Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Taking Notes

I don't know how many other writers are like this, but I hardly ever write anything down. I don't have a notebook full of ideas that I carry around with me, and I never seem to have a pen handy. I don't think this is a good thing, mind you--in fact I think it's stupid. I can't tell you how many good ideas I've gotten and forgotten--I think my stories would be more varied, my novels more detailed, if I could actually manage to keep a notebook and pen in my pocket.

I do keep notebooks for each novel I write--I use these narrow-ruled, slightly-less-than-letter-sized, cream-colored, spiral-bound notebooks for that...I bought like twenty of them ten years ago for this purpose. But if you look at them in chronological order, over the six novels I've written (one is unpublished), the amount of stuff in them gets progressively smaller. The novel I'm finishing now, I never even started a notebook for.

Again, bad thing? I think it is. I don't have any evidence for this opinion, though. I think I'm just lazy and impatient, and I fill my head up with too much useless crap. Perhaps next time around I should go back to the old way--fill a notebook with ideas, and carry around one of those sexy little Moleskine jobbers for incidental jottings and bursts of inspiration. But I probably won't. I will probably go off half-cocked as usual and just sit down and start making shit up. Just thinking about taking notes makes me cringe right now. Why on earth would that be?

There is one place, however, where I do take notes, and that's in bed--I suppose it's there that my mind is clearest, and something good often comes to me there. Back in the day, I used to accomplish this by groping on the bedside table in he dark for some random scrap of paper (usually the bookmark in whatever I happened to be reading, which I then sacrificed for the cause) and a pencil, then scribbling blindly there, and hoping I'd be able to read it in the morning. But nowadays I use one of these. Rhian's mom, a closeted novelist, got it for me. I rolled my eyes when I saw it--it seemed so terribly Levengeresque--but it turns out it's amazing. You pull the pen out, and the light comes on--and your note cards are right there for you. Unfortunately the note cards it comes with are hideously adorned with moons and stars, but I'll run out in about 2014 and will get to replace them with plain white ones. After six years, by the way, the batteries are still going strong!

One of these days I ought to get a shrink to tell me why I never take notes--in the daytime, anyway. It feels almost like a test of my ideas--if they're not good enough to stick in my mind without assistance, they're not worth having. Or maybe that's just letting myself off the hook.

That's it! I'm going to do it! I'm going to take some goddam notes!


Mr. Saflo said...

I am somewhat different. I write too many random notes down (I keep some kind of notebook in every corner of my room for easy access) but ultimately manage maybe a sentence or two toward an actual story every...week.

myles said...

I'm a bit compulsive these days about writing down my ideas -- too many prizewinning metaphors have flown out of my head before they could be captured. But the trap is writing down too much and not being able to find anything later, when I'm sweating at the desk and desperately searching for that brilliant observation about .... what was it again?
So I carry a little notebook, and distill the best (or most promising) bits into a journal every day or three. Helps to keep things intact and roughly organised. It's also good to browse through during those dry spells when I can't believe I've ever written anything interesting and who would want to be a writer anyway and why didn't I just go to law school like Dad wanted.... etc etc.

jrlennon said...

Mr. Saflo, one of our favorite books is Constance Garnett's translation of Chekhov's notebook. It's just a bunch of story and character ideas. It's almost as interesting as the whole stories...Same with the latest David maybe you're just a brilliant noteist.

And myles I think I'm gonna try something like what you do. Dump the little notes into the big Novel Notebook.

rmellis said...

My theory, JRL, why you don't take notes is this: you don't think of stuff to write about when you're not writing. If you're making toast, you're MAKING TOAST, and not musing about characters. Whereas if I am making toast, I'm actually reading the paper and wondering whether we should get june-bearing or ever-bearing strawberries in the spring and also feeding the cat.

Except at night, when you let things go.

Notes are probably most helpful to people with diffuse attention.

jrlennon said...

I do make the hell out of that toast, don't I.

Anonymous said...

I want you to take blog notes: post your notes here! We love to see process.

Just a thought...

jrlennon said...

That might be too public even for me. A guy's gotta have a little private mojo time, right?

Could be interesting to do a scan or two of old stuff, though. A future post...

C. Leigh Purtill said...

Cool gadget, that Nite Note, but it feels so intimidating to me. So...writerly. My random notes could never live up to a thingy like that.

