Note to Self

I’ve been really happy to see that other people use character pictures and mood music to help them write.  Writing is serious hard work and you need the right tools for the job.  But here’s something that I wonder if I’m the only person out there that does it.

I write notes.

I mean, a lot of notes.

These are the notes for my work in progress ... so far.

Writing notes is something that came out of a silly high school writing class years and years ago.  The point of that exercise was to free-write to come up with ideas.  You put your pen on the paper and when the teacher said go you had to write constantly, without stopping, for two or three or five minutes, depending on the length of the exercise.  If you got stuck or ran out of things to say you were supposed to write whatever came into your head, whether that was song lyrics or your name or one word over and over.

I never had any problem filling my page with relevant material.  I was the kind of person who would come up with eleven other story ideas while trying to write about one.  I still do that, unfortunately.  It makes concentration really difficult sometimes.

Nowadays I use note-writing as a sort of compass.  I’m not sure if I can explain this effectively to non-writers, but my brain thinks from a different place when I’m writing, either by hand or typing.  It’s not the same place I speak or just randomly think from.  I have always felt like that part of me that pours directly onto the paper knows more than my conscious mind or my mouth does.  And believe you me, this was one really useful skill to have in college and grad school while taking essay tests!  I would routinely write down things I didn’t even know that I knew.  I always aced essay exams.

But I digress.

These days I use notes for two purposes.  The first is to record the myriad story ideas that pop into my head on a daily basis.  Whenever they come I’ll whip out one of my numerous and ever-present pads of lined paper and write down as much of the idea or synopsis or character sketches as I have.  It’s a great way to not forget things.

More importantly though, I use notes to work through blocks and to set my stories in order.

More often than not I’ll start like this….

“So in the last chapter the hero realized that he was in love with the heroine and panicked.  He jumped on his horse and galloped ten miles away into the forest to hide.  But he forgot that the heroine’s grandmother lived in the forest and when he dismounted, finally thinking he was safe, she was waiting right there with a scarf she’d knit for him.  In this chapter I’m about to write the heroine will be really annoyed that the hero is smothering her and will try to sneak out on him while he’s crying to his horse about something.  The heroine doesn’t realize that the hero wants space as much as she does.  The hero thinks that the heroine is like every other girl he knows who has to be around their hero 24-7”

Well, that’s an infinitely shorter version of what I do, but it gets the point across.  I always start with a summary of what I’ve just written.  Think of it as “Last time, on Work in Progress”.  It’s always a good idea for me to remind myself where I’ve been.  It helps me to recapture the mood of what I’m writing and to bring up anything important that I want to carry through to the next bit.  Sometimes I also remember points that I was going to talk about but had forgotten.

My file of notes

The next thing I do is to tell the story of what is about to happen.  If I know what that is.  I write about the actions that will immediately take place.  This is where the writing exercise from high school comes in handy.  I write and keep writing, even if I’m not sure.  Sometimes I’ll write sentences that start with “Maybe she’ll do a, b, c.  Or maybe she would do x, y, z instead.”  This isn’t the story itself, this is just thinking about the story.  It can and usually does change at some point.

Perhaps most importantly for me, I write about what the characters are thinking and feeling and how their backstory effects the immediate action.  This helps me get a strong handle on who these people are, what makes them tick, and how they would approach any given situation.  Most of the stuff I write in this section never makes it to the story itself.  Sometimes I come up with incredibly specific things that I would never, EVER include in the story.

For example, in my current work in progress I realized that the hero actually slept with one of the women who becomes a friend of the heroine, but it happened six years before the heroine ever showed up in town.  This friend knows far more about the hero than she’ll ever let on, because she’s a good woman.  She also knows the hero’s secret, but she would never tell.  Why is it important to know this?  It informs what kind of a man the hero is and how the tragedy in his past lead him to do something impulsive that he feels uncomfortable with.  Because in the present day of my story the hero once again has done something impulsive that he’s uncomfortable with.  So this story-creating action isn’t out of the blue for him.  He has a history of making impulsive decisions.

