Writing notebook and notes

Notes and the Work in Progress

The novels I write begin with notes. Well actually they begin with ideas, visions of characters, scraps of plot, and imagined scenes. All these early elements are recorded in a notebook, along with random thoughts that might be relevant. Some notes are written on scraps of paper that happen to be handy when an idea strikes. With luck, I manage to copy them into the Official Notebook, or at least keep track of them. This stage lasts for months, or even years.

Eventually, I start writing the first draft. On paper, with a pen. Right now, I’m still writing a page a day, sometimes more if I’m lucky. As the plot has developed, in an amoeba-like way, I’ve resorted to another set of notes that are sort of like, but not quite, an outline. Character sketches and motivations, rough timelines, problems to be resolved, things I know that the characters do not, and yes, actual outlines of the next section to be written. These notes are on a separate group of 8 1/2 x 11 (A4) sheets of paper.

Novel writing notes

Then there are the in-manuscript notes. Things like [CHECK THIS!] or [EXPAND IN REWRITE], or alerts to areas of weakness [CRAP ALARM GOING OFF!!!] or [WOULD SHE REALLY THINK THIS???]. And often, when I finish a writing session, I scribble a tiny outline for the next day at the very bottom of the page.

So I guess this proves I’m not really the pantser I thought I was. More like a “plantser,” I guess.

Some things to keep in mind about notes.

  • They’re useless unless read over as the work progresses. There’s nothing like rediscovering a good idea after publishing
  • Notes on scraps of paper should be transcribed into a notebook. The lost idea is always the best one
  • There should be only one notebook per novel, but a single notebook may be used for more than one novel
  • Dating the notes is helpful for cross-referencing (e.g., “See list of names in notebook, Nov. 21/20”)
  • Manuscript pages and pages of notes should always be numbered, and indicate the title of the work (even if provisional) at the top

A novel with multiple characters is a complex creation. Notes are helpful at every stage, from concept and basic plot to rewrites. Also, in working out plot problems and bringing characters to life.

But even more, some notes represent a debate between the Imaginer and the Editor. The Imaginer is the part of my brain that’s laying down the text of the first draft. The Editor’s role comes later, in rewrites and editing. But of course, the Editor is around all the time. Every now and then it plants a flag in spots where it anticipates extra attention will be needed. That’s where those “crap alarm” notes come from. And even some quite rude remarks.

Manuscript with inserted notes

Fellow writers, do you make use of notes to help you write? Do you have any note-related tips to share?

40 comments

  1. I do keep a word document with my list of characters as I go along and people turn up unexpectedly. I scribble the story and try and get each new chapter typed out as I go — I won’t be able to read my writing or remember what I wrote later on!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The all-purpose cursive scribble. After learning a fairly nice handwriting in school, I developed this for taking notes in university classes. And I’m really glad I also learned touch typing in high school; it has been a valuable skill for novel writing.
      And many thanks for reblogging!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Some of those annotations look familiar. I keep a notebook for handwritten notes and a spreadsheet on the laptop which summarizes my progress, potential plot holes, random thoughts and the ‘crap alert’.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Audrey. I so enjoyed reading that. I, too, use notebooks a lot; big ones, A 4 size. And sometimes when I have finished a story, I look back over the notes and, sort of, marvel at the process; the scrappy beginnings, words, sentences, which take a long time to reach a finished manuscript, with characters who didn’t exist until now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Elizabeth– that’s partly why I like to start a work on paper. I rarely revisit my handwritten manuscripts after I move them onto Word docs, but it’s good to know what they started from. Evidence of creation, and the magic of writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Haha, that circled red bit!

    When I do notes, I like to put the chapter or scene title at the top, not just the title of the book. That way, flipping through, it’s easier to find stuff. I also reverse outline after I’m done to see if the structure turned out as I imagined. (I’m a plotter.)

    I know a mystery author who reverse outlines one character at a time just to make sure she didn’t leave any threads dangling. That seems like a lot of work, but mysteries can be complex with little clues all over the place.

    Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Priscilla. I’m really looking forward to the next (Word doc) draft, and I think a reverse outline will be necessary for this work, because I’ve changed a few things as I scribbled along. The ms. is full of notes like “Scrub the last 3 paragraphs and replace with the following.”
      I can’t imagine writing a mystery. Plotting is hard enough without having to plant clues, red herrings, and twisty endings!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I use the random scribble note method, particuarly because I tend to get ideas when I’m in the shower. I draft on the computer, so I have to transcribe and organize the notes on the computer or I’d never be able to find (or read) them again.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You obviously take the writing process very seriously. Good tips if I ever get that far in anything. When I was taking classes, I always wrote the intro to my term or research paper in longhand on an 8-1/2 X 11 notebook that opened at the top and not on the side. We do like our rituals, and hopefully, they serve us well. Something about pen on paper that connects us in ways that typing or keyboarding can’t–although it’s faster to type and maybe too easy to correct.

    Like

    1. Yes, there’s something about committing to a 100K novel that makes it both hard to keep going (sometimes) and hard to give up (a big fail). Those rituals are psychological props that keep us going.
      One thing about writing on paper is I’m not tempted to go back and read the beginning and get discouraged or waste time trying to fix things too early.

      Like

  7. Ever since I started writing on the computer, I’ve had a section in the Documents folder with docs entitled “Story Notes” plus the titles of specific works or groups of works. “Story Notes – Man Who Found Birds – All volumes” (that’s a long one, as you might imagine!) These days, the only handwritten notes I keep are on scraps of paper cluttering up my desk. I do sympathize with your remark about how sometimes you go back over the notes and think, “Oh, I meant to use that and I forgot it!” Too late, the book’s already published.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That single Story Notes doc sounds like a good idea. If I ever start writing first drafts on the computer, I’ll do that. But I’ll still make pre-draft idea notes in a notebook. And make sure I read them all before I actually start writing!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be a challenge, all right. I’m hoping it’s a good way to keep the old brain from deteriorating. On the other hand, there’s no way I could ever contemplate knitting a sweater or sewing a garment. You have to pick your challenges.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I keep my journal in longhand. There is something therapeutic about the actual writing. Keep on, my friend. Looking forward to your next work!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love posts such as this, Audrey, because I enjoy reading what works for others. As an old notetaker from my college days, I get a lot of this. Now, if I can just remember where I put all those darn notes.🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reading this post Audrey I had this stirring image of the formation of a star. Firstly a vast cloud of dust gradually starting to swirl into something more compact until eventually the point in reached where nuclear fission takes place and into life bursts that star.
    Keep on doing what you are doing.

    Liked by 1 person

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