Last night during the preview session for the NAMW Make Your Stories Sparkle teleseminar previewing my upcoming teleclass by the same name, I mentioned the value of building a collection of inspiring passages from books you read. My focus last night was on collecting a wide selection of descriptions that grab my eye and attention, but I also collect other types of examples.
I began this collection several months ago for the purpose of comparing and studying how various authors I admire use various descriptive techniques. It has since grown to include other types of amazing writing. I have found that perusing my collection is sort of like reading the Bible or other inspirational material, and it has been a great help in furthering my understanding of effective description and my skill in writing it. Reading a concentrated collection of pure excellence primes my creativity pump. It pushes me out of my perception ruts and nudges me to expand my awareness boundaries and see things from angles I may not otherwise have considered.
One caller last night asked me to explain exactly how I create and manage this collection. I was delighted by her interest, and realized that others will probably also want to know.
The process begins with reading. I’ve begun keeping a pad of flag-sized sticky tags at hand as I read. When I find an especially delightful, succulent passage, or one includes a powerful thought I want to hang onto, I stick a flag along the side of the page, as in the passage below from Anne Lamott’s book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I carefully position the flag to cover the row just about the first sentence of the passage I’m interested in, and a smidgen beyond the edge of the page.
When I finish reading a book by an excellent writer, it generally looks like a porcupine, with a dozen or more tags protruding from the edges. Then I type the relevant passages into a jerry-rigged database consisting of a table in OpenOffice (my preferred alternative to Word, which would work the same way). That may take half an hour or so for an especially inspiring book, but I find the time is an excellent investment, reinforcing the power of the examples and setting them more firmly in memory. I’ll let this picture save a few hundred words of how-to explanation.
Notice that I include the page number for the passage, in case I want to go back and find it later. Publication data is minimal. I can get that online later if I need it. As I enter the material from each book, I leave the Source column blank, then type that once, copy it, and paste it in each row below for that book.
The Tags column is especially valuable to me, because I use these examples increasingly often in blog posts, articles, and workshop materials, but anyone will benefit from them. If I were using a more sophisticated database, I could put multiple tags in one field. They can be anything that helps or interests you. Keeping it to one word allows me to sort the table on the Tags column and find all the material on that particular topic quickly and easily. Of course I could also use the Find function to do this.
My method is crude, and someone with more savvy could improve upon it. Possibly a spreadsheet would be a better approach, but the boundaries of my geekiness don’t include spreadsheet or database expertise. A gal’s gotta have limits!
Write now: start a new file with a simple table like the one in the example and purchase a stash of sticky flags so you can start your own collection of juicy examples for further study and inspiration. Your writing skills will soar as a result. If you need help creating the table, refer to the last chapter in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.