Nota Bene

All writers keep notes; it’s what writers do. A jot of a conversation, an idea, a description, a quotation, a fact or two – anything that captures our attention and we’d like to remember goes into the little book. What kind of book is the subject of great interest, as if knowing the obsessive habits of other authors will, if not draw down the moon, at least give us a clue how to organise ourselves better.
So, for what it’s worth, here are my current note-taking rituals, developed over a lifetime of getting it wrong.

Moleskine notebook for the pretentious writer
Moleskine notebook for the pretentious writer
One, the moleskine. I don’t care how naff we think the moleskine is now, it’s still the perfect little notebook. I do find the small ones a bit too small and the big ones a bit too big, though I’m using a big one at the moment, and a big handbag to go with it. But my moleskin, because of its bigness, can’t be with me everywhere I go in the house.
Two, the school exercise book. Silverline, no less. I bought two kinds in bulk: small yellow ones with lines and big blue blank ones. I have a yellow one in each room I tend to occupy. One next the bed, one next the armchair, one in the summerhouse, one… no, not one next the toilet. I use them mostly for notes about my reading, or about some interesting programme I’ve watched.
The school exercise book
The school exercise book

The foolscap blue ones are for writing drafts longhand. Love them – they work well, because I get to doodle if I want and mind-map.
Three, A6 ripped-edge recycled paper notes. That’s A4 scrap folded twice and torn, made into a stack and kept in ice-cream tubs (sadly empty) in various stations, for use in all situations – telephone messages, to-dos, shopping lists,  tips from gardening programmes on the TV, great thoughts. When the system is working, written-on pieces get put in the ice cream tub on the stairs (yes, we eat far too much of the stuff) to be transported to the study and dealt with. This could mean a quick filing into the hanging file called ‘notes’ or into a more urgent pile. The system, alas, tends to break down, which is why I’m spending the Twelve Days of Christmas dealing with various exercise books, scraps of paper, a large moleskin and, if I get to it, that hanging file.
The ‘system’ is that of David Allen and Getting Things Done. If you haven’t come across this, I highly recommend it, although it does require a degree of commitment to get it fully functioning. In its favour I have to say if you stop half-way, it still works. It doesn’t unravel into the default mess. I am 50% more efficient than I was before reading the book, and I intend to press on towards at least 75% over the coming months. Starting with the notes. David Allen
I realised when I got to the end of writing The Botticelli Trilogy that I had a small suitcase of notebooks that had not been fully utilised. Each had been lovingly covered with some Florentine paper, its dates written on its spine; some had even been indexed. I’d numbered the pages and stopped short in the book by a few and then, some other Yuletide, I’d made a list of contents. But I still hadn’t fully used those notebooks, and I knew with a sinking feeling that some of my best stuff was in them.
So now, thanks to Guru Allen, I have the word ‘Process!’ come to mind frequently as an instruction. Process the notes! So that is what I’m doing, and I know in a month or so I shall have to process the processed, that is, read through the notes I’ve entered into my amazing database (Scrivener), because all I’ve done really is to open the jewel box, fondle the jewels, and put them in another box. I need to get them front of brain. Somehow. There are some snippets so inspiring, so important, that I feel I need to write a note about them. That way insanity lies.
So I shall go over the ground regularly in the hope that, when the Muse requires me to write about, say, my Iron Age warriors going into battle, I shall remember what they did first, or at least that I have a note about it. Very little of this stuff is fundamental to the story: it’s just terrific ornamentation, the kind of thing that bedazzles readers (publishers, reviewers, award judges – dream on).
Forgetfulness is the great enemy now. I had a brilliant idea about two of my characters a couple of weeks ago, about who they resemble mythically, only to find I’d made a note of that very insight back in March without any footnote saying, ‘Wow! What a brilliant idea!’ So if I’m filching ideas off myself and calling them new – and brilliant – God only knows what I may be taking from others.
Happy New Writing Year!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Fascinating! Lovely insight into working practice. It also gives me the spur to start an image notebook in my swanky Christmas present notebook. Watching Life of Pi over Christmas suggested ways to get an image communicating in film and although it is clear in my mind now, I reckon that writing it down would be useful. Thanks.

  2. Nothing about Evernote?

    1. Ah, Evernote. I haven’t mentioned it because it’s not work-in-hand at the moment, and is not something I have to sort out in a fit of note-clearing. It is self- sustaining, self-organising, self-basting. It’s so utterly brilliant. You should try it sometime, dearest. Why not today?

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