Tag Archives: notebooking

Which Notebook?

My old writers notebook

My old writers notebook

I’ve been trying to find the best way to keep a writing notebook for the last year. And by ‘right’, I don’t mean correct, I mean the system that works best for me.

I always used to keep all my notes in an A4 ringbound PukkaPad notebook, the hardback kind. I loved it. There was plenty of room on the big pages, and PukkaPad’s paper is beautifully smooth and takes ink perfectly. Their products are especially good for Morning Pages, because you can write quickly and smoothly on them.

This was fine as far as it went, but the book was too big to carry around with me easily, which meant that I tended only used it at my desk. And that meant I wasn’t noting down all the ideas I had, just the few I had when I was thinking about it. Which meant I was always trying to remember what I had thought about. And that meant, of course, that 75% of the ideas I had went AWOL. What a waste.

(I did have a baby moleskine at one point. It just felt like clutter in my handbag and I rarely used it.)

Last September, I decided I was going to get serious about my writing practise, and that meant reflecting on my notebooking habits. This was not a flattering experience.

I restarted with a cheap hardback A5 notebook, because it had to be sturdy to withstand being knocked about in my handbag. I just bought the cheapest I could find because I figured it was an experiment, and it didn’t have to be perfect. Plus, if it was too nice, I wouldn’t use it.

(That’s a trap I’ve fallen into before. Its easy to feel intimidated by a fancy notebook to the point where you can’t bring yourself to write in it, because you feel anything you do write has to be perfect. It’s a creative disaster.)

So decorated the cover so it looked like a more expensive one I was coveting at the time, and away I went.

It was really hard at first, making sure I scribbled down the thoughts I had when I had them, not trying to save them up. I added quotes I came across, stories I heard on the bus or on the radio, and took notes in book talks I went to. And I quickly filled up my scrappy little book.

And once it was full, I forgot about it.

So when I got the bug again, deciding to renew my commitment to my work, I made the mistake of going off to gorge myself on the goodies at Staples. Gods, I love Staples!

 

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples.  The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples. The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

And there I fell in love with the ARC discbound system. I came home with a beautiful leatherbound A5 notebook. And it is gorgeous. You have no idea. And because its discbound, I decided I would combine my notebooking with a blog planner. I printed out pages and punched then and fitted them in and moved them about. And my lovely ARC planner became so big and heavy that I couldn’t get it in my handbag. Which rather defeated the object. And the thing with the lovely leather binding is that you can’t just throw the book in the back of the drawer to await later pillaging for ideas. You feel duty-bound to keep using it. So you have to take the contents out, and then what do you do with them?

So the ARC notebook, no matter how delectable, was a notebooking disaster.

But I learnt from my failure. I now knew I needed the following:

  • An A5 notebook to fit in my handbag.
  • A pen loop would be useful.
  • Nothing too fancy, or I won’t write in it.
  • Nice paper is an incentive.
  • A sturdy binding to withstand handbag battery

So back to Staples I went.

And this time I came home with the A5 version of the Oxford notebook. It has a stiff plastic cover and is spiral bound, which means I can fold it flat over easily. Its got lovely paper. I can tuck a biro into the spiral binding and it acts as a pen loop. It is satisfyingly thick but the smallish size means I can fill it quickly, which pleases me and makes me feel like I’m making progress.

And I am using it. Every day. Filling it with thoughts and ideas and potential stories and snippets and all kinds of goodies that I know I can rummage through in future. I’m even using it to write bits of stories and dialogue for my fanfics, and bits of diary-like reflection on the writing process for my novel.

People, its working!

It goes with me everywhere, my little friend. And it is still evolving. I could probably write another post along the same lines as this one in six months’ time, and I’ll probably tell you something completely different. I think the notebooking requirements you have change with you as you go on in the craft. But for me, this is where I am now, and I think I have finally found a way to record my brain on paper in a meaningful and useful way.

I encourage you to explore using a writers notebook if you write, but to do it, too if you pursue any other kind of creative art. A sketchbook for an artist fulfils the same function. It allows you to explore your creative interior, push the boundaries of your ideas. Its useful to keep a little notebook in your pocket or bag just to scribble down random ideas and thoughts you have, regardless of what art you do.

Be gentle with yourself as you find out what works best for you. From little cardboard-bound exercise books to luxurious Paperblanks, there will be something that fits your life. Think about your lifestyle and what your requirements are. I recommend that you start cheap so you feel like you can make mistakes. There is no wrong or right. Its just what works best for you. You just have to find it.

If you want a beginners guide to keeping a writers notebook, click here.

I’ll no doubt have lots more to say on the subject in coming posts.

Happy creating, EF

Advertisements

Back to Basics: The Writing Exercise

I’ve pretty much lost two months of creativity this year so far, and I’m keen to get back on the horse, so to speak.  Part of that involves getting back to basics.  And one of the best ways to do that if you are a writer is through the Writing Exercise.

You will need:

A timer

A notebook

A pen

A space where you will not be interrupted.

Fifteen minutes every day.

Yes, I know that the last one can be difficult, but you can manage it.

