The Organized Writer: My Novel’s Notebook

by Jeff Abbott on January 26, 2011

I love notebooks. I do. My favorites for pure out just writing drafts are Clairefontaines, which I’ve blogged about before. But since they’re spiral, they’re not as flexible as a three-ring binder. But three-rings are kind of bulky. i found the perfect solution for flexibility with Levenger’s Circa notebooks.

Several of my writer friends had praised Circa notebooks to the skies to me, but I resisted because they are a bit expensive. However, Levenger offers a “test” package of Circa goods that includes a $40 gift card, so it’s not too expensive to give Circa a try.

Circa’s basic idea is that you have a notebook with a set of small discs, and paper cut to fit in the discs. You can easily move and rearrange pages to suit your need, and use different kinds of paper and different inserts to suit your needs. If you buy a Circa punch, you can then add anything to your notebook: spreadsheets, emails, maps, clippings from magazines, articles printed from the web, outlines from Tinderbox, etc.

I use a Circa to keep all my notes for a book. I use a black clothcovered Circa, with the slightly larger Kyoto colored disks. I like having a “nicer” notebook for the current book.

In the front I keep a Circa ziploc for clippings or images (empty at the moment). But let’s say I’m on a research trip to London to explore settings. I could keep pamphlets, guides, menus, any paper I pick up right here in this packet with the rest of my research.

And holders for blank index cards

I use the 2-inch Durable Index Tabs from 3M to set up sections as follows. Not the greatest picture, but you just attach the adhesive, easily removable tabs from the pages:

Hopefully you can see my sections for the current book include:

Characters – here I write notes/thoughts/bios of all my characters; include emails discussions with my editors on characters; photos or images of people who could resemble a character; I also keep notes about locales here, because that is where the characters live. I could have that as a separate section but I don’t.

Plot–notes and thoughts on plot ideas and issues. Thoughts on choreographing action scenes; thoughts on emotional impact scenes. I would keep a running outline of the book in this section also, either in the form of a spreadsheet or a Tinderbox outline. Notes and brainstorming on subplots, as well. Emails of discussions of plot points with my editors. Thoughts on McGuffins and motivations. Lists of questions and issues that must be resolved in the book.

Research–notes on anything I don’t know that I need to know. Great place to print out web and magazines articles, keepĀ  notes from books I read for research, lists of research questions I must still answer.

Imagery–thoughts on the images that will recur in the book. I don’t have a lot of symbolism in my novels, but I do have recurrent images that I do use for effect. This is where I try to do my meta-thinking about the book; what does the book say, beyond the thrills and the action? This is also where I keep a list of potential titles.

Ideas–this is where I keep stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the other slots, or where I have ideas for future novels that don’t yet have their own notebook. I keep articles in here too that I find inspirational, that I want to have always to refer to when I’m thinking about a book. For example, a great article on the value of mystery in storytelling by JJ Abrams:

For another example, I had a foundation-changing idea for this new book that I had to really think about how to incorporate: it alters everything–and the whole email discussion I had with my editor about it is kept here, always at hand when I’m writing. Random ideas here that may not yet fit properly into the book. This section gets processed a lot, meaning that ideas get transferred and then further fleshed out in the other sections.

I archive old book notes in a much cheaper Circa notebook, one with plastic covers.

I prefer this approach for keeping my book notes. I tried once to keep my notes in Scrivener, along with the manuscript, but I discovered that I don’t look at my notes very much if they’re in electronic form. Paper puts them there, in front of me. I am much more likely to review them, to go back through them, than if they are stored somewhere. There has been an argument made that paper is simply better for this kind of work than digital, as the paper can be a physical representation of thoughts and plans: your mileage may of course vary. It’s also easier to jot down a note in this notebook, late at night–no starting up the computer.

The drawback of Circa (which is compatible with the less expensive Rollabind system) is the cost. That said, this is how I make my living, so using Circa is worth it to me.

    { 4 comments… read them below or add one }

    Bob Watson January 31, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Jeff,
    Don’t know if you have seen the new M by Staples Arc System notebooks. I just got a couple at my local Staples store. The are like the Circa, but much cheaper. Recommend checking them out, either at Staples on the web or at a local store. Good Stuff!

    Lisa Hendrix February 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I used to use tabbed 3-ring binders this way, then went to electronic (tho not inside Scrivener), and am now considering going back to paper. Circa has been on my radar for a while, so it’s great to see how another writer uses the system. Thanks.

    Jeff Abbott February 8, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    thanks Lisa and Bob. I really try to keep my system simple. I do have electronic notes, in the manuscript, while I’m writing, but if I ask myself a big, book-wide question I will make an e-note in the book, but I’ll also make a note in the Circa book in the appropriate section.

    Melissa Romo March 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Jeff – Thanks so much for this post. I’m a new writer, working on a second novel, and help with process seems harder to come by than help with style or writing craft. Process is so important to keeping track of the novel as it grows. Thanks for sharing!

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