5 Red Pandas said...

I have a fondness for notebooks. Yup, I like the notebooks, but I'm rarely consistent enough to fill them up. The only time I was able to fill up an entire notebook was one summer a few years ago when I was juggling various, um, situations. I needed to write down what was going on so I could make sense of it all. Now I have a neat little history of that time in my life.

The major function of a notebook for me when I'm working on something big is for me to track progress. I make lists of where I am and another list for what I still need to do. I also take notes on what improvements I should make for stories. I don't use notes so much to create a story, but I use them to edit stories.

I think one reason I don't take as many pre-writing notes is because I have a pretty good memory.

Some of my notes on pieces of paper have come in handy though. I don't write poetry, but sometimes I'll think of a metaphor I like and one those random metaphors became the title of my novel.

I don't think you need to necessarily feel bad about not taking enough notes, unless you really think your writing would be improved if you did take notes. I say use whatever method works for you.

Grant Munroe said...

I've stumbled over a sort of 'idea filtration method' that - for me at least - works pretty well. I'll jot an idea on whatever scrap of paper I find nearby - a napkin, a bank deposit slip, a coffee cup sleeve - then cram it into a random pocket. Later that night (or the next night, or whenever I do laundry), I'll dump my collection out on my desk for review and sorting. The best of these I transfer (w/ some clarification) to my notebook. I trash the rest. Later, when I get stuck or when I'm ready to take a stab at another story, I'll wander through the list. Mostly chaff, but I usually find something that fits -- or at least sparks a train of thought that leads to a viable solution / premise.

Of course some of these notes never make the leap from pocket to desk -- either because they were absentmindedly thrown out or inadvertently made illegible at some point during the day. But I've come to love this little hiccup in the system. Figure it less a hiccup than one of the system's unexpected functions. Fate does its share of the paring.

Collected names - especially unique, character-telling names - take up a decent percentage of my notes. It's almost become an obsession. Sounds morbid, but I can't pass an old graveyard without filching a few neat, old-timey monikers. (The best to date: Sangfroid Bivens of Cottam, Ont., d. 1886)

Have either of you done a post on names in fiction, how you go about naming characters? Think it'd be interesting.

myles said...

A lot of my notebooks are taken up with collected names, such as an arson squad detective called Inspector Candle (no, really). The rest of it is shopping lists & phone numbers, book lists, random phrases and lines of (other people's) poems that occasionally spark a story idea.

If I think about writing while I'm making the toast, I just burn the toast. It's just a man thing -- we can do only one thing at a time.

Duncan Murrell said...

I'm late to the party, but here's what I do:

A lot of my writing involves quite a bit of research, so I've got to take at least one kind of note. When I'm working on a long project or a book, my notes come in two flavors: notes on reading, and notes toward writing.

I'm low-tech. I use index cards (3x5) in two different colors to distinguish the two kinds of notes. I carry some of each with me everywhere. Usually, by the time I'm ready to write, I've got story ideas on a dozen or so cards, and many more cards filled with little facts, words I like, dates, and so on from my reading. I carry a little red plastic box that fits in my back pocket and carries the cards.

When I write, I put the story ideas up on a board, and the research notes I sort of just scatter around me.

As the writing progresses, I quit using cards and begin to use a hard-backed yellow legal pad punched for a three-hole binder. This is where I make notes, and also where I write scenes, chapters, etc.

When I've typed up a working draft or partial draft, I take a tip from Peter Carey (see his Paris Review interview): I print the draft with huge margins. In order to maintain the page number integrity, I have to shrink the size of the type. Usually I just tell it to print an A5-sized page on the 8 1/2 x 11 pages. That leaves plent of room. These pages go into their own binder, and there I make notes and corrections, and that's also where I stick the notes and early handwritten drafts I'm making on the legal pad. When I incorporate all those new notes and legal-pad scenes into the draft, I print it anew and the new draft gets its own binder. (This way I can keep track of changes.)

I also use DevonThink for storing a whole mess of research materials. If you can save up for it, I highly recommend the program. I take fewer research notes now because I can scan whole chapters from books and shoot them over to my DevonThink database as searchable pdfs. Now I just jot down a couple of words and the name of the book, and I let the DevonThink search engine do the work for me.

I look at this, and I realize it sounds involved. But it works for me, and I think I spend more time writing and less time organizing because of it.