On Taking Notes, or, “Help! I Haven’t Done That Since College!”

Recently I had a discussion with Cyndera on the topic of writing notes. That’s not “the writing of notes”, but rather, “writing-notes”, a compound noun. It was an interesting view into the way she—and most likely other writers—prepare to write. I found it fascinating, because notes and other forms of prep work seem to gather a ridiculous amount of arguments, collective groans, and sighs of frustration. Why is that? I’ve never been exactly sure, even though—and this will sound counterintuitive—I’ve been there myself.

When I first started writing (back in the dim dead days of the early 90s), I hated the process of making notes on my work. I was a writer, dammit! I was going to write, and no notes were going to stand in my way! Yeah…that didn’t work out so well, which may be a factor in why I’m only now, at the age of 35, trying to get something published. Stupid me.

What I’ve found is that writing notes (again, compound noun) are like the infrastructure of a house—the wiring and the pipes. You can install them anyway you like, and no one is going to see them, but the structure doesn’t function without them. I learned the hard way that without this behind-the-scenes work, my stories don’t work, either—a point on which Cyndera and I both agreed in our discussion.

The thing on which we did not agree is the way in which we create that behind-the-scenes work. She writes a basic, if frugal, outline of the story (at least on longer works—short stories get a pass on this from both of us), and then fleshes it out with scenes, details, and—something that may surprise you—accompanying music. (She then immediately loses it on her laptop’s desktop, but that’s a story for another time!) Some other writers I have read say that they take things even further, with spreadsheets tracking characters, dates, places, and events. Some say that they have to write out a complete, detailed outline, while others mostly “wing it”…it’s an age-old debate. As for me, I like to think of my method as “damage control”: I begin the story, then pause later to make notes before I screw everything up. Hey, it works for me—don’t judge!

Here’s a sample of what my notes are like, taken from my current novel, The Last Shot.

Notes snip 1

I joked about spreadsheets, which I don’t use (yet!), but in fact I do use the occasional chart. In this case, each chapter of my novel contains a flashback, which reveals the backstory and relates to the theme found in the rest of the chapter. (More on flashbacks another time—that’s a topic worthy of entire reams of posts!) Since I rely on real dates in this story, I needed to keep track of them; the main story occurs over the course of a single week—which has its own timeline, not pictured here due to spoilers—but the flashbacks span a little more than three years, and further, they aren’t presented in chronological order. So, in this chart I placed them in that order, and marked the relevant dates and days of the week, and listed the relevant chapters. I gave a brief synopsis of who does what in each flashback (and if you’ll excuse the censoring, I’ve replaced most of the names with ***** to prevent spoilers!). Also, this story concerns small children, whose ages visibly change throughout the flashbacks, so I listed their relative ages in each one; there is another section, not pictured, that contains birthdates for the major characters. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get a character’s age wrong simply because you changed the date of a scene—and if you’re blessed with avid readers, they WILL pick up on those details.

Here’s another sample:

Notes snip 2

This section demonstrates what I mean when I call my note-taking “damage control”. I had already written the prologue and first four chapters before I sat down to write any notes! By that point, the story was in danger of getting completely lost in its own meandering, and needed to be pulled back on course. I’m not recommending this method, by the way; if it works for you, fantastic, but even I acknowledge that I could save some time by planning a little better. With that said, in this portion you can see that I’m not covering every step of the plot; I’m brainstorming, getting out ideas as fast as I can. I went on in this vein for a while, and ended up plotting out about half of the remaining story in this session. Some of it made it into the final draft; some didn’t; and some things became springboards to other scenes that came later. In particular, it’s worth noting that already I was thinking in terms of the Big Three: Plot (in the shape of major events here), Character (the individual with the zip-tied hands is demonstrating some characteristic quick thinking and resourcefulness), and Setting (Tamarack, like many of the locations in the book, is a real place, adapted for my purposes).

One more:

Notes snip 3

This section is filled with questions that I knew I needed to answer. This, I think, is one of the harder parts of the note-writing stage (and also, incidentally, of the revision process). You need to look critically at your story, the way an outsider—or worse, an editor!—will look at it. You need to pick it apart and figure out what doesn’t make sense, what doesn’t logically follow; and then you need to ask yourself how to fix it. If it can’t be fixed, it needs to be replaced or scrapped, because few things will sink a story as fast as lack of believability. In my case, I did scrap a major point from this section: the references to the Library of Congress (LoC). I cast one of the protagonists as working there, and at first I thought it would make a great location for a final showdown; Cyndera and I even toured the facility in research for that scene. In the end, though, it just wasn’t feasible. I couldn’t find answers to the hard questions I asked myself here. (Interestingly, some of the thoughts I included regarding the LoC were later recycled into another scene, which is why I didn’t remove the questions from the notes once they were resolved. In fact, I never really remove anything—even fully deleted scenes don’t get dumped, they just get tacked onto the end of my notes, in case I can use them later.)

Scared yet? Intimidated? Any peek into the workings of my mind no doubt inspires trepidation at best, screaming terror at worst. Nevertheless, regardless of whether you concur with my method of notetaking, I hope you will see the necessity of it (in whatever form you choose). After all, you want your house to be complete and livable—and that’s going to require some wiring, and a few pipes, if you want your ideas to shine and your thoughts to flow.

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3 thoughts on “On Taking Notes, or, “Help! I Haven’t Done That Since College!”

  1. I am not sure if I would call it “lose it on my desktop”, my dear Charles 😛 I’d say it’s more of a semi-organized chaos: I pile it up, forget it’s there and then come across it after a while. Believe me, I have plenty of “Hey, I haven’t seen/heard that in a while, how cool!”-moments 😀

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