9/07/2015

Taking Notes Like a Writer

I used to hate taking notes, because to me it meant I was in a classroom.  But as a writer, I've found that notes are an inevitable, and frankly stress-reducing practice.

When you're a writer, your brain should always be turned on.  You should always be observing everything you see, hear, and do.  You never know when inspiration will come along, and if you're not ready, it's going to pass you by.

Have you ever had a great idea when you were standing in line at the grocery store, or lying in bed, or changing your kid's diaper?  And you thought to yourself, I'm gonna write that down the minute I finish this.  But by the time you're actually finished, other concerns have intruded and the idea is gone.  But you remember that it existed, but the content of the idea is lost.  And that's the part that really stings, right?

What if that shit never happened again?

If you haven't already, get Google Keep or Evernote on your phone.  Put it somewhere where you can open it with two taps or less.  You need fast access to your note-taking app.

If you're a sensible writer, you understand why a note taking app on your phone is an obviously good idea.  But maybe you're not sensible, and in that case, I have but one question:  Have you ever not had your phone on you?  I understand some people dig pens and paper, but seriously, if you're going to be stubborn about this, you're going to lose some ideas.  It'll happen.  