habitual patterns and instead creating more pleasantly unpredictable sentence, paragraph, and scene structures
- Even though I was generating only words and phrases on the right side, these words and phrases (perhaps because they were tapping into my subconscious) often presented solutions to bigger story problems
How to Play on the Right Side
Before I go over how to play on the right side, let me say something about when to play word games. Pay attention to what your mind is doing as you work on revisions. Do you find your thoughts drifting away from the draft? Have you become distracted by social media? Is your mental stamina starting to fade? Are you growing frustrated with a story problem? Any instant in which you feel tired or bored or stuck: this is the perfect time to stop what you’re doing, grab your pen, and play a word game.
From my experience, wordplay works best when you do not select a particular game you’re going to play. Instead, keep your wordplay game cards (slips of paper) in a jar. Shake up the jar and select a card blindly. It is important that you read the card quickly and start the game immediately. Do not mull it over or procrastinate your word generation. Each game in my jar requires me to grab a word or an idea from the story page I was currently working on. You do not have to use anything you generate during the game. It is play. The idea is to play with the plasticity of language and ideas. Chances are, you’ll loosen something in your subconscious, enabling you to reimagine the page with a fresh perspective. Having said that, I’ve often ended up adding the material I generated to my story draft.
At the end of this blog post, you can grab a free set of 9 Wordplay Game Cards to start your own jar. Over the years, I’ve collected dozens of wordplay games, and I’m always keeping a lookout for new games. I suggest you aim to grow your own collection, too.
Details of Consistency on the Left Side
The scrap paper to your left is reserved entirely for keeping track of story details. Think of it as a running log of consistency and continuity. It is an inventory of your story logic. As you go through your revisions, you will jot down every practical detail you come across. To give you a ridiculously obvious example, if you say that your character is allergic to peanuts, don’t have her eating a peanut butter and jam sandwich the following chapter. Your details will probably be more subtle than this, of course.
In addition to maintaining a basic continuity in your story “facts,” use the left side paper for any story ideas that spring to mind. This is especially useful for those small but exciting connections you think up–connections that might tie to a passage many chapters away in your novel. In this way, the scrap paper on your left is like a giant net: there to catch and hold all the tiny details that pop up and threaten to clutter your mind, which can often prevent you from focusing on the page in front of you.
Personally, as a right-handed writer, I find the physical act of reaching across my laptop and writing on the left side takes that tiny bit of extra effort, just enough to make me concentrate more on what I’m jotting down. Which of course means: if you’re a left-handed writer, you will reverse the sides of wordplay and story logic!
Scrap Paper Use #2:
Keeping Sight of Your Original Intention
Quite possibly I could win the Most Inept And Unorganized Writer Award when it comes to how I keep my story drafts stored on my computer. If you want to challenge me for this title, I’ll gladly swap screenshots of my files. Document62, Document63, Document64, etc. I went through a phase in which I was determined to overcome this. And I did. Briefly. However, even when I carefully labelled and organized my various story drafts, I discovered that I didn’t like losing sight of previous story incarnations. Psychologically, I found it disorienting. I needed to feel anchored to the original version while seeing my revisions at the same time. Enter: the 11×17 scrapbook.
I got this idea from author Shaena Lambert, and it’s one of the methods that has transformed how I physically work on my story revisions. I’m able to collect 11×17 paper from friends’ office recycling bins, but you might have to get some blank newsprint. With a hole-punch and a few loose-leaf binder rings, I make a scrapbook. Of course, I don’t tape an entire novel into a scrapbook. I focus on one or two chapters at a time.
Because the space surrounding the original draft is used for notes, brainstorming, and revision inventories (grab my free Story Revision Starter Kit and my Reimagine the Page Course for more on inventories), the scrapbook enables you to make changes to your story while never losing sight of the original. Psychologically, I like this view. It makes me feel connected to the various incarnations of story drafts.
