Writing and Editing

The Writer’s Notebook

Someone recently asked me whether I have a “writer’s notebook.” A simple question, right? The answer is not quite so simple. Personally, I do have something like the classic writer’s notebook, but it isn’t exactly what most people imagine it to be. It’s kind of a hybrid.

The writer’s notebook has a long and storied history. Many writers, great and not so great, have compiled notebooks full of ideas and experiments. Henry James had one. So did Mark Twain, Emily Bronte, Herman Melville, and Jack Kerouac, among others. Literary scholars love notebooks because they often demonstrate how a writer developed a particular work and what his or her intentions were. (Sometimes the original intention has nothing to do with the finished work).

As the name implies, a writer’s notebook is where the writer keeps his or her notes on their work, projects, and often life in general. Sometimes it resembles a notebook from our school days, full of doodles, disjointed poems and randoms thoughts. Sometimes, it appears to be more of a journal, or diary. There are no firm rules about how to set one up. Each artist finds what works best for them.

Should you have a writer’s notebook? Sure. It certainly wouldn’t hurt and it might actually help your writing.

And how would it help?

For one thing, it gets you in the habit of writing. Every day. Furthermore, having a notebook helps you save and capitalize on inspiration. How many times have you been driving somewhere when the muse strikes with a beautiful idea? How many of those ideas have you lost because you couldn’t get them on paper in time? No one knows. But there are probably quite a few. While it’s never a good idea to try and write anything while you’re behind the wheel, if you have a notebook with you, you can jot it down as soon as it is safe to do so.

Or you could dictate it into a voice recorder. There is no rule that says your notebook has to be made of paper. In fact, there are many applications for smart phones now that will do the exact same thing as an old-fashioned paper notebook. I don’t have a smart phone myself, (I barely have a cell) so I haven’t tried any of them, but I have no doubt they do what they’re designed to do. Plus, you already have your phone with you, so it’s one less thing to carry around (or forget).

I can hear the questions now. Okay, someone says, I have the notebook. What do I write in it?

Whatever strikes your fancy. Each writer needs different things and looks for different items. Some suggestions come fairly easy though.

Character names. Many writers (including myself) collect character names. For me, I collect them because I have a horrible time trying to name characters. I find it quite helpful to have a list or lists on hand to choose from, rather than having to make up a name on the fly. Many other writers, from Dickens to Mark Twain, also collected interesting or funny names. In Catch-22, did Joseph Heller name his character Major Major Major as he wrote the novel, or did he have the name waiting somewhere in a notebook? I don’t know.

Other things you might put in your notebook: town/city names (if fictional), business names, street names, story ideas, plot ideas, snatches of overheard conversation, impressions of locations, descriptions of people, places, things, scents, feelings, catchy turns of phrase, title ideas, technique experiments, fragments of poetry, notes on revision, and so on.

Some of it you may never use. Perhaps most of it will never be used. But when you come to a spot in your novel when your character is standing in the foothills of the Pyrenees on a summer’s day, it would be nice to be able to find the notebook from your vacation where you wrote down exactly what the breeze smelled and felt like.

So write it down while the memory is still fresh.

And write it down in your writer’s notebook.

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