The Notebook That Built My Novel

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When I first got the notion to write a novel, the most daunting part was getting started.  I had the inspiration, a basic story idea, and a main character, but I realized very quickly none of my ideas mattered unless there was a system in place to give them room to grow.  A journal wasn’t big enough for the job and a laptop didn’t offer the tactile experience I needed to connect to my ideas.  What I ended up creating was The Big Notebook.

I went out and bought the largest spiral notebook I could find along with a set of highlighters, my favorite blue pens, a pair of scissors, and a glue stick.  Then I collected catalogs, magazines, and newspapers from around the house.  With these tools, I could start the mad process of brainstorming or what I like to call “extreme outlining.”  The only rule was anything goes if it has even a remote chance of fitting in with the basic inspiration for the story.

Now, I am an extremely organized person who is well known for color-coding and alphabetizing everything.  Initially, I was going to divide the notebook into specific sections for different categories of information, but that plan fell apart almost instantly. Ideas don’t present themselves in any particular order in my head, so it made more sense to let the notebook come together with a more holistic approach.  In effect, I made a giant mess that defied all organizational logic, but at least the ideas were no longer just floating in my head.

Elements of the mess were then classified into a set of categories I’ve listed below. Underneath each category is a brief summary of what I collected and/or scribbled on random pages.  To keep it all straight, I used a system of highlighter color-coding and symbols.

Characters

  • Character cards. Every character got a card that included ideas for names, mini-bios, age, physical traits, quirks, goals, fatal flaws, and saving graces.  As the plot evolved, I continued to add information about their roles in the story.
  • Wardrobe pages.  I went through magazines, catalogs, and clothing store ads to look for clothes my characters might wear.  I cut out an entire wardrobe for all the main characters and pasted it into the notebook.  Each character got a spread and it really helped shape their personalities in a visual sense.

Above: Part of the main character’s wardrobe spread.

  • Personal belongings pages.  Every character has special objects that belong to them – things that define them as individuals.  Through brainstorming I knew what these items were, but I still wanted a strong visual that gave specifics. In the case of the main character, I needed an old camera.  Image searches online, plus a little reading allowed me to track down the perfect camera and a picture to paste in my notebook.

Story

  • I did a lot of free writing to loosen up my imagination, which lead to endless streams of brainstorm bulleting.  If an idea popped into my head, I wrote it down.  The handwriting is atrocious and some thoughts wind all the way around the margins.  Less than half of my rambling was actually used, but the process itself got me to the core of the story.  The brainstorming aspect of writing is probably my favorite step of the process.  Out of all the categories, this one takes up the most space!
  • Sometimes I’d wake up at night with full paragraphs streaming out of my head, so there are multiple pages of complete passages, (many of which have made it to final draft!).

Click for more . . .

Timeline

  • Once I had some ideas going for the basic story, I started piecing together a rough outline, which developed into a timeline.  With each draft, the timeline changed with events moving to a different place or the addition and removal of events. Nothing was ever set in stone!  Oddly enough, this linear thought process forced me to be more flexible and let the story grow organically.  The timeline was crucial in helping me see where things could naturally flow.

Setting

  • A trip to Chicago actually triggered the idea for the setting, so I included a few snapshots I took from various parts of the city.  One picture in particular, became the inspiration for major turning point! (Sorry, I won’t be sharing that one . . . you’ll just have to wait for the book!)
  • Home and Office Locations.  Seeing as all of my characters got wardrobes, I used a similar process to give them homes.  I visited several real estate websites to get a rough idea of residential properties within Chicago.  After doing some demographic research on the different neighborhoods in Chicago, I figured out where each person would live and found homes that fit them.  I printed out the pictures and pasted them into several pages.  The same process helped me find office space for work settings.

Research

  • My novel required an enormous amount of research with regard to the Chicago area, photography, architecture, real estate, and basic writing principles.  In between all the creative stuff I pasted notes, e-mails, internet printouts, and maps.  I needed to know everything from popular Chicago grocery stores, street names, neighborhood demographics, and stupid things like how to craft believable dialogue!  The scary thing is, the above research is just the tip of the ice berg . . . there is so much more, but divulging anything further might compromise the plot!
  • Perhaps the largest component of research dealt with photography, (mainly because it was a realm in which I had no clue). My notebook is full of information about famous photographers with examples of their work, the process of developing film, and blueprints for closet darkrooms.

