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Question of the Week: Snippets

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Are you one of those writers who thinks of a great sentence or a great opening or a description of someone’s smile and then adds it to a stack of other unfinished ideas? Tell me where you store those snippets and how you feel about pieces of unfinished thoughts?


Wednesday, you’ll meet one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Cameron McGill, who will talk about these snippets, along with other things like low-budget touring and playing at Lollapalooza. I adore Cameron, so please make the time – in between turkey and football – to say hello to him.


It’s Pynchon Week over at The Elegant Variation, and guest blogger Jim Ruland asked me and some others to chime in about our favorite Pynchon moments. Check it out and add your favorites to the comments section.


And now for a little Henderson excitement over the weekend:

1. Did I finish my novel? Not exactly. Some other matters took priority.
2. Green-Hand Henderson was admitted to the gifted program.
3. Green-Hand had a playdate, featuring pillow-swinging.
4. I hear a thunk and tell the boys to settle; Green-Hand comes upstairs crying. I ask what happened, he says he doesn’t remember.
5. He feels better and goes back to play. Comes up a little bit later saying he feels like he’s in a dream and can’t remember his friend coming over.
6. Remembering how Green-Hand fakes being sick nearly every day before school and sometimes falls down and plays dead if a leaf falls on him, I take his comments in stride.
7. Green-Hand keeps saying, I feel like I’m in a dream, I don’t know what day it is. I think he’s working himself up and don’t end up calling the ER for an hour.
8. The doctor says get him in for a CAT scan and my neighbor, who wins a million friendship points, drives us there.
9. The doctor tells us his name and we all laugh inappropriately.
10. Concussion. Event amnesia. Some surrounding amnesia. CAT scan is good.
11. Doctor tells us that Green-Hand may experience signs like failure to concentrate, forgetfulness, dreamlike state, poor test performance. We all laugh inappropriately again.
12. Mr. Henderson meets us at the hospital after driving from Manhattan during intermission from a show.
13. We get home and one side of James the cat’s face is swelled up to the size of an egg. Mr. Henderson takes him to kitty ER.
14. At Sunday School, Green-Hand does a project on “thankfulness” and his says “I am thankful for rocks.” Half-assed picture of a dog sniffing a rock. We take this as a sign he’s back to normal.
15. I’m feeling very guilty for not calling the doctor immediately. I wonder if all the trips to the ER for what I mistook as SARS and brain tumors counts.
16. Hopefully he’s still gifted after this mysterious incidence with the pillow.

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What do you think?

  • PD Smith
    November 20, 2006

    I love the photo with all the messages on the wall. What a great image! It reminded me of an interview I saw of British author Will Self. It showed him in his study and all over a wall and around the computer screen were stuck these little yellow post-it notes, each about an inch square. Apparently they all contained thoughts and ideas about his writing. It seemed quite a good idea. But when I tried it, I found I lost things and only found them again after I’d finished what I was writing… So I went back to a good old-fashioned notebook that fits into a pocket. That works best for me. You need to have something that’s to hand when you’re out walking because, as Nietzsche once said, that’s when all the best thoughts arrive…

  • Katrina Denza
    November 20, 2006

    I’m usually taking notes for at least three projects at a time. I used to use a fancy notebook, but I’ve realized fancy notes do not necessarily make a fancy story so I’m using a plain legal pad. I just hope plain notes do not make a plain story…

  • Katrina Denza
    November 20, 2006

    I forgot to answer the second part of your question: how do I feel about unfinished ideas or snippets? Lucky to harvest them. They’re the icing on the cake.

    And I hope Green-Hand boy feels better, poor guy. And you cannot worry about not taking him right away. There’s no way to know for sure, so we moms have to use our instincts–which you did.


  • Andy Thatcher
    November 20, 2006

    I have too many ideas for novels. I scribble them down in my current notebook and add the occasional note about them whenever one occurs to me. I have around four books waiting to be written after the current one. I want to write all of them and sometimes worry that life will suck away all my time and I’ll die with these stories still untold. I also worry I might keep on having ideas so that the number of unwritten books will just mount up, the longer I live. It’s a pain.

