Three Reasons to Carry a Notebook

One of the standard pieces of advice to writers is to carry a notebook and pencil everywhere, so that ideas that you have on the move don’t get lost forever.  For some people, this may make complete sense, but it seemed incomprehensible to me.  I would have loved it if the sort of idea that needed saving for posterity arrived fully fledged in my mind while I was rushing around, delivering children to school or activities, doing the shopping and the chores, or while I was fully focussed on my work.  But for me, the initial idea for a story is something that slips fleetingly and repeatedly in and out of my mind, like waves on a beach, leaving barely the shadow of an imprint; certainly nothing tangible enough to be articulated in words.  To turn that formless inkling into something that can be expressed takes serious, single-minded concentration, shut away in my study.  If I’m fortunate, I will then end up with some sort of diagram that may, after further work, form the basis of a storyline that can be captured in words.

So I resisted the idea of carrying a notebook; I didn’t see the point.  Until the day that I set out to revise Brightly Shines the Darkness, the first novel in the Skywatchers series.  It had been accepted to be published as part of an Arts Council funded venture, and I needed to incorporate the corrections from the proofreader and consider the suggested amendments from the editor.  This seemed a good moment to look at all the ideas for changes I’d had over the years.  Since polishing this novel for submission, I had completed the first draft of the fourth book in the series, and edited and submitted the second book, so many little points had occurred to me.  I had thought of details that could be incorporated in Brightly Shines the Darkness, the better to set the scene for subsequent events, and there were minor characters who needed to be made consistent with their development in the later novels.

I therefore cleared space in my life and on my desk for a major edit.  As well as my original polished version, I had the edited and proofread versions and suggestions open on my laptop, and I got out the contents of my filing drawer folder, ready to try to sort them into some sort of useful order.  As I had simply stuffed bits of paper into the folder over the course of several years, this was a daunting task; there were several A4 pads with pages of notes, and hundreds of scraps of paper with single memos jotted down, including things like “Is being a bard any help to someone wanting to train as a priest?”, “Why didn’t Venela leave earlier, with the children?” and “Got to make it clearer that Farren is first-generation leader”.  Some of these were written on the backs of bus tickets or on serviettes, and others on pages torn from puzzle books or theatre programmes, so they had presumably occurred to me while I was out and about.  I congratulated myself on keeping and filing them all.  Then it occurred to me that perhaps I hadn’t – perhaps these were simply the survivors of a lack of organisation that had unwittingly caused many fatalities.

This, therefore, was my first reason for carrying a notebook; not to capture the big idea, but to jot down little questions or improvements for work that was already written.

I have to admit that this notebook was not only used for this purpose; once I made a habit of carrying it about with me, I would write down other things that I needed to be able to rely on finding when I wanted them.  So I would put down a reminder to do this, or to ring someone, or things that I needed to buy next time I was in town.  It was not a very good system, because I had to skim through all sorts of bits and pieces to assemble a shopping list, or to transfer appropriate items to my ‘to do’ list.  But it turned out that this was the very best of systems for a writing notebook, as every time that I worked on my ‘to do’ list, sat down to catch up on phone calls or emails, or prepared for going shopping, I skimmed through all my writing notes.  Unlike the old bus ticket or paper napkin approach, this kept my writing ideas at the front of my consciousness, and I found that I was acting on them, incorporating them, or transferring them, simply in order to be able to cross through that item and no longer have to skim through it regularly.

My second reason for carrying a notebook, therefore, was that it kept my attention on my writing, and made me a more efficient editor.

I recently completed a month’s challenge, where the goal was to find a way to write every single day, even though that might entail writing in places or at times or in moods that were less than ideal.  Because I write more fluently on a keyboard, and then prefer to edit with a pen, I tended to lug my laptop around with me, and I wrote in trains, hospital waiting rooms, and other (for me) unexpected places.  But I had a few fails – I discovered that bus seats are too high to allow me a flat lap, for example, so that my laptop would slide off as soon as I stopped gripping it firmly to try to type.  In such situations, it was very useful to be able to take out a notebook and pen as a backup option, and still write.

Of course, if I had intended to continue with a work in progress on the computer, it would have been most inefficient to write part of the next section by hand, and then have to type it up later.  So, on the whole, I worked on fresh items – not whole novels, not even usually whole short stories, but a suggestion I had already jotted in my notebook, or the outline of an overheard conversation, or something off-key that I noticed out of the bus window and wondered about.  In turn, this led to my being more receptive to such external prompts, and to pay more writerly attention to my surroundings.

Orson Scott Card said that “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.”  This is actually another version of the reason quoted at me, and that did not convince me, before I actually started to carry a notebook.  It turns out, in the end, that it’s my most pressing reason of all – because knowing I have the means to record ideas frees me up to notice them.  It allows me to behave as a writer, even when I am not in the place where I do most of my writing.  To me, this is the difference between writing being a ‘hat’ that I put on as I sit down at my desk and take off as I get up again, and it being an integral part of who I am.  If carrying a notebook, and using it, is part of what fosters that in me, I am thoroughly converted!