Where do you keep your lists, research, and inspiration for your works-in-progress? Are you a digital devotee, or do you prefer to keep it “real” with paper and ink? While digital organizers definitely have their place, I’m a fan of paper journals. If you’re looking to keep better track of your ideas, or getting serious about regular creative brainstorming sessions, here’s how to start a writer’s notebook*:
The “Perfect” Notebook
The perfect notebook is the one you have! Hopefully, this is going to be a long-term habit for you. So don’t invest in the uber-pricey, hand-stitched, heirloom-quality journals that are available. (Save that one for your LifeBook!) The dollar store spiral notebook will work just as well as a luscious high-end notebook, though you might consider finding one with acid-free paper.
I like cheap sketchbooks from Target or WalMart, and the Leuchtterm 1917 is my go-to bullet journal. The Leuchtterm slides easily into my work bag, and the cheapy sketchbook lies flat. Good points for both!
The “Perfect” Pen
The pen might be more important than the notebook. Look for acid-free inks so your words will last long enough to reference them later. If you’re a visual person, get a set of colored pens so you can color code your info. If you’re an artist, find a pen that is versatile enough you can doodle and draw with it, too. But don’t spend a pile of money on a pen that’s so precious it would be a tragedy to lose it. Because you’re going to be using your pen(s) a *lot*, and carrying it everywhere you go!
Use the Bullet Journal technique
I’m crazy excited to read Ryder Carroll’s book, The Bullet Journal Method. I’ve been using a hybrid entry system in my own journal for a few years, a cross between Austin Kleon’s 5 Best Things journal, and the Bullet Journal. So when I saw the book was coming out, I was thrilled. Then, when I listened to Ryder’s interview on the Achieve Your Goals Podcast last week, and heard Hal Elrod say the book actually teaches you to think, I ran and ordered it.
If you don’t know about bullet journaling, I’d advise against searching it on Instagram or Pinterest *YET*. Read the book first, because the method itself is very simple and elegant, an easy, intuitive way to organize lists and ideas. If you look up the scads of fan groups and see the incredible, intricate designs bullet journalers have invented and implemented, it may intimidate you. Our journals don’t have to be that way. Keep it simple at first, until you have the habit down.
Create Your Own Custom Sections
The beauty of the bullet journal is that it’s flexible enough to roll with our scattered ideas, but brings total order to the chaos. You don’t have to keep strict segments and sections. You can do character sketches on one page, and a free-writing exercise on setting on the following page. Easy!
The table of contents, in particular, will be vitally important to finding your ideas later. Allow 3 or 4 pages in the front of your notebook to serve as a table of contents, and you’re on your way.
Here are some ideas to get started:
Interview your most important characters. List their faults, their dreams, their motivations. Divulge their darkest secrets and hidden fears. The more information you can record in your writer’s notebook, the easier the writing will be when it’s time to make the first draft.
Explore your story’s setting. How would the book feel if you chose a different location? What makes your setting part of the plot, and what would happen if you altered an aspect of the location? List all the classics you’ve read that feature unforgettable settings. What would Wuthering Heights be without the moors? Picture The Heart of Darkness in a desert rather than a jungle. Pick an unexpected locale and do a few writing exercises. You may decide to keep your original setting, or you may discover a new place for your characters to call home. Have fun with it!
Major Plot Points
Map out your inciting event, small problem, midpoint, big problem, climax, and resolution. Tweak each point, turning up the emotion on each. What does your protagonist stand to lose or gain from each disaster? What does he/she learn? How will your characters be different at the end of the story compared to the beginning?
Weave in one or two interesting subplots to fill in your novel.
Often, ideas for scenes come to me before any other story element. I’ll get an idea for a scene and think, “Who are these people? Why are they doing this? How did they get here?” A writer’s notebook is a safe place to keep scenes, whether you’re building the chain of a book one link at a time, or storing unrelated ideas for the future. All you have to do is keep separate pages for related scenes and one-offs for future inspiration.
Make an outline for the structure and shape of your book by keeping a list of chapters in the notebook. Jot down a few impressions at a time until you flesh out the chapters, scene by scene. You can always go back later, cross out, draw arrows, or, if you’re a perfectionist, white it out or start a new page. It’s your book; do what feels right.
Sometimes a great line will come to you out of the blue…and out of order! You’ll be wowed by your character’s cleverness yet have no idea where her quote will end up in the book. So keep a page (or two or three) for all the wonderful quips your cast whisper to you while you’re in the grocery check out line.
NOW YOU: Do you already have a writer’s notebook? What’s your favorite system to keep track of your ideas and inspiration?
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