  • Ellen Meister
    November 20, 2006

    Ay! These kids can scare the crap out of us, can’t they? So glad to hear his CT scan came back normal.

    Regarding your question, I store my idea snippets in my very porous and forgetful mind. Terrible. I lose more than I remember. Perhaps I suffered a concussion at some point?

  • Sarah Roundell
    November 20, 2006

    As my mind is nowhere near as sharp as I’d hoped it would be at this point in my life I carry small notebooks with me everywhere. Each one is labelled for it’s purpose – ED(things to tell my boyfriend during our next conversation), Genius at Work(ideas for inventions, lists of palindromes I know, and other embarrassingly nerdy stuff), Randomness(ideas for scripts, lines to include in future work, beginnings or middles or endings of poems). I write furiously in each of these books as well as on sticky pads strategically placed around my apartment for when the books are out of reach, but aside from ED they just sit, waiting. Since seeking treatment for medical issues I just can’t seem to get the inspiration bug like I used to. Unfinished pieces gnaw at a back part of my brain. I know I need to finish that screenplay I started four years ago and that I want to get working on a book about my grandparents for my family, but then I forget about it until the teeth come back again.
    So glad to hear GreenHand is okay. My niece fell out of a tree this summer… Man, kids can really give you a scare, but they’re so resilient.

  • Aimee
    November 20, 2006

    Don’t be too hard on yourself Mom! I have a child that regularly gets stitches so I measure everything in blood. No blood, no hospital, as a general rule. He’s not any worse because you waited a bit to see if he was crying wolf.
    I am mixed with my snippets. I have a notebook I started in high school that contains quotes from other people. And a lot of things I just carry in my head. Right now, I’m hanging on to the line, “I melted a metal I wasn’t supposed to and we had to evacuate the lab.”
    I like my snippets because they inspire me. But typically, I don’t use them verbatum in my writing. When all is said and done my snippets morph into other things.

  • Lance Reynald
    November 20, 2006

    lol. I suddenly feel busted…
    one of these days I’ll send a picture or two.
    Like Sarah I keep small notebooks with me at all times. Moleskein Cahiers; NYC trips, dates, random thoughts, art, side effects, frustrations…all gets a few notes scribbled in the books. Pictures that remind me of characters known and imagined get torn from magazines and tacked to the office wall, postcards and photographs hanging from more tacks suspended by binder clips. Index cards scribbled with phrases in Sharpie ink, titles, exchanges… My office and my bedroom both host such idea walls… A bit like the collector in “everything is illuminated” , proof positive that I may one day find myself committed.

  • Paula
    November 20, 2006

    My snippets rarely see any justice. I always judge them harshly, long after they’re written. Usually it’s a death sentence — based either on a ridiculous melodramatic flair or total incoherence.

    Now lists, I can work with those. Like No. 9 up there, that could start dozens of stories in a dozen different directions.

    Susan, what kinds of pillows are you buying? I might need one of those little suckers amidst the stack on the bed … note to self: fantastic secret weapon idea.

  • Lori Oliva
    November 20, 2006

    Love the sticky-note-covered wall! I have sprial notebooks filled with ideas, random thoughts and the beginnings of character traits and settings. Sometimes I keep a pencil and pad next to my bed, but it’s hard to read the scratch in the morning.

    Good luck Susan on finishing your novel within your timeframe and congratulations Green Hand on your acceptance into the gifted program!

  • Robin Slick
    November 20, 2006

    Oh, poor Green Hand! But for sure don’t feel guilty…the combination of most kids crying wolf and six hour waits in hospital emergency rooms with nasty personnel are enough to make anyone question whether said visit is “necessary”. I’m just glad things worked out okay and yay Green Hand is in the gifted program! (Like we don’t expect that from the Henderson offspring xo)

    Yeah, I have a journal…ahem…a Neil Gaiman signed moleskin…where I jot down ideas and first lines. Before that, I used a black and white composition book like first graders use. In fact, I have them all over the house and they span decades.

