I am going to bite the bullet and sort out my notebooks.
All writers are expected to keep a notebook, and I cannot imagine attempting to write without my notebooks to keep track of my ideas and fragments.
The author Lawrence Norfolk, in an article for the BBC, says:
‘A writer’s notebook is a junkyard; a junkyard of the mind. In this repository of failed attempts, different inks speak of widely-spaced times and places, the diverse scrawls of varying levels of calligraphic awkwardness, lack of firm writing-surfaces, different modes of transportation.
‘All the places a good idea might blossom into something bigger and better.’
He then goes on to say:
‘Thomas Hardy kept ‘literary notebooks’, a ‘Poetical Matter’ notebook and a ‘Studies, Specimens, etc’ notebook. But the richest to my mind is one with the bare title, ‘Facts’.
‘Here Hardy and his first wife, Emma, noted down incidents culled from local newspapers. One entry (barely three lines long) is headed Sale of Wife. Out of that fragment came The Mayor of Casterbridge.
‘Of course, almost everything else in the Facts notebook resulted in nothing at all. A notebook is an act of triage on the world outside. A little ‘fact’ goes a long way in fiction.’
And there you have it all. We keep notebooks because ideas occur to us that might make a good story, or fit in with something that we are already writing. Perhaps something we see or hear suggests a character, a place…anything that makes us think ‘I could use that.’
Agatha Christie always claimed to have half a dozen on the go at any one time, and seventy three still exist today. All I can say is that she must have been far more ordered than I am, for that method to work. On the other hand, she used them to develop her stories until they were ready to dictate into her Dictaphone, to be typed up at leisure, so they are very much more than just odd notes and lines.
Somerset Maugham actually published his (or at least carefully culled snippets). How cool is that? Publish the book, earn some income from it, then publish the notes and ideas that went into it separately, then earn some income from it.
Hilary Mantel declares that notebooks must be perforated, so that pages can be torn out and distributed amongst your various projects. ‘Perforation is vital – more vital than vodka, more essential to a novel’s success than a spellchecker and an agent.’ I understand, but I would lose all those precious pieces of paper. No, I need a different method.
Looking on my shelf, I see that I currently have nineteen notebooks, mostly all different sizes, of which six are in use at the moment. No surprise, then, that I frequently find that either I cannot find a note that I vaguely remember writing…when? Or I flick casually through old, barely legible, entries (my completely unreadable ones are written, usually in almost total darkness, on my way home from the pub), and find what I think might be little gems, forgotten about for years, but for which I currently have no use. And so, I need order!
And my notebook is my great problem solver. When I am stuck for an idea, or unhappy with the progress of my writing, wondering what comes next, I go out for a walk with my notebook. The act of walking seems to let me switch off a little bit, and allow my subconscious to work on the problem, and soon I find I am jotting ideas down in the notebook almost as fast as I can. Come to think of it, this might be a large part of the reason for the unreadable notes after the pub, but more of that another time, no doubt.
What I need to do is to go through all of them, rewrite them in a logical, legible, and orderly fashion, and then ensure that in the future I stick to this method, transferring new material to the right notebook regularly.
Yes, of course I will.
And so, I shall go out and buy lots more new notebooks. And I shall label each of them thus: ‘The Assassin’s Garden’, which is my long novel in progress. ‘Short stories’. ‘Characters without a home’. ‘Descriptions without a home’. And…well, I’m sure you get the idea.
As always, all comments are welcome!