It’s terrible to feel as if your revisions are somehow getting away from you. That they are unraveling into a long, tattered string whose end you can neither see nor find. Using the scrapbook as a revision tool, you will be able to compare the revision ideas you’ve recorded in the scrapbook to the original draft. Instead of finding yourself at Document64 and forgetting what transformations ever took place.
Scrap Paper Use #3:
In her amazing book, Breathing the Page, Betsy Warland refers to the heartwood of a story. According to Warland, heartwood is the “narrative’s original germinating seed… it is the source from which the narrative authentically and inevitably materializes… and finds its authentic, vital expression.”
I’ve heard other writers call this the story’s “about-ness.” It’s not the same thing as answering, “What’s your story about?” It’s something deeper, more elusive, but nonetheless deeply felt. It’s that feeling you got when you first thought of the story idea. That exciting tingle in your bones. It fired up your compulsion to tell the story. The moment you felt your story’s “about-ness,” you became the Ancient Mariner, grabbing the Wedding Guest by the lapels and insisting you have a story he must hear.
The most vibrant stories are those in which the about-ness resonates deeply. If you’ve grabbed my free Story Revision Starter Kit, you’ll already know that a writer’s willingness and ability to grasp about-ness is often tied to particular stages in a writer’s life. It doesn’t matter what genre you write. Even the best children’s picture books resonate with an underlying about-ness. There is the sense that something vital and meaningful infuses every narrative moment. If you want to write compelling fiction, be it literary fiction, romance, cozy mysteries, or lighthearted comedies, you must grasp about-ness.
One of the most effective ways for grasping about-ness is to freewrite a letter. Here is my process outlined below. Try it for yourself, but please realize that the usefulness of this exercise depends on your openness to the process. It depends on your willingness to throw every ounce of passion and energy and raw honesty into the process.
Using this letter-writing method, I’ve transformed stories that had stalled or grown stale into stories overbrimming with a renewed sense of vibrancy and vitality for myself. These about-ness letters are now an essential part of my writing process, not only because of the essential energy it gives each story, but also because it refines the focus of the story, making it tauter, crystallized.
- Write your letter on a scrap piece of paper. I want the force of your compulsion to tell your story to come through in your penmanship. Your writing should be as feverishly messy and wild and scrawling as your feeling for your story. As I mentioned earlier, using scrap paper truly facilitates this reckless abandon.
- Before you start writing, you need to choose a real person you know. You won’t actually send the letter to this person, but you will address it to the person and you will write with the spirit of believing that the person will read the letter. Who should you pick? For me it depends on the nature of the story. I can’t provide a clear guideline here, so I suggest you experiment. I have, for example, addressed one of these about-ness letters to somebody in my life who I perceived as being very intolerant. That ignited a passion in me connected to whatever was compelling me to tell the story. On the other hand, I’ve also addressed letters to positive, joyful people in my life, and that, too, ignited a different source of passion in me.
- The central purpose of the letter is for you to answer a somewhat harsh yet basic question: So what, why are you telling me this story? This question, supposedly asked by the person you are writing the letter to, is a powerful way to draw out your story’s about-ness. I often start my letter with the phrase: Because what I what you to understand more than anything is… To ensure I dig as far as possible when writing this letter, I’ll often imagine the same response to everything I write down: So what? That pushes me to put pressure on my thoughts and feelings in a way that mines the most intimate depths of about-ness.
- You must freewrite this letter. If you’re new to freewriting, you may find it difficult at first. The rules to freewriting, borrowed from Natalie Goldberg, are deceptively simple: Keep your hand moving (don’t stop to read anything you’ve written and don’t second guess what comes to you, just get it down); Don’t edit (don’t cross out, don’t go back and add words); Don’t pay attention to spelling, grammar, or punctuation; Don’t think or get logical (just work from your heart and your intuition); Lose control (as I’ve indicated, this exercise works best if you write from the most spirited and honest depth of yourself).
This letter can then be used in conjunction with other exercises to Invigorate the Heart of Your Story. These exercises are detailed in the Reimagine the Page Course.
Got questions? Leave a comment below! Let’s chat.
And don’t forget to grab your free Wordplay Game Cards here.