Above: Research I printed out from the internet (good ol’ wikipedia!) regarding film processing.

The result of collecting all this information was a giant notebook with page after page filled with stuff that makes no sense to anyone but me.  While I was writing the rough draft of my novel, the notebook was always by my side as a reference source, just like my favorite dictionary.  When I wasn’t writing, the notebook was still always within reach to record ideas on the fly.

While an excellent storage unit of all my ideas, I added a few other elements to make the notebook my true writing companion.  Writing is a difficult undertaking no matter the scope or size of the project.  There are days of utter defeat where a little motivation can go a long way.  On the inside cover, I wrote line after line of encouraging quotations so I would never, ever quit.  My notebook also has a couple dividers with pockets, so I stuffed them with articles about my favorite authors and letters from friends who have supported me from the very beginning.  Last, but certainly not least, I used a couple pages to brainstorm a playlist of songs for my main character and his story.  I’ve mentioned this rather critical aspect of my writing process in a previous post How Music Helped Me Write A Novel.  Music not only helps to set a mood, but it does wonders for the creative mind.

Above: The initial brainstorm list for Noah’s Playlist.  I have a to chuckle at a few of the entries as they are so wrong for the character, but that’s part of the process.  The final playlist took more than a month to perfect.

Above: The inside cover of my notebook.

Everyone has a unique way of approaching the task of writing a novel.  Some keep a computer file while others have no plan at all, but ultimately a novel comes together when a writer finds his or her groove.  Whether it be a Big Notebook or something else, every aspiring writer owes it to themselves to find a method that sets the imagination free.

c.b. 2011

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47 thoughts on “The Notebook That Built My Novel

  1. This is a great post! Thanks for detailing another approach to the creative process. I’ve never written anything longer than a 20-page story so my current project (12 novels in 12 months) is daunting to say the least!

    I hope at some point to try your method out; it makes sense to me (I’d sketch my ideas if I could draw more than stick figures so cutting things out of a magazine are right up my alley) on a very basic, intuitive level. I’ve heard of other methods and they always seemed to be lacking something. The Big Notebook just might have it all!

    How did your novel turn out?

    • I hope you try it! :-) The process was so much fun and always kept me motivated.

      The novel is now on the third draft. Some recent feedback has been really encouraging, so I’ll go out on a limb and say it turned out pretty good. :-)

      Thanks for reading. Hope to see you again.

  2. I have viewed your Big Notebook with admiration and a bit of envy for a long time. Just watching you work in that book has been inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing this process as I think it will be a big boon to many of us who are on the verge of getting the ideas down on paper. Most of all to let it all go and just do it…a very hard thing for me and I keep telling myself if you can do it so can I.
    I think this post should be made in to an article for “The Writer” or “Writer’s Digest.” It is so inspiring and organized as a means to attack this scary world of writing.
    Thank you and I can’t wait to one day read that last line.

    • I’m so looking forward to watching you embark on the journey of creating not only a big notebook, but a new story! You are always so inspiring and I can’t wait to watch your creativity explode onto a new page. :-)

  3. Insightful blog – thanks for sharing your process. Writing a novel is a daunting task. I think the use of visuals would make the characters and setting vivid and more alive in one’s imagination making the writing easier. I also like the holistic approach…creative mess and all.

    • It took a long time to make myself “let go” and make that mess. Now, I can’t imagine a writing project without it! Whether it be a novel, short story, or poem I love having the personal freedom to create a disaster. Eventually, it leads to something beautiful . . . who would have thought? ;-)

  4. Milly

    As a writer, sometimes I find my biggest block is not my minor details, but where they should fit in the story, to make sure that it does not overpower the message and story that I am trying to get across. The insight and ideas that you have shared are sure to help with all of my writing, and, particularly, writing a novel.
    Thanks for all of the info and the ideas!!!

    • I struggle with finding the balance between details and story line as well. Then I read an article where a writer (for the life of me I can’t remember the name) explained how they knew every little detail about the story and the characters, but that didn’t mean every single detail ended up in the story. Just knowing those details is enough because they influence the writing even if they are never mentioned outright.

      Good luck with your writing!

      Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see you around here again. :-)

  5. You were in Chicago? A short $18 & 90 min ride away from Milwaukee?
    That is such a neat idea with the clothes! I never thought about something like that before. I’ve used the likenss of people, but never thought to go beyond that with photos. I’m a bit concerned because I was going to go back to one of my work-in-progresses, and I can’t find it on any of my thumb drives or computers.

