Reinventing the Writer’s Notebook

At some point we’ve all been told we need to keep a writer’s notebook and been given vague instructions to record ideas and bits of overheard conversations in it. We may have even been forced to keep one for a creative writing class and been graded on it. (So guilty.) pen-994464_640

Let’s face it, whether or not we choose to keep a moleskin journal handy or a note app open on our phone, the best ideas usually happen when we’re running, taking a shower, or pooping in a public restroom–all times you don’t want to be lugging around a notebook.

Now, how many ideas come to you in a day, how many snarky comments does your barista really make, that need to be written down or recorded immediately? And how many of those ideas do you really go back and use? No one working at Starbucks is that interesting.635873577289442989-257407846_starbucks-barista

If you look at your writer’s notebook right now, I bet you’ll see a lot of empty, wasted pages just screaming to be filled.

There are better uses for it that will benefit your writing than just some random scrawlings.

1. Reflect on the Day’s Writing

As a teacher, one of the things I teach students is that writing can be used to figure out what you think. If you’ve ever written a first draft only to go back and make a major change, you know what I’m talking about.

Journaling works much the same way. How many times have you journaled about something, starting off with a specific viewpoint, then find out it’s changed by the time you’re done writing? It was through that process of uncensored writing you were able to try on different viewpoints, view ideas through different lenses, and come to different conclusions.female-865110_640

You can use this technique with your works-in-progress much the same way. At the end of your writing session, reflect on it in your notebook. What reservations do you have about what you wrote? What feels off? Where do you feel resistance and why do you think so? Conversely, what victories did you achieve? What went well in today’s session? Did you finally figure out who your killer is? How will this change the rest of your story? Elizabeth Peters once wrote in her notebook that someone needed to be murdered because the story was getting boring.

Reflecting on the day’s writing will allow you the space and freedom to explore new ideas without starting all over again or going down another dead end.

2. Write About What You’re Reading

When I was in grad school, I kept a catalogue of every YA novel I’d read. I included not only the title, author, and general plot summary, but also lessons I learned from either the author or the story. These lessons could be on things I thought had been done well, like how characters were described, how the story was structured, or how mood was achieved. They could also be about things I hated and never wanted to do in my own story. I explored these lessons through writing about them to better understand how they could be applied specifically to what I was working on at the time.  narrative-794978_640

By writing about how you can utilize other authors’ techniques in your own work, you come to understand what it is you actually want to achieve.

3. Keep Track of Your Revisions

First drafts are meant to be shitty. They are a place for your mind to figure out what it thinks, where it wants to go, which ideas it wants to keep. First drafts are also meant to be written quickly without regard to grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc. Those are all things that can be fixed in revisions. You may also find you need to make more substantial revisions because you story has progressed to a place you hadn’t seen coming. For instance, you may need to go back and introduce a new element, change a character, or foreshadow an event. To keep the first draft flowing, fight the urge to revise every time you sit down to write.

Instead, keep a running list of revisions in your notebook. I make notes by chapter that I will revise later. Things like, “Better transition into the figure on the moor and make more dramatic.” Or sometimes, I’ll ask questions: “Chapter 5–Should this be the first encounter with K? What was the function of seeing him earlier?”

Keeping track of things you want to revise while you are writing alleviates the need to constantly tinker and stall any forward momentum.

4. Decide Where You’re Going Next

Speaking of first drafts, Hemingway gave this advice, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”  No doubt you’ve found yourself ending a writing session because you’ve run out of ideas, only to kick yourself the next day as you stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor.ernest-1097984_640

To avoid this, take time at the end of each session to write in your notebook where you want to go, what you think the next scene should be, and how you think you can get there. This is the time to scribble down ideas without censorship and see where they lead without committing them to your actual document.

Deciding where to go next in your story follows naturally the process of reflecting on the day’s work. At last, you’ve come full circle and without that pesky procrastination rearing its head.

Of course there are a dozen more ways to fill your notebook: making notes about a setting you’ve visited, documenting area-specific sayings and their origins, creating more backstory, scheduling writing times and goals, etc. But above all, it will only help if you find how it works best for you and your current project.

How successful have you been in keeping a writer’s notebook? Do you use a physical or digital version? What other ways do you use it?



Around the Writer’s Block

Around the Writer’s Block: Using BRAIN SCIENCE to Solve Writer’s Resistance*

*Including Writer’s Block, Procrastination, Paralysis, Perfectionism, Postponing, Distractions, Self-Sabotage, Excessive Criticism, Overscheduling, and Endlessly Delaying Your Writing.

by Rosanne Bane

This is the postcard advertising a new book that I received in the mail. I don’t know where it came from, who sent it, or how my name and address ended up on this mailing list, but it’s like the universe is trying to tell me something.

Procrastination is my arch-nemesis, as well it seems is Perfectionism, Postponing, and Endlessly Delaying Your Writing. I think about what I’m writing all the time; I even visualize my story like a movie every night before I fall asleep but, when I sit down to actually write, I, well, sit there and not write. Nothing comes out right, nothing seems good enough, nothing is like how I had it in my head.

I had read another writer’s blog who said she wrote the first draft of her current novel in 6 weeks. Six weeks? Wtf?

She must not have a job.

Or she doesn’t constantly critique or edit herself and she just writes. Isn’t that what we all want? To just write?

It took me about a year and a half of graduate school to finish the first draft of the novel I am currently rewriting. Rewriting, in case you’re wondering, is worse than revising. It’s basically saying, “The first draft completely sucked and didn’t turn out the way I had originally envisioned it.” Moreover, it’s like saying, “Hey, I’m going to start working on a new story.” Except you can’t get the old characters, the old dialogue, the old plot out of your head and keep trying to make it work until you fail miserably.

So I might just take the plunge and buy this book.

For anyone also interested, here is what the back of the postcard says: (The parentheticals are mine.)

If you’re having trouble writing, it’s not because you’re lazy, undisciplined, or lacking in willpower or talent. (Thank God!) You just need to learn how to rewire your brain’s response to the anxiety of writing. (Or the anxiety of not writing, as it were.)

By utilizing the most recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, Rosanne Bane (I can’t stop saying Rosanne Barr in my head) details three habits every writer can develop to defeat writer’s resistance. As a writing teacher for more than twenty years, Bane has given thousands of writers the tools to break through writer’s block and other forms of writing resistance. 

Once you understand how your brain works (I’m not sure I want to know how my brain works, but okay), you can become the writer you’ve always wanted to be.

“Rosanne Bane’s ingenious application of research about our brains to the process of writing and her wise counsel overall can help writers at every level.” —Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write and The Writer’s Book of Hope

You can find this book at and .