I think it’s fair to say that most writers keep a notebook for when the creative juices start to flow and we’re (usually) well away from the keyboard. For some of us, it’s a real notebook and, for some of us, it’s a mixture of paper scraps, post-it notes etc. Regardless of the form in which our notes take, we could probably all do with keeping them in some sense of order.
In Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, there is a small section toward the end on the writer’s notebook. It has some suggestions about how we writers should structure our notebooks to get the best out of them.
Bell suggests using a notebook often as it allows you to ‘write when you’re not writing’. Furthermore, he suggests splitting the notebook into five major sections;
1. Plot Ideas. Unsurprisingly, Bell chooses to use this section to keep notes about plot. He suggests utilising free-form notes, ideas and scribbles to ensure that we can capture the information when it appears. Things like ideas for plots, plot developments, and major scenes can be kept here.
2. Characters. Here we can keep straw-men pictures of our current, and future, characters. Bell suggests that we store certain information, such as a character’s drive, what they want from the story, and what they care about the most. This can be quite essential information when you’re struggling to decide how your character should react to at important points in your novel. It can also provide a great go-to point when you’re looking to introduce someone new either in the same novel, or a different one.
Bells also compiles listings of names in this section utilising newspaper articles to generate ‘real sounding’ names. He follows a simple process of splitting the forenames and surnames and keeping them in separate columns so new names can be generated simply by choosing a name from each column.
3. Research. This is quite a broad section and is related to anything that you feel is necessary to investigate as part of your novel writing. Although Bell suggests that internet and e-mail can be used to generate a lot of research information quickly, he also suggests that much of this is transferred / filed in your notebook to enable the notebook to become a one-stop-shop of your novel whenever you’re away from the desk. Imagine how frustrating it would be to have an idea and realise you didn’t have the technical information you needed on-hand to take it foward.
Another good aspect of keeping research material in your notebook is that it often inspires new plot ideas which, if all kept in the same notebook, means it’s easier to keep everything in a single place.
4. Plot summary. This is different to notes on plot (section 1) as this section relates to what has actually been written so far. Here, Bell suggests that you keep a record of what work has been compelted (at a chapter level) and summarise it into a few lines. The benefit of this is that is can help you see where you are in your story, and what you think you may be heading toward.
If this is kept upto-date, then you should have a full summary outline completed just as you complete your first draft. This can then be used as a guide when beginning that necessary second draft.
5. Questions. It is expected that you should always be asking questions of your story. These questions can be about almost anything, including plot, character, or research. If these are kept in a section of your notebook (and especially if they are answered), they can provide a much richer perspective through which to view your story.
As mentioned above, if much of this information can be kept in a single notebook, then your whole toolkit that you need to work on your book anywhere, anytime, can be within arm’s reach.