    • I was in Chicago three years ago and for just a few days.

      Computers are great, but like all technology they are not perfect. When it comes to rough drafts, brainstorming, and building the foundation for any written piece, I’ll put it on paper first.

  6. c.b. – This is an amazing post. You are an extremely hard working writer. I’m impressed by the depth of your research! This is serious stuff! While you’ve got the basics covered – timeline, setting, story – you bring up some really great ideas I’ve never thought of… using music, wardrobe, objects, etc. to define your characters. These are the real things you would pay attention to when you are getting to know a real live person.

    Great quote on the inside cover of your notebook: “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just write.” Sounds like something Julia Cameron said in The Artist’s Way. It’s the simplest, most earth shattering, rock my world mantra I’ve heard in regards to writing. Brings such freedom, doesn’t it? Major gems evolve when you stop worrying about perfection. Plus it’s just plain good therapy. : )

    • During the first draft, I kept a little post-it note stuck to my computer with that saying . . . “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just Write.” I don’t know where those words came from, but I remember writing them down during a faculty meeting. They have stayed with me ever since. :-) Sadly, the post-it note is on the verge of deteriorating and I had to retire the poor thing to the notebook.

      All those little things about the characters were the most fun to research. My characters were very real in my head, so it made sense to get to know them the same way I would if they were standing in front of me.

  7. That’s incredible! As I start work on my next novel, I should try some of your tricks–especially adding pictures. What a great way to keep a pantser like me on track. : )

    • Writing is an incredibly creative process, so why not make planning stages just as creative and FUN! There were days where I literally could no stop myself from working on the notebook because it felt more like play than work. I’m currently in the process of creating another notebook for my next novel and its working its magic! :-)

  8. Susanne

    I think you could teacher a novel writing course for adults. Done such great work organizing and it was inspiring to read. I love that Noah’s Playlist and even imagined that as a title of a novel. Was it hard for you to end book and say goodbye to these characters? They must feel like people you’ve lived with for awhile. I am so looking forward to reading your book and not just because I’m from Chicago!

    • I cried when I finished the last draft. :-( I still can’t come to terms with not having Noah in my head every day. He was very real to me as were all the people that surrounded him. With the way to book ends, I am okay with letting him go, but I still think about him a lot as though he’s an old friend that might come back to visit me one day.

      Thanks for all the encouraging words . . . the draft will find its way to you and hopefully very soon. :-)

  9. Wow, you are a writer in the most eloquent of ways. I too have seen your notebook and the amount of work you do is so inspiring and you REALLY should submit this to a writing magazine. Because I have only thought about the book process and thrive on writing short, this is a perfect way to dip my toes into the longer writing process and I thank you for bringing it to my attention once again. I’ve never been to Chicago but I know that when I read your book, I’ll feel like I’ve lived there. Can’t wait!

  10. This is amazing, and a little overwhelming. It just goes to show how much the writer needs to know the characters and the setting so much more than what’s simply in the story. This is such a great idea — thank you for sharing. I think I probably need to do something like this, since I’m not great at describing things like clothes, etc. Pictures would really help. I’m in awe of the time and effort you took to create this!

    • What I didn’t mention was that my novel suffered three false starts before I finally got it rolling. After the third failure, I realized it was missing all those little details and that came from not knowing enough about the story or the characters. Thus, the big notebook was born. It is overwhelming at first, but then it becomes a project you can’t wait to work on and add ideas as you think of them. :-)

    • The idea was to be organized, but it ended up being more like total chaos! I didn’t show the really messy parts – they are truly horrific. :-) The mess I made taught me to break a few of my own rules and it’s stuck with me even after the novel writing process.

  11. JACK

    i just came across your blog site today and already, I am a fan. i have always wanted to be a writer but am not sure if i can be one. reading your posts today both gave me inspiration and a challenge. as you’ve said, writers owe it to themselves, no matter what method to liberate the imagination…I hope and pray i find one soon. thanks for the inspiration. :)

  12. Hi C.B.!

    I just rediscovered this post so I’ve bookmarked it in my computer to return to this year. I need to change my tactics when it comes to this year’s projects. It’s a lot more free-form this time around so I’ll have to wait and see how things shape up for September.

    I’m really excited to try the big notebook- perhaps starting next month to set me up for more novels in the Western series… That could absolutely work!

    I look forward to hearing more about your novel’s progress and all of your other projects this year!

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