    Now. To make sense of any of them…

  • Carolyn
    November 20, 2006

    I was an early adopter to computers and bought a PC when the ancestor to the MAC was called a Lisa. On every generation of computer I’ve kept story ideas, opening lines, good titles, and other miscellaneous verse in a file called, Scraps. Scraps has moved from 5-inch floppies, across MS-DOS to Windows, and is now heading to Vista. So you could say I am comfortable with technology.

    I used to keep a little spiral notebook where I’d write on the go and sometimes transfer them to Scraps. Then about three years ago I got a pocket PC that fully integrates with my PC. Scraps moved over to my pocket PC and now contains all of my tiny little ideas. I synch the PC between my desktop and my laptop, so I have no excuse not to delve into the Scraps for an idea jolt.

    Congrats to Green-Hand for being accepted to the gifted program, maybe he’ll like getting out of bed for school now. Maybe not. But in any case, I’m glad to hear he’s okay and you’re okay too. A kid will grow up with the tiniest amount of food, shelter, and stimulation. But without good pand community support, he’ll be a shell of his potential. You may not have finished your novel, but you put in a load of mothering to a super kid.

  • Tish Cohen
    November 20, 2006

    Oh, Susan, I’m glad to hear your son’s okay. I also have two boys and have heard that horrible “thud,” I think my boys have had two concussion-related catscans each. Oy.

    I stopped trusting my mind to remember ideas years ago. As I complete the rewrites on my current novel, my next one is growing in front of my eyes. Literally. The mound of mulit-colored post-its at the base of my monitor is threatening to obstruct my screen. And the rest of the snippets for this book are behind me on a twin bed, where my 11-year-old will come in and bounce in them. (This is where the sticky strip comes in handy – I can pluck them from his socks after.)

    I have an obsession with gorgeous journals filled with thick blank paper. But once I’ve written on the first page, I consider them ruined and cast them aside in search of the next beauty. My real notes aren’t pretty. They fill up cheap spiral notepads, post-its and dirty napkins.

  • Amy Kiger-Williams
    November 20, 2006

    I’m glad your son is ok — going to the ER is never fun for anyone.

    I generally scribble my snippets in whatever notebook I happen to be carrying at the time. I try to be very organized about my notebooks, but at some point, all organization breaks down and I just write in any old notebook that’s available, so I have a box of half-full notebooks beside my desk that I rummage through periodically for ideas.

    I love those little Clairefontaine notebooks with the colored pages and the grid. I used to write exclusively in them but I have since moved on to regular old notebooks from Staples and any extra composition books that my kids haven’t gotten their hands on yet.

  • Dennis Mahagin
    November 20, 2006

    I love snippets.

    Snippets are often all I have to work with, while HD {heavydeep} thematic connections and resonant PD-R {piece-de-resistant} lines and passages elude me.

    Snippets are breathy bubbles, popping off the surface of an LBT {La Brea Tar Pit}–emanating from the viscous blow hole of an ever-elusive Nessie Muse who squirms around on the silt-spackled bottom of my subconscious.

    Wrote a pome about Snippets. Wanna hear it?

    Aight, here it go:


    A line
    Rattling ’round
    In my head,
    Roused me
    From my

    Tumble-down bed.

    In my haste
    To write it down
    Smacked my tender
    Pretentious crown

    On that low-hanging
    Hallway stanchion

    I would have
    Hated it
    In the morning.


  • Claire Cameron
    November 20, 2006

    I’m starting to use my blog for snippets. I’m finding it’s helping me expand one snippit into others –

    I will your mother guilt to go away.

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    November 20, 2006

    It’s all here somewhere.

  • Anneliese
    November 21, 2006

    First off – this is so fun, your questions of the week. I love reading other’s responses.

