The Magic Notebook

No, it’s not the title of my next novel. It’s one of my most important writing tools. Maybe it will become yours, too.
I began keeping a writing journal after I’d made a few short story sales. Beginning in high school, I had been a fanatical diarist, not just to record the daily events of my life (how boring!) but as a file of story ideas, letters (all copied out), attempts at poetry and the like. I didn’t have time for much personal writing during college, but I managed to fill at least one an archive for my writing career.

The writing journal turned into a magnet for other material: quotations, membership lists and schedules for my critique group, contact information for people met at conventions. But none of this proved as important as learning how to problem-solve on paper.

When I began writing professionally, I never outlined or planned my stories. I wrote whatever came into my head. If something didn’t work or the story had no shape, I had no diagnostic tools to show me what went wrong (let alone how to fix it). I used my journal for the intermediate step of turning ideas into a sequence of scenes. In order to make this different from an outline (I was adamantly opposed to outlines for many years), I used flow charts and colored diagrams. I made charts of characters and graphs of rising and falling tension, marking scenes with arrows until the graphs looked like pincushions. I wrote out character sketches. I never drew portraits of my characters (although I know some writers who do) but I stuck in lots of maps and floor diagrams.

Nowadays, it’s easy to download software to keep track of characters, work out plots, etc. I’ve never used any of it. Why? Because when I write longhand, whether in a blank journal or a spiral-bound notebook, I use my brain in a different way than when I interact with a computer. In order to solve a problem like a plot idiocy or a character that won’t cooperate or a total lack of inspiration regarding how our heroine is going to escape her doom, I want to come at it from as fresh and different an angle as I can. For me, that means changing media. I used to have a non-writer physicist friend who was a great sounding board for science fictional problems. Just articulating the problem, boiling it down to its essentials for someone who knew nothing of the story, helped me to distill what wasn’t working.

The notebook serves the same function, which is a way of talking my way through a problem. Let’s see, we have to get from here to there; what can go wrong? Make a list of catastrophes, no matter how far-fetched or idiotic (I use this technique for titles, too). Throw them all out. Make another list. Make a list of “If this happens, then that must surely follow.” Write out each character’s reaction to the worst of these. By this time, ideas are hopping like fleas all over my imagination. And I have a record of all my flailing-about: manure is wonderful fertilizer.

This leads me to the newest gift of the journal. That is, preparation for a day’s work and reflection on how it went. It had never occurred to me in the early years that I might need to get ready to write. I just did it! (And, conversely, if I was too tired, upset, etc., I wouldn’t.) Part of writerly self-care is knowing how to move from “my brain is dead” to “my brain is alive.” Part of professionalism is knowing what you want to accomplish and how you will do it — just for this day. It’s important, especially when working on a long project like a novel, to set small goals and celebrate daily successes.

Even more profoundly, thinking about how I want to work and what I want to accomplish, and then writing down how it went, has generated a new way of evaluating each writing session. I used to set page quotas, as if they were the measure of creative output. (I still do, but softly.) Now I prefer to think of my goal as “working well.” A single paragraph that is spot right on, that succeeds on many levels, can be far more valuable than pages of unfocused wordage.

That’s only the most recent way I’ve learned to use The Magic Notebook. I can hardly wait to see what else lies in store!

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.



The Magic Notebook — 13 Comments

  1. I’m fooling around with longhand work as well as computer work, to see what kind of difference it makes.

  2. Mary, great idea! I also find that different textures of paper and different writing implements add helpful variety. At least one successful pro writer that I know (as in not only supporting himself but putting his kids through school) does all his drafting longhand. He revises as he types it into the computer.

    Let me know how it goes for you!

  3. Y’know, only started trying to write anything last fall, from NaNoWriMo, where the main focus was the word count. At that point, putting any word anywhere else that it didn’t get counted as part of the total was horrifying. But having continued to dabble after November, I have taken a new slant on the notebook.

    I do have to thank you for putting what I was nebulously thinking in such concise words.

    I guess I just wanted to say thanks.


  4. I could not agree more 🙂 I am fanatical about writing in notebooks. When I wrote screenplays I used to carry around spiral notebooks. Any notebooks pages left over after classes finished were turned into screenwriting pages. I have (at last count) 6 boxes full of notebooks, script ideas, notes, and screenplays.

    I use accordion files for research material and things I see randomly that spark an idea that I haven’t yet fleshed out. I’ve 3 of these…huge ones, and stuffed to the brim. One day I’m going to move them into a filing cabinet, but for now…

    I’ve only recently started fleshing out my scripts into novels, but I’ve kept the handwriting format. I’m madly in love with the hardback ruled Moleskines notebooks. I’ve one for each novel. They really are the perfect size and shape to carry around, and they have a little pocket for notes, a ribbon bookmark, and close with an elastic band.

    I don’t even touch the computer until I’ve fleshed it out in a notebook. Sometimes I’ll do some minor biographical information (like a list of names, ages, family connexions, etc. for a complicated and intertwining cast of characters), but otherwise, until I know what I’m doing, I’m all paper 🙂

  5. Daniel, you’re very welcome.

    I find myself saying over and over, in many different ways, how important it is to be gentle with our creative selves, to find what works for us and what nourishes us.


  6. It certainly has its interesting points.

    For writing instruments I always use gel pens. Then, that means I can do it in different colors. Picking a suitable color for the story helps the muse — I start with outlining longhand — and if I don’t know a suitable color, I don’t know the story well enough to outline it.

  7. Terrific posts. I love inventing ways to see my WIPs from new angles – diagrams, graphs, music staves. I love the tactile sensation of different types of paper, or coloured pens and highlighters. I just posted recently on putting your WIP on the couch to see what problems are still nagging you – all involving note-taking that doesn’t end up in the actual text
    I love your suggestions about writer-self-care and will definitely use them! Off to tweet…

  8. Fabulous post! “Manure is wonderful fertilizer” may just become my new mantra!

  9. You know, switching to longhand often works for me. If I am stalling in my word flow which should flow rather than drip, I start to fiddle with format and grammar tools and wordcounts and all sorts of tools and tricks. On paper, I just have to do the writing.

    I also have different machines. I have an ASUS I use when I travel to a place and do some non-distracted writing. I can pound away at it, and frankly, there is nothing else on it to distract me.

    Computers are evil beasts….

  10. @ everyone — what wonderful responses and inventive ways to use notebooks!

    What I’m hearing also is a need for “writer self-care” articles. More will be on the way soon!

  11. I have spiral notebooks of all sizes and will never give them up. I don’t use them for writing so much as for endless list-making and note-taking.