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.
- 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.
- 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!).
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