    I use two things to store my *brilliant* ideas.

    I like little notebooks and have three in rotation, depending on my mood. I can’t seem to use just one from start-to-finish. I have a little black one with graph paper, a plain brown lined paper, and a fancy orange silk Moleskin – I like this last one The Best because it has a little pocket at the back so I can store bits ‘n what-nots.

    I also use “Stickies” the program on my Mac. The problem is, I have too many stickies, too many ideas.

    I don’t worry over unused ideas as someday the time will come when I will use them. I write haibun and those ideas, conversations overheard, places visited, all are ideas used someday. 🙂

    Happy Turkey Week!

  • Shelley Marlow
    November 21, 2006

    Little Green-Hand is so smart (and charming) to communicate something was off with his head. I’m glad all’s well.

    On a separate note (ha ha) I just ran into a scrap of paper I’d written last winter on a visit to Cape Cod. I just watched Brokeback Mountain in a local theatre full of teens on school vacation. I was anxious as Martha drove us home through the dark wooded roads and in a horror movie mood wrote, “Nobody is going to grind our bones together.”
    I don’t know if that will make it’s way into the fiction.

    I usually do take notes and use them in the fiction, hoping to access some kind of wisdom. I took notes at the Tomb of St. Francis a few years ago and used these notes a few weeks ago in the current novel.

    I love visiting LitPark and talking about the creative process.

  • Noria
    November 21, 2006

    Yikes! I’m glad the bump on the brain turned out to be not too serious.

    I have a couple fancy moleskine notebooks, but I find that when I record my snippets in a notebook, that’s where they stay. I need the snippets to be in my face, or else I forget about them. What works best for me is to write down my snippets in my engagement book, along with all my appoinments and to-dos, and then they actually get used. Occasionally, I go through the moleskines and ooh and ahh at the odd collection of ideas that might someday be of use.

  • Gail Siegel
    November 21, 2006

    Greenhand’s reaction to the blow reminds me a lot of Wes’ class 3 concussion. He broke his nose in 4 places (and has never had it fixed) playing soccer. Nobody saw the accident and he couldn’t remember it. He was unconscious for a while and it had some bizarre effects. He couldn’t talk on the phone for a while, because he couldn’t picture the person on the other end. He couldn’t watch tv because the story lost continuity. He had to take his SATs a few days later! Not his best testing performance.

    But, did it stop him? No, he went on to play rugby in college. So, they do recover and go on for more self-punishment. Oh the joy of having boys…Keep smiling!

    As for sentences. I have scraps on the backs of receipts, envelopes, bound journals, bedside tablets, check stubs and post-its, sitting on my desk, languishing in files and lost at the bottoms of purses. Some get used and some don’t. I’d like to have a system where I can put them all up on a wall so they don’t get lost. That will be a few years, when there is an empty bedroom.

  • Mark Bastable
    November 21, 2006

    Some writers seem to get ideas and then think about what to do with them. I don’t. I think about what I want to do and then I get ideas. I never write anything down. If I don’t remember it, it can’t have been much good. And anyway, there’s always another idea along in a minute.

    When an idea occurs out of the blue, I usually use it in what I happen to be doing at the time – whatever it is. I like that element of the random in the creative process. And I also believe that almost anything can be about almost anything, given the right cognitive position from which to see it.

  • Juliet
    November 21, 2006

    For what it’s worth, my son fell on the ice two weeks ago. Clearly had a headache etc. Slept for the better part of 14 hours. Saw doc the next day who said “just keep him slow and safe.”
    Apparently doctor is on some kind of meds that make him feel that kids are controllable and will sit still for the next three weeks.

    Headache finally goes away. No lingering signs of damage or trauma.

    Friday night, I keep child awake till all hours out at my Book Launch (went well, thanks!).

    Saturday afternoon, ex-husband calls “There’s been an accident…”

    Yes, ANOTHER fall. This time on rollerblades. No helmet (this was ex’s issue, not mine. I’m a helmet nazi when it involves anything with wheels or ice).

