Monday, August 31, 2009

How to Use Your Writing Notebooks to Feed Your Book

Sarah Tieck, a fellow instructor at the Loft Literary Center, emailed me with a great question about writing notebooks. I've heard the same question from other writers.

"I was remembering a recent blog entry where you talked about how you work with your exercises in your notebook on a weekly basis," Sarah said. "I'm wondering what you do with older writer's notebooks. . . I've got dozens and their current format isn't useful. I almost never return to them because the information is not organized or easily retrievable. How do you handle your archives? Any tips or thoughts would be appreciated!"

Writers produce writing. And if you're a writing geek like me, you love to write longhand in notebooks, not just on the super-fast computer. Notebooks let the right brain ramble slowly, and the writing I do longhand is often pensive, full of imagery. I notice things I'd breeze over.

My just-released novel, Qualities of Light, started from a notebook full of tiny scenes scribbled while vacationing at a lake cabin in the Adirondacks. It was too hot to think, so I filled one notebook with random images: weedy lake smells, sounds of loons yodeling, fast-moving clouds, a girl in a bright-red tank suit racing across the lake on water-skis. This slow cooking got me started. I moved to scenes where the girl falls in love, her six-year-old brother almost drowns, her artist father betrays her, her entire family tries to orient itself after the near-tragedy.

Each tiny snippet became a chapter. And now it's all become a published book--thanks to my notebooks that summer. So I believe in these notebooks. Big time. The question is: How can you make the best use of yours?

How to Use Your Notebooks
Claire-Fontaine notebooks are my favorite. I fill them up pretty fast--every two months if I'm cooking on a new book. New books require lots of freewrites, bad writing, shitty first drafts as Anne Lamott calls them. Notebooks are private, so they are perfect for these SFDs.

But notebooks become unusable if you let them languish on a shelf. Right?

So I set up a system. On a writing day soon after I complete a notebook, I set aside two hours for reading and marking. I try to take myself out to lunch or dinner or to a museum or public garden, make this a little artist's date, a la Julia Cameron, have some fun. I bring along a yellow highlighting pen and a stack of Post-Its in different colors, snacks and tea, my iPod with no-lyrics music, and headphones. I plug into my wordless music (lyrics are too distracting when I'm reading). I plug into my word-filled writing.

Mark Anything You Can Use
Reading through the freewrites, ideas, notes to self, and character sketches, I first mark the ones that seem possible for my current book. These get a yellow highlighter stripe down the margin. Even if I don't know how I'll use the material, I mark it as possible.

Post-Its are for ideas to follow up on. In my writing notebooks, I gather lists: books to read, topics to research, people to contact, websites to visit. The Post-Its become the logging system. Different colors for different tasks.

The key here is to be as nonjudgmental as possible about your work and ideas. Treat anything as possible--and view your raw writing as if you've never seen it before. Like a reader would. Look for sparks that could possibly ignite something bigger.

Back at the Desk
When I get back to my writing desk, I begin the hard work: transferring the highlighted sections into a computer file called "extras." This is tedious work (for me). But so necessary. Otherwise, I'll never, ever use the writing I've just delighted in.

I also make a list on a legal pad of my to-do's. Sometimes, if I'm feeling particularly organized, I'll keep separate lists of tasks by type. This actually helps the tasks get done. And before I'm finished for the day, I select three tasks and put them into my calendar with dates to tackle them.

Then What? What to Do with the Pile of Past Notebooks
I never throw out my writing notebooks. Yes, this means dedicating an entire file drawer or shelf for them. But too many times I've been stuck for an idea and when I browse one of the old notebooks, I find it.

Then there are the stacks of past notebooks that, once filled, haven't yet been opened. Milking them requires a steel will and a full day or more. When I was working on my last nonfiction book, How to Master Change in Your Life, I forced myself to go through old journals. Too many words to read carefully and still be home for dinner, so I just skimmed and place a Post-It on pages that seemed promising. I visited a photocopy store and Xeroxed the pages. Then put them into a folder. Planned an artist's date. Read through them and did the highlighting work.

These became the backbone of my nonfiction book--believe it or not. All my best stories came from these notebooks. Even though they were old and reading through them was nothing short of embarrassing, I tried to keep that nonjudgmental attitude and be open to what might work. A lot did.

Your Exercise This Week
Get one of your writing notebooks, even one you haven't finished, and try the highlighting and Post-It exercise above. Take an hour and transfer the most promising into your computer file. Name it "extras" and save it where you can find it again.

Two more ideas: See the new post below for a step you might want to take--using your notebooks to advantage by pairing them with a weekly class.
And visit Sarah's website at