Look at the list again.  See how cheap those items are?  And yet it’s such a huge payoff for a very tiny investment.  If you don’t have a timer on your phone, you probably have one in the kitchen. The notebook and the pen can be as rudimentary as you like, just so long as you can write quickly and easily without thinking too much about how the tools feel in your hand.  You don’t want writer’s cramp, after all.  Your tools should be transparent.  You don’t want to be thinking about them.  You need to focus all your mind on the story that is finding its way out of your head and onto the page.

There is one more thing you need.

A prompt.

There are loads of them about.  You can make up your own.  You can get a friend to send you a prompt, like a writing dare, every day by email or text message.  You can use a book – I’m using Judy Reeves’ wonderful book, ‘The Writers Book of Days’ at the moment.  Or you can find lots of websites online that will give you prompts.

Don’t think too much about it, whatever your prompt is.  Just take it as a starting point, write it at the top of your page, then set your timer for fifteen minutes and let your brain make hay!

I’ve decided to give myself an extra rule, though.  I was considering the weaknesses in my work and I realised that I have a real problem writing three-dimensional female characters.  All my stories are full of fascinating, psychologically complex men and paper-doll women.  This is a bit worrying as a female writer.

So I have decided for the whole of March that I am going to do a writing exercise every day, and I am only going to write about female characters.

Merciless practise.

Let me tell you, it’s already working, three days in.  I have already created a female character that I absolutely love and want to come back to.  But I am determined to go on.  Like a ballet dancer working at the barre, or a concert pianist doing scales, I am going to practise and practise until I feel I am really making some progress.  And then I’m going to practise some more.

It’s the Habit of Art.  And it feels great.

I am doing writing exercises every day for the whole of March.  Fifteen minutes a day.  No neat handwriting, no fancy notebooks, just a cheap pen, an exercise book and my timer.

Why not join me?

(You can read more about writing exercises here.)

Happy creating,

EF

On Cabbages and Trombones – Making Language Strange

The expression ‘cabbages and trombones’ was one used by the poet Ian Macmillan at a recording of a poetry radio show which I went to see with a friend a while back, and the phrase stuck with me.  He was talking about how poets seek to make language strange and startling, how they seek to use it to weave a rich tapestry of image and idea.  That, after all, is the purpose of poetry, to enrich our experience of life with pattern and syllable.

The concept chimed with me again when my husband was wrestling with a writing problem of his own.  Besides being an academic, he runs an online whisky company, and occasionally works as a whisky writer.  He had been asked to contribute reviews of a variety of whiskies for this book.  Little bottles duly began to arrive in the post every morning, and off he went at a rate of three or so per evening.  Everything was fine for the first thirty tests or so.  But then he began to run out of descriptors.  Just how many new adjectives can you come up with when you’ve got 60 whiskies to review?  They can’t all taste of TCP or green jelly babies.  Can each review really be different from the last?

And today, as I busy myself with planning my new writing schedule, and working on new stories, it has come back again.

Experts say those with a college education generally have about 12,000-17,000 words in their vocabulary, but as writers we need to have far more and we need to use them in unusual and riveting ways.  I realise that I have dropped into the habit of reading very little but fanfiction, and if you are a fanfiction reader yourself, you will know that there are a lot of linguistic ruts involved.  Favourite words include laving, ravishing, carding (of luxuriant hair), trembling and so on.  No fanfic is complete without somebody emitting ‘ragged breath’.  If you have read enough of these, you begin to spot the clichés.  If you read too many, they scream out of the screen at you.  (I hold my hands up and say I am as guilty as any of falling into this trap!)

The trouble is that if you don’t read more widely than just what other people write on the internet, your vocabulary stays static.  This is what mine has been doing.  Now I am writing again on a daily basis, I have realised how stagnant my linguistic skills have become.  Of course, its not just words, but metaphors and similes.  I need to polish up my style, make it strange and new.  I need to expand my consumption, and open my mind.

 WARNING:  Incoming Master Plan for Expanding Lingustic Skills:

I’m taking a two-pronged attack:

  1. Widen my reading
  2. Use my notebook at all times

I’ve been reading just fanfics and nonfiction all summer, and its been a long time since I actually finished a proper novel.  You can’t be a writer if you don’t read.  Mostly I just read at bed time, a few paragraphs to help me drift off.  But I need to take Stephen King’s sage advice:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Stephen King, “On Writing”,

Hodder and Stoughton (2000) p164

 Of course, I’ve got a whole pile of books lying around, waiting to be ploughed through.  Top of the pile are ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.  I don’t especially like McEwan, but I am determined not to let this bloody book defeat me.  It’s the third time I’ve tried to read it, after all, and I refuse to be beaten!

I have also decided to follow Ian Macmillan’s advice.  Poetry is the way to go.  I’m not a reader of poetry – I’ve barely read any since my degree – but if you want to know about making language strange, go to the experts.  I went to the library yesterday and got out two collections, one of Ted Hughes, and one of Simon Armitage, because I had heard of them.  I’ll let you know if it works.

