Taking notes

When I write a novel, I lean on notes. This post is a description of how I use them. Maybe you’ll find something helpful here or a method you want to stay away from. Or maybe you already do just as I do.

At the start of a writing session (on my computer), I always open both my manuscript and my notes, and I toggle back and forth. If the story is going well, I don’t write many notes, but if it’s not, writing them is proof that I’m still writing and not just goofing off, even though my story isn’t advancing.

If I’ve written an awkward sentence in the manuscript, I copy it into notes, rewrite it, copy it in notes again and again, so I don’t lose a version, till I’m satisfied or till I decide the original wasn’t bad after all or till I think I just have to live with what I’ve got.

To come up with a character name or a place name, I list possibilities from a baby naming book or an atlas or my own arcane sources, then arrange and rearrange the list, narrowing my choices.

In the mystery I’m writing now, Elody, my heroine, is an aspiring actress who’s been given the chance to perform at a feast. Thespians in the kingdom of Lepai draw on fairy tales and Greek myths for their plays. When Elody wasn’t sure what to perform, I listed options for her. After consulting my mythology book and a few books of fairy tales, I found a fairy tale that had parallels with the main story I was telling, which gave Elody the chance to paraphrase Hamlet and speculate that her performance might “catch the conscience” of the villain. That was fun, but I never would have gotten it without notes.

A minstrel sings before Elody’s turn comes. I didn’t write a complete song for her, but I made up the refrain. Here are my notes for the refrain, to give you an idea. Out of the notes I pulled what I needed:

Be he huge
Be he fierce as a beast
be he three trees tall
be he broad as a bushel of barrels
be his teeth as sharp as daggers
his eyes as piercing as pikes
his head as hard as iron
his fists as
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

Be the giant
three trees tall
and three trees wide
with teeth as sharp as daggers
eyes as piercing as pikes
head as hard as iron
fists like battering rams
falling as fast as hailstones
May he roar and rampage
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

face as terrible as
face as ugly as entrails
face as frightening as
rock slide/frightful

I’ve let you see the repetitions because that’s the process. It’s messy.

When I’m far along in a novel, I often get confused, so then I list plot threads in notes to remind myself of everything I’m juggling. Sometimes I list future events as far ahead as I can see. This is like outlining, except that my future events never cover the whole span of a story.

If a plot idea knocks on my brain and the story isn’t ready for it yet, I put it in my notes and highlight it with the yellow highlighter on my toolbar, so I can find it again. Occasionally, I copy the highlighted bits into a separate document, to avoid hunting through 135 single-spaced pages – really! – of notes to locate them.

At those happy moments when I’ve figured something out or done a nice piece of writing I celebrate – in my notes. When I’m bummed and convinced I’ll never finish my story, I complain and moan and carry on. Sometimes I use bad words. If my books were people, notes would be their journals.

A novel that doesn’t give me much trouble won’t have 135 pages of notes, but I doubt I’ve ever gotten away with fewer than fifty. When the notes are longer than the book, the book was a miserable, horrible, uncooperative monster, like Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and the third Disney fairy book, which even now doesn’t have a settled title, although I finished writing months ago.

Notes, however, are never miserable monsters. They are freedom. In the manuscript itself go the shaped sentences, the chosen words, the paced chapters. In notes go the incomplete thoughts, the lousy ideas and the good ones – the eggshells of writing. A finished book is a cake with chocolate or blue or whatever-you-like icing and the title written on top in perfect handwriting. Notes are the messy kitchen where the cake was baked. No cake without the kitchen, and I – or you – never have to clean up afterward. Hooray for notes!

  1. Hi! My name is Katie and I love your books! I have read all the Princess Tales books, and recently finished Fairest. Fairest was an enthralling, heart-changing story I throughly enjoyed! Well, I am reserving more of your books at the library. When I found out you had a blog, I instantly went here. I enjoy writing and reading, and I do it frequently. If you could get back to me, I would love it.

    Katie, age 11

  2. This was helpful- thank you! I tend to be a "paper person" but now that I'm using a laptop it would be nice to keep more notes in my computer instead of also having to have a notebook open while working.

  3. Thanks, Katie. So glad you enjoyed FAIREST. I hope you keep up with my blog.
    Wonderwegian, I use paper and pen when I go the thesaurus to write down alternative words. Otherwise, mostly it's the computer for me.

  4. I love reading writers' posts about process. The idea of keeping a notes document open along with the ms is intriguing. I usually just write notes by hand as I need them and then discard. But I like the idea of a running log.

    I'm still trying to figure out what works best for me. So thanks for sharing your process.

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