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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Novelist's Notebook

The other day, I had a great consultation with K, one of my writer friends. She has managed to write and publish six books in the time that I have struggled to complete just one, and I thought it would be good to get some tips as I embark on a New Project.

I remember once she came to be a guest speaker at my now-defunct mother-daughter book group. She brought along all kinds of show and tell stuff, but the most fascinating object was a ratty looking spiral notebook, the kind you get for 99 cents at Back-to-School Sales. This notebook was totally filled with all kinds of scribbling and arrows and exclamation points. She said everything for her novels went into these books, one notebook per novel.

I remembered this notebook recently when the idea for my new book was feeling very embryonic (it still is). I felt like I could not properly begin this project unless I studied these writing notebooks. I drove to K's house and said, "Show me your notebooks!" She very obligingly took them down and let me pore through them. I was fascinated. I was thrilled. There, on the first page of this notebook, "Notes for _______." (something that didn't, or rarely turned out to be the published title of the eventual novel) And then her ideas. "This book is about character X, who is in this situation, and then this happens, and then this." A very rough outline, not by chapters, but by Beginning, Middle and End. All on one page, and scribbled very fast. The next page, a tentative list of characters. Who lives in the book? Who will get airtime? And then some notes on backstory. Some addition and subtraction, figuring out who is what age during what point in history. A drawing of the house where the character lives, the key locations, a garden, a wall, a tree that looks like this with a hole in the middle. WOW. I was just completely captivated by this notebook.

I asked her, "What is the relationship between this notebook, and the typed manuscript pages?" She was just taking a chocolate cake out of the oven, and she laughed. "This is so much fun! Nobody ever asks me these questions. Nobody ever cares." Oh boy, do I care. Not like I'm following a recipe or a prescription or anything, but this time I had this feeling that something that I had been doing was missing, and I needed to know about this part of the process.

It is very left brain-right brainy. The notebook is the intuitive side, the curious and playful side, that asks all the questions, and plays around and tries things out. The narrative, the typed sentences, is the side that tries to produce what the notebook is asking for.

For all this time, for a LONG time, I have been trying (and failing) to do only the manuscript part, while keeping all the rest of it in my head: the outlines, the characters, the way things are supposed to work, what the house looks like, the map, etc. It is like trying to cook completely from scratch and completely without any sense of recipe, just hoping it will turn out right.

How did this happen? I used to write in a journal religiously, like breathing. I needed it, in order to live, and to understand how I was living. But then when I began writing "seriously" (hah! hah!) my journal writing dwindled down to almost nothing. I think a terrible self-consciousness took over. I wanted everything to be profound and beautifully written and meaningful and, well, literary. Ugh.

So yesterday I pulled a medium-sized blank notebook out of one of my drawers and wrote at the top of the first page, "Notes for that book about Silences." (that's all I will say for now) And I just started describing it.
This book is about X (no name yet), who is ___ years old and who lives with _____ in the city of _____.
Then I started describing the people she lives with and what they are like. And I started getting excited. Questions popped up off the page, and then I either answered myself, "I don't KNOW!!" or, some idea, and a bunch of ????s around it. Then I wrote a bunch of the backstory, surprising myself at every turn, and then I did some math and was also surprised at a few things I discovered. If X was ___ yrs old when Y happened, then Z must have been ___, which changes everything! I made a list of characters. I was literally cackling with glee as my hand flew madly across the pages. (oh, isn't that a horrible sentence?) I had so much fun.

Somehow, when I began taking writing Seriously, I forgot about or didn't let myself do this part, even though it is something I tell my students to do (have fun). I have been so worried. But now I can't wait to get back to my little yellow checkered notebook. There are a lot more questions I have yet to ask, and to answer. And then I will return to the keyboard, when I'm ready.


Blogger Jae Ran said...

This is such a fabulous idea! And with all the back2school supplies out, notebooks are cheap. I think I will borrow this idea too. What a fabulous way to process ideas for a story.

It reminds me a little bit of mindmapping, but on a much larger scale. My SO is big on mindmapping. I like the notebook idea better.

Monday, August 28, 2006 5:19:00 AM

Blogger Libby said...

Oh, that sounds like so much fun. Enjoy!

Monday, August 28, 2006 12:35:00 PM

Blogger cloudscome said...

Great post. Lovely how you are cackling with glee! That is how it should be!

It reminds me of that Dorris Lessing quote where she says something like "if you are a woman writer writing about a woman writer who keeps a writer's notebook, you have to keep a notebook to keep track of your real life..." I think it's in the Golden Notebook but not sure.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006 6:09:00 AM

Blogger K-Oh said...

I love this post, Susan! I think it's too late for me to do this with the novel I'm still revising, but threads of plot and character and setting are coming together for the next novel. I'm going to buy myself a notebook.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006 2:47:00 PM

Blogger C(h)ristine said...

what a wonderful idea--and how wonderful it is to have generous writer friends who share the "secrets!"

Tuesday, August 29, 2006 5:57:00 PM

Blogger papa2hapa said...

Great writing tip for people!

When I taught writing I would give my students an assignment. I asked them 50 questions about their one of their primary characters, anything from what their favorite color was to which way the rolled their toilet paper. This was to get them to realize that these characters were real in their own way and that the writer had to abide by the character's wishes, not the writer's wishes.

I must keep a lot of journals around.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006 6:04:00 PM

Blogger Quit Bloglin' Me said...

Now, this kind of notebook makes sense to me!


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This is a wonderful idea! I really like your blog, Susan!

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