The second prong (I love that word, don’t you?) is more nebulous.  Out comes my little red Moleskine.  I need to think about how I am going to get the ball rolling on this particular aspect, but just jotting down a few ideas on what the weather feels like, smells like, tastes like, or overheard conversations, or the colours of shadows, might be a good start.  Again, I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, here’s to cabbages and trombones.  And whisky that tastes of TCP and green jelly babies.  Both of which have taught me a lot about writing.

(Incidentally, you may like to know that I am currently publishing a new fanfic called ‘A Shadow of His Former Self’.  You can find it here at A03, and here at Fanfiction.net.  I hope it takes your fancy.)

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Landscapes

Lighthouse at Dusk

From the Yorkshire Moors in ‘Wuthering Heights‘ to the foggy twilight of Sherlock Holmes’ Edwardian London, landscapes conjure up all kinds of stories for us.  In fiction, they can be so much more than just backdrop.  Tolkein used them to illustrate the journey to the centre of Hell, contrasting the lush green of the Shire with the volcanic wastes of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.  The closer the hobbits get to the heart of evil, the more the landscape breaks down.  Landscapes can even act as a separate character altogether.

At school, my English teacher taught us to describe landscapes in terms of what they looked like, but it is just as important to your readers to describe what they feel like too.

Paps of Jura

Mountains to me feel full of angry, untamed energy.

Adur Valley 1The South Downs, however, are softer, gentler hills, rolling and swelling banks of green pasture.  They conjure an altogether different energy.

DSCI2825

A rustic country lane in summer has a very different feeling to a city street in winter, and the stories that take place there are bound to be different.

Contrast can make your stories all the more interesting – think of that rustic country lane as  an invading tank rumbles by.  Think of the moment the Black Riders from Mordor cross the borders of the Shire, bringing war and evil with them.

The landscape in which you set your stories can enhance your theme, either with a sympathetic atmosphere, or by offering a shocking opposition to the action.

Writing Exercise:

Today is a Bank Holiday in the UK, which means many people are off enjoying the fine weather and the beautiful countryside.  If you have been out and about today, get out your writers notebook and describe the place you have visited.  Seaside or countryside, what shape was it, what colours?  What did it taste like, smell like?  What weather was happening? What plants grew there, what trees, what animals inhabited it?  Were there crowds of people, or just a lonely figure in the distance, perhaps walking a dog?  Did you see a falcon wheeling in the sky, or a rat scrabbling about in the dustbins behind a convenience store?  And what did this place make you feel?  Was it pleasant, foreboding, exciting, relaxing or scary?

Salt this description, however rudimentary it may be, away, and think on it.  What kinds of stories could happen in this environment?  Who might live here?  What problems might they face?

Next time you travel, even if it is only to the end of your road, consider the landscape you are in, and if you can get the chance, write about it.  Let the stories the land around you brings bubble up.  See where they take you.

A Little Melodic Inspiration

Where do your ideas come from?

That is the question most writers dread.  Or rave about.  Iain Banks rants about it at great length in his glorious book, ‘Raw Spirit‘:

“Leaving aside the obvious, ‘Class A drugs, actually’ or, ‘A wee man in Auchtermuchty’, I’ve sometimes wondered what sort of answer people really expect to this.”

(‘Raw Spirit’ by Iain Banks, Century Books London, 2003 p255)

And so he goes on. I asked him at a signing once about how he dealt with getting stuck in the middle of a novel, and he obviously interpreted it as me asking The Question, and didn’t take it well!

But in my mind its a reasonable question for one thought alone, and it is this:

Maybe we don’t know where the ideas come from, but how do we get our minds into the right place for them to arrive? 

Its about putting lots of mulch in the ground to make it a rich, fertile place for new things to grow.

I have an assortment of answers to this problem, but today I thought I would share one of them with you.

Music.

I make a playlist for every novel I write.  When I am sitting down to work on a scene, or with the characters, I play the playlist on my headphones, and this gets me in the mood, gets me in touch with the characters, the environment, the colours and sounds through which they move.  Often, particular characters end up being associated with specific tracks.

And sometimes, it is just one piece of music that I hear that sparks a story, or gets me in the mood to write.

Here are some to try:

Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge

(This is the core soundtrack for a novel I am working on at the moment)

Suede – Asbestos

(This is the ‘title theme’ for a novel about my favourite character, Evenlode.)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams

(This last one I listened to for six months pretty much continually while I was writing the climactic scenes for my first novel, which was set on the South Downs in Pre-Roman Britain.)

Writing Exercise:

Get out your CD collection, or your iPod, or fire up youtube, however you listen to music.  Listen to a few tracks and see what mental images are conjured up.  What landscape can you see?  What kind of people inhabit this world? Can you see their faces?  What challenges are they facing?  Who do they love?  Who do they hate?

Get out your writing notebook and begin to set down what you can of these images.  You may need to make lists of ideas or words, or you might like to write passages of description.  You might even draw!  Note everything that comes to you, and listen again, as many times as you need to in order to get out as much as you can.

Don’t forget to write down the piece of music and the artist whose work generated the images you have found.

This exercise may prompt a whole new story, or you could use your descriptions to feed into something you are already working on, or something you have yet to write.  Nothing you write is ever wasted – it can all be recycled into new work.

Happy listening – and writing!