Friday, September 30, 2011

Finding the Perfect Writing Notebook--and How to Use It to Finish Your Book

A good friend just recommended, and another just purchased, the most beautiful writer's notebook, so I am posting this article from two years ago about how to use them to the fullest as you create and craft your book.  If you'd like to salivate along with me, check out the Leuchtturm writing notebooks.  I'm off to order mine right now.

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. 
Writing 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.  It has a certain
quality that I often can't capture via a machine.

Most of my books started with writing notebooks.  I created my entire novel in tiny scenes scribbled while vacationing at a lake cabin in the Adirondacks. It was too hot to think most days, so I filled my notebooks with random images that later became an "image list" for the inner story of my novel: the weedy smells from the lake, the lapping of water on rocks, sounds of loons yodeling across the expanse, the fast-moving clouds, a single girl in a bright-red tank suit racing across the lake on water-skis. The writing notebook gave me the chance to cook these images slowly.  Let them linger as I traced them on the page with my pen.
This slow cooking was a powerful start. Soon 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.
Begun with images, scribbled in a notebook, I soon had real chapters. The process wasn't magical, it was plenty of hard work as all writing is, but I believe sincerely that those images fired me in a way words don't.  So I kept that writing notebook after the novel was published, and I began another one for my next book.
Finding a Great Notebook
I won't presume to tell you how to choose the best notebook.  But I do have some strong opinions, based on years of testing.
I vacillate between lined and unlined.  I even tried grid lined notebooks, made by a French company called Claire-Fontaine.  For years, their notebooks are one favorite of mine--they are used by schoolkids there, easily available in the supermarkets, and easy to get online at Claire-Fontaine. They are not fancy but they're cool, and I can mess them up without concern.  I fill one up every two months if I'm cooking on a new book. That's because the images accumulate fast if I'm paying attention and being a good scribe to my muse.
I also love moleskin notebooks, which come with unlined pages.  The unlined paper lets me go "right brain" as often as I wish, moving from words to sketches pretty easily.  When I'm stumped for a scene, I draw it.  
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
1.  Find a great notebook.  Dedicate it to your writing life.
2.  If you already use writing notebooks, find one of your past notebooks, even one you haven't finished, and try the highlighting and Post-It exercise above. 
3.  Take an hour and transfer the most promising into your computer file. Name it "extras" and save it where you can find it again.


  1. Finding the perfect notebook is more important than it might seem. I use a leather bound book. It makes the contents feel special somehow. I use a new colour for each notebook and I save every one of them. Thanks for the exercise.

  2. Great idea! Thanks for sharing. Do you think it's healthy to go back 10 years? Or how far back would you go with your journals?

  3. This is awesome Mary. I am just such a notebook geek and have around 40 in storage. Many of them are Moleskines but I often buy other types for the love of the look or feel.
    I put everything in mine, notes on talks or audios, ideas, personal journal entries about my life, pictures and letters (printed emails these days!)
    I also go through mine later and move some of the ideas into my To Do list. I find it is an excellent way to keep the ideas flowing. Thanks for posting this - I'm heading over to Leuchtturm!

  4. Thanks, Kristina, I love the color idea. Glad you visited the blog!

  5. Lynn, I have journals back to 1972! I've recently reviewed the past 12 years and learned a lot, although I must say the farther back they go, the less interesting to me. I end up scanning quite a bit. This certainly varies by individual writer.

  6. Joanna,
    Happy to meet another notebook geek! I hope you enjoy the Leuchtturm. I couldn't help myself--I ordered two!
    Thanks for visiting . . .

  7. Mary, thanks so much for the tip on the "extras" file. I do mark up my pages but I tend never to go back after marking. I like the idea of transferring notes to a separate file. It does sound tedious but better than losing gems.
    The Leuchtturm journals are a total joy! Not only are they beautiful but they make journaling feel important with the page numbers and the blank TOC just waiting for the journaling geek to fill it in! I would have loved these as a kid. When I was about five, I remember telling my mother that I would have one room dedicated to journals when I grew up and had my own house!
    I also love Writersblok Bamboo books. The pages are super smooth and about the same thickness. They're not hardback so good for less formal journaling. ;-)

  8. This blog on notebooks was terrific. I need more info on the transcribing part.. After you write in notebook.... when do you do the transcribing? Right away? How much time do you give to the typing up? How do you organize the entries? Headings? Alphabetically? Anybody else out there have a transcribing system that works? thanks. barb

  9. Jan,

    I love the "extras" file--it saves me everytime!

    Thanks for telling us about the bamboo journals which sound great.


  10. Barb,

    Thanks for posting your comment--and I hope other readers will have something to contribute, to answer your questions too.

    I transcribe within a week after I freewrite in my journal. Longer, I get stalled completely. I usually use focused freewrites and don't require headings.

    Anyone else want to share what they do?


  11. Tremendous blog, and very helpful. Thank you. I look forward to continuous visits (and studies) each passing day.