    Another bang on the head.

    Kids fall.
    Kids bash each other with foreign objects, and, at one of our birthday parties, a foreign kid.

    As mothers, all we can do is assess what the situation is, an do our best to manage it.
    Getting him to the doc sooner wouldn’t have changed a thing.

    So, relax.
    And de-stimulate that Guiltomatic gene that comes with being a parent.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 21, 2006

    I’m jealous of all of you with fancy moleskines, especially those signed by beautiful Neil Gaiman (who owes me an email). I’m like Gail, more of a back-of-the-receipt girl. I’ll respond to everyone individually on Friday’s Weekly Wrap.

    Thanks for all the kind words about Green-Hand! Especially from those of you who are parents and know how it is.

  • Anneliese
    November 21, 2006


    Do you write your ideas down on the day that you have them, or do you sorta-like “schedule” them on a future date, like a month in advance?


  • Noria
    November 21, 2006

    I write them down when they occur – on the day, in the margins, anywhere on the page for that week. Then I’ll fold over that page for future reference. For whatever reason, the fact that I’ve written it down in my engagement book helps me to remember it. It’s a way of psychologically tricking myself into remembering.

  • *Joe*
    November 21, 2006

    It’s kind of a repeat of the
    COMMENTl I posted to your question of the week from way back in early September but I’m the write things down on a scrap of paper, ticket stub, parking ticket kind of guy. Fortunately I never throw anything away or pay my parking tickets so it’s there waiting for me in my jacket pocket till I’m ready to use it.

    Sometimes it goes through a wash cycle or two though.

    Man, you are freaking me out with that story about Green Hand. My little girl Moira will turn one year old in another two weeks. I lay awake at night worrying about whether I’ve padded all the sharp edges in the house. Tell me it gets better. Lie to me if you must.

  • Gail Siegel
    November 21, 2006

    Memo to Joe: Take a deep breath. It only gets worse.

  • Ric Marion
    November 22, 2006

    Snippits – stopped writing them down years ago, since I could never organize them well enough to find them when the time was right.

    Most of the great first lines end up in the journals – now a huge stack filling two filing cabinet drawers. Blue letter size pads – legal but shorter. Sometimes the first line will fill a couple pages and then, as with us all, we go back and wonder what all the excitement was.


  • Darrin
    November 22, 2006

    Oh, yes, snippets. Those restless orphans. I end up scrawling some of them onto whatever scrap paper is handy. And if one of them strikes me when I’m on the subway and I can’t reach a scrap, I’ll chant the thing in my head over and over again so I won’t forget it. It’s awful when three or four of the suckers come at me at once. That’s a lot of chanting.

    The ones that make it back to my apartment will get transferred to a file on my PC. I have the same concerns as Andy in that I think I will never have the time to flesh out all these snippets. It’s a “hard knock life” for some of the snippets, I guess.

  • Jordan
    November 22, 2006

    I have some kind of organizational dyslexia. I can keep all kinds of details straight in my head, but once I begin to extract them–usually in list form–I begin to panic. Which notebook should they go in? My personal journal, reserved for lamentations and melancholic whining? My “novel notebook” containing information on my latest notebook? My “journalist” notebook, full of chickenscratch interview stuff…or one of the many half-filled notebooks tucked into the crevices of my bookshelf? After hyperventilating and pulling out my eyebrows, I often opt to write upon my person and transfer to computer. I would really love a “cure” for this disorder.

  • Aurelio
    November 23, 2006

    I have a large lower desk drawer stuffed full of varied bits of paper and no-longer-sticky sticky notes. They are concepts, book titles, story ideas, and funny dialog I’ve overheard in public. “It’s not the eggroll, Harry, it’s the last 30 years!” These are mixed in with cartoon drawings and doodles and phone numbers with names of people I no longer recall.

    I find that I actually do use some of these things from time to time.

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Susan Henderson