Voila!  Backstory!  But it will never be spoken of in the work itself.  Having my characters tell me about this aspect of themselves while I wrote notes did, however, help me to understand how to write the actions that take place during the story.

The long and the short of it is that I feel like I can think my way out of certain writing corners when I scribble notes freestyle.  And when I take a pen to paper and riff about my characters and the plot I feel like I bring more life to them than if I just let them exist within the boundaries of the part of their lives that the reader will see.

I’d be really curious to know if anyone else does this.  Or if you don’t, give it a try and let me know how it feels.

11 thoughts on “Note to Self

  1. I try not to do notes if I can help it. I end up with it like my research — a page here, a page there, and I never look at it again and then throw it away when I’m cleaning up.

    • I don’t necessarily ever look at my notes again either, but I’ve found that with the way my brain works writing everything down is the best method for sorting out all the jumble. Actually, I know a writer, Greg Frost, who once said that before he starts a novel he writes out the entire plot from beginning to end … then never looks at that writing again. Except maybe when he’s finished the whole thing to see how far off of his original idea he got. 🙂

  2. You have the same idea when it comes to writing vs typing, Merry. I feel that ideas come more naturally when you write because you have been doing that since kindergarten. When I first started writing, I wrote a 300 page novel using just pen and paper. I had to type it out later and it took me two months to do that. I really hope that I could buy a pen that translates writing into typed letters. It would save time, improve writing and generally make notes more accessible and readable. I have bad handwriting, especially when I write fast. That’s why it took me two months to type my novel. It was so hard to read. Great post by the way. Love the style you write.

    • Thanks Musha! I used to write everything by hand. In fact, I have three large boxes of spiral-bound notebooks to prove it. But you’re exactly right, it takes forever to type out a hand-written novel. So I deliberately made a point of learning to type fast. Now I type my novels, but I still hand-write all the notes. 😉

  3. I envy your ability to do this. I’ve tried, but I’m just not a notetaker. It makes my hand hurt and I can’t write fast enough to get it all down. I’ve tried doing it on the computer, too, but it’s just not visual enough. For my most recent WIP, I did get a little more creative than rough notes on a notepad, though. I used an old box and some notecards and pinned them up with all the characters on them. Only the new characters have info on them, but it’s helpful to see them all laid out. Maybe in time I’ll be a bit more advanced and take after you!

  4. Hi! First of all, I would like to inform you that I found your blog through Shahrukh ;). I love your post about how he and bollywood lead you to your better life. I love the point of it. About this post. Thank you for sharing your writing tips, I will deifinitely try them. I usualy get lost during the process of making a story so I think writing notes should help. I also belong to people who use music as a muse but it’s a short term inspiration and does not work for me for too long. Yes, I must start making notes. Thank you! 🙂

    • Yay! Shah Rukh is wonderful, isn’t he. =D

      For me notes are the best way to organize my thoughts so that I can stay interested and on track. Let me know how it works for you when you give it a try!

  5. I write notes for everything, and notes about notes sometimes. It seems like overkill, and I’m even embarrassed to share my technique with other writer friends who don’t work in this way, but I have been able to really mine some gold out of notes written about the WIP that end up taking me in directions I didn’t expect. Sometimes it seems like a roundabout way to getting where I want to go with writing, but I think everyone has there own style and should use what works for them. I’m glad to find another notetaker though. 🙂

  6. I do write notes, particularly if I’m dealing with another time period or special subject matter. What I do the most is lists – not a true outline, but a list of all the plot points, character foibles, and elements I want to include. When I’m working, I will often refer to it and cross things off as they’ve been incorporated and add things as I get new ideas. But no matter what, I have to put pen to paper and jot things down separately from my manuscript, or I forget things.

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