If you’ve ever had aspirations towards fiction-writing, you’ve doubtlessly heard the advice to keep a notebook on you at all times, to jot down those elusive flashes of brilliance that come at the most inopportune moments. It’s definitely a good idea to have pen and paper to hand as much as possible – however, the discipline of keeping a writers’ notebook means more than just scribbling a few words when inspiration strikes.
Writing every day
One of the best uses for your notebook is to get into the habit of writing every single day. There are lots of different ways to approach this; some which have worked for me (not all at once) are:
- Write first thing in the morning
- Spend five minutes writing at some point in the morning, and five minutes in the afternoon
- Write just before going to bed
- Jot down some notes before starting on your “proper” writing session of the day
Of course there’ll be days when you feel uninspired, when you have nothing you want to write about, or when you’re hectically busy. But if you’re going to stick with writing fiction long-term, it needs to become part of your daily life.
What do you write about?
Don’t be prescriptive about what goes in your notebook. Some people find it best to work in a deliberately “scrappy” book, so that they don’t feel constrained to only write down gems of wisdom – yes, moleskin notebooks may be hugely popular, but a 99 cent pad will be just as good a repository for your ideas.
Some of the many types of writing filling my notebook are:
- To-do lists for writing sessions or writing days
There’s a great sense of satisfaction in ticking things off or scoring them out. If a to-do list makes you feel uncomfortable and constrained, try instead keeping a “done” list and writing down tasks after you complete them.
- Brainstorming for competition entries
I wrote two or three short stories every month last year, most of them aimed at competitions with a set theme. A notebook is a great place to begin the idea-generation process; I like mind-mapping, by jotting the theme in a central circle and scribbling different plot and character possibilities around the edge. Once you get beyond the first few trite storylines, some intriguing ideas start to emerge.
- Character sketches
When taking part in NaNoWriMo last year, I wrote three or four page character biographies for each of my main characters. Keeping these in my notebook made it easy to find them whilst working on the novel – I wasted as little time as possible when needing to look up details of family backgrounds, hobbies and so on.
- Plot outlines
Most writers find that some level of outlining helps, particularly when writing anything longer than a short story. A notebook can be an easy way to develop a plot from initial spark through potential variations to a scene-by-scene breakdown.
- Snatches of dialogue
Imagined or overheard phrases can be safely stashed in your notebook for future use: they may be totally inappropriate for the project which you’re currently working on, but could be invaluable a week or two down the line.
Reviewing your notes
It’s just as important to go back over your notes as it is to write them in the first place. Set aside a chunk of time – half-an-hour if possible – weekly, and go over what you’ve written during the past seven days. Make a new entry to record any ideas that you definitely want to pursue. (You might find it helps to use a second notebook at this stage.)
Don’t recycle or burn old notebooks; even if you’re sure that you’ll never want the notes contained in them, store them safely somewhere. They’ll make fascinating reading a year, or ten years, further into your writing career – you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come, and you may rediscover old ideas that you’d forgotten. And if you become famous, perhaps you’ll even end up selling them on e-bay…