Notes from Candice Ransom

A Novel Needs More Than a Postcard

gas station web

The early stages of working on a novel are like the bright winter sky the day after a snowstorm.  Clear, expansive, filled with promise. You and your new project stride hand in hand toward a great working partnership.

Then you get busy and soon it’s been months since you and your novel have so much as glanced at each other.  Oh, you keep the research notebook on your desk but not front-and-centered the way it was during those lovely bright-sky days.  It’s as if you went on an around-the-world-trip and sent your novel one lousy postcard—from the airport.

Novels-in-progress, like couples in a relationship where one partner has wandered off, have a right to be miffed.  Expect a cold shoulder when you finally get around to picking up your project again.

You skim your background material, reread the paltry handful of chapters, cluck your tongue at the ambitious schedule you’d set way back then.  Worse, you realize your main character’s voice has grown silent.  It had been growing quieter day by day, week by week, and you knew the risk of ignoring it, but all that stuff got in the way.

How to get back in your novel’s good graces?  Chocolates and roses?  Nope.  Apologize and vow, “I’ll knuckle down and work every single day all day long?”  Nope.  You know that’s a promise you can’t keep.  All that life stuff is still going on.  Some days you won’t get to your desk.  Some days you’ll work on something with a higher priority.

Enter the mini-book.

secret rooms

As an amateur photographer, I’ve found when I’m not taking cat pictures, I photograph subjects that pertain to my work.  Even if don’t know why I’m taking a particular photograph, later I’ll look at it and realize it’s a facet of some new work.  I believe the seeds of projects are planted much earlier—often years—before the work reveals itself.

Like a lot of us, I’ve made keepsake books using commercial labs like Shutterfly—albums of our house, trips, etc.  When the finished product arrives in the mail, it’s a book!  I can hold it in my hands, open the covers, turn the pages!

One afternoon I was looking at my on-screen file of images compiled for the novel. I thought, I should make a book about my book.  Portable, purse-sized, a little book to keep me connected to my novel-in-progress.

secret rooms inside

I turned to my favorite photo processing company, Artifact Uprising.  Based in Colorado, Artifact Uprising uses only recycled materials and promotes the practice of moving images from cameras and computers to something tangible and lasting: prints, calendars, cards, and books.

Because I most often shoot in a 1:1 aspect ratio (square, reminiscent of Polaroids and sixties Kodak prints), I chose their Small Square book, a softcover format perfect for my 5 by 5 images.  I designed the layout with a photo on one side of a double-spread, text on the other.  The text is mixed: dialog and narrative directly from the novel, sprinkled with quotes that reinforce my theme.  I didn’t use the working title of my novel for the title page.  The mini-book has its own title.

Creating these little books (I’ve made two) takes several days of concentrated effort.  I comb my notes, reread the chapters, mull over my intentions, and listen to my characters.  While this seems like make-work, I’m actually reconnecting with my novel.  The process of choosing photos, selecting texts and quotes, and matching the narrative to the photos pushes me deep into the project.

And when the package lands in our mailbox, along with Artifact Uprising’s classy thank you card, I’m so excited.  The fine paper and high-quality processing make even my photos look wonderful.  My words seem more real than they do on computer print-outs.

Best of all, my novel and I are back on speaking terms!  The mini-book is small enough to fit into my slimmest cross-body bag.  I can take the mini-book with me everywhere, pull out a tangible piece of a project that mostly lives in my head, drink in the images, and hear my main character’s voice, clear as the winter-crisp sky.

7 thoughts on “A Novel Needs More Than a Postcard”

    • And from an old dog, yet! After all these years of writing I still need help . . . I attribute this to the advent of the Internet. I didn’t need nearly so many tricks when it was just me and my IBM Selectric, or my plain old IBM word processor.

  1. This is brilliant.
    I must do something like this for the bit of writing fluff I’ve been working on. I have digital notes, and a few pics on computer but I want to inject the DNA of the story into a concept book I can flip through and carry around, for those times when inspiration drains.

    • I love your remark about injecting DNA into stories! Yes, inspiration drains frequently when our lives our busy with children, households, and regular life. Even if you kept those digital notes and photos on your phone (is that even possible? I don’t have a cell phone), it’s not the same as having a small book. The book makes your project one step closer to becoming real.

  2. I need these props stuck here in boring old Virginia. I imagine your mind is racing over there in Scotland, more ideas than you can handle.

    The photo was taken while I was pumping gas at Sheetz!


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