Why A Writer’s Notebook?


Jack R. Stanley

Do you really need a notebook as a writer?  In a word, “Yes.”

What that notebook is and how it works for you is something only you can define.  There are as many approaches to the idea of a writer’s notebook as there are writers.  But think of it like an artist’s sketchbook – something for your use alone and configured in whatever way best serves you.

You may want a notebook to keep track of at least the story ideas that occur to you, or wonderful lines of dialogue you happen to hear or construct yourself in some of your internal conversations or monologues – “Note to Self.”   Maybe you just need a place to jot down interesting names for characters.

Some writers have notebooks for each project they’re working on at any given moment – which can make for lots of notebooks.  Others have different notebooks for plots, another for characters, and still others for themes, descriptions of people or places you come across.

Years ago I remember reading an article in either “The Writer” or “Writer’s Digest” in which the author of a piece on writer’s notebooks suggested that you have tabs for titles, one for characters, another for story ideas, and others for everything from lines of dialogue, to interesting words you wanted to remember and use.

I started mine years ago as a place to collect story ideas.  We all know what it’s like to have periods when you get more ideas than you can ever use, but you don’t want to forget any of them because there’s just no way to know which ones will spark enough interest for you to develop into a short story, novel, script or even a poem.  What I discovered after I reached the point of having three notebooks was that I needed to a file cabinet.

Screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who went to jail rather than name names of friends and former associates to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s infamous Hours Un-American Activities Committee, is remembered today for writing Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman, Roman Holiday, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Exodus, Spartacus, Papillon, and The Way We Were, as well as the novel and screenplay Johnny Got His Gun (and a couple of dozen more screenplays).  When a friend and fellow screenwriter was down on his luck – the guy had a three picture deal but only had one idea — Trumbo let his friend look through the filing cabinet of story ideas the academy award winning writer and compiled . Trumbo told him to take anything there he found and liked.  The old man had been saving story ideas his whole career and figured he could never get around to writing them all.

Years from now, which of these two writers would you rather be?

There is another writer I read about who used to collect articles, interviews, and quotes from other writers he’d find in the paper or on the Internet.  He’d clip the items out of print or print them out on his computer and put them in his notebook.  This writer’s practice was to read this whole notebook, cover to cover, before he started each new novel.  It would remind him of the lessons he’s learned in the past and he’d always find something new he’d never given much weight to in the past but suddenly he became aware of the significance of particular little gems of wisdom.  It would also help to light his fire and set him off on his new project with fresh insights and inspiration.

‘Course, in this “paperless” world in which we live today (“paperless”, yeah!  Bite me!) there so many wonderful ways one could keep a notebook on your computer, I-pad, other electronic tablets or smart phone with a word processor or app.  List keeping apps are great for character names, places, titles, etc.

I’m still very much a split century guy because while I use my word processor and I-pad, I ALWAYS have the ol’ standby, 3 by 5 cards (I love the colored kinds) in the pocket of my vest, in the compartment between the seats in my truck, and a stack with a pen both on the back of the toilet and beside the bed.

Like I said earlier, only you can decide what it is that you want to keep track of and how you want to do it.  I’d like to see some suggestions here.  What programs, apps or methods to you use?  And what to you collect?

The purpose of this blog is to nudge you toward doing something on that short story, novel or script you’ve always wanted to write but never really gotten the deed done.  Keep in mind, nobody can write War and Peace in a single setting, not even Tolstoy.  But a little each day will get it done.  We’ll talk about good writing habits another day – but we will get to it.

For today, no matter when you read this – the day I blogged it or a couple of years from now when you discover this site – welcome to TheFictionWritersNotebook.com and contribute your ideas and experiences.  What you do or what someone else does and posts here could be just the thing you’re looking for to start your own notebook.

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