You may accuse me of overstating this, but you’d be wrong. If you want to be a writer, any kind of writer, the very first thing you have to do is start a writer’s notebook.
I use a college rule marble covered composition notebook. I coat them in inspirational quotes, fortune cookie fortunes and more stickers than any woman my age needs. It’s got coffee and dirt stains. It’s wrinkled and beaten up because I drag it with me literally everywhere. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, though, so long as it isn’t too pretty to be intimidating. What matters is what goes inside it.
Now, there are some things that are going to go into every writer’s notebook that are specific to that writer, or to that writing style. A poet won’t keep the same notebook as a journalist, and not everyone needs to keep a list of writing quotes or who won spot the car last time we played, like I do. I also keep a list of movies I want to see, poetry, and crappy sketches. These might help you, they might not. I’m nearly sure you’ll find something to put into your notebook that I don’t keep in mine.
Here are a few things that you absolutely should keep in your writers notebook.
If you’re not already freewriting, you should be. Your notebook is the best place for this, for a few reasons. You should always have it with you, so you can do freewriting anywhere. It’s not likely to be a pretty book, so you won’t feel like you’ve got to be all lovely and clever with your freewrite. And, it’s one of the building blocks of a story mine, which I’ll come to soon.
Rough drafts for small projects
Not big ones, small ones like blog posts or flash fiction. I keep rough drafts in my notebook because I often find inspiration for other short pieces in them. One blog post will lead to three other ideas, and so on.
Again, if you don’t already keep a dream journal, you should. I get some of the strangest dreams, and it’s often given me if not entirely new story ideas, at least a new twist on something in one of my current projects.
Name list- for fiction writers
Nonfiction writers may skip this one, but it’s the best way to make sure you’re never at a loss for a character name. Whenever you find a cool name, first or last, jot it down. I’d advise using the very first or very last page, so you don’t have to hunt for it all the time.
Thinking on the page
This is the big one. I write out a conversation the way I’d talk to someone. Like if I have a plot twist I’m not sure of, I’ll just start writing, using the page as a sounding board. This works a lot like freewriting, and I tell myself the best things this way.
Now, once you’ve got all this written down, what do you do with it? Well, do you remember that story mining thing I was talking about? A story mine is somewhere you jot down ideas and thoughts that might end up sparking a story. So, if you don’t have a story idea, flip through your notebook until something pops out at you. I’m writing a fantasy series, and so I make a point to read all of my notebooks when I’m in the planning stage of any new book.
A lot of what you’re doing in a writers notebook is practicing, though. You’re practicing writing, the way an artist practices sketching in a notebook. You stretch your muscles, and get used to the feeling of talking to the page.
When I first started getting serious about writing I was terrified. I’d started and failed so many times before. I didn’t think that I could handle another failure. I also had no idea what I was going to write about. So, I promised myself that if I free wrote in a notebook long enough to fill it up, and I still didn’t have any idea what to write about, I would stop, give up on writing, and focus on the day job.
Four pages and five days in, I came up with a character, a boy who wove prophesies. This lead to my fantasy series, which currently has one book in a third draft, and thirteen other book ideas.
What I’m saying is, you should really keep a notebook, no matter where you are on your writing path. There’s just too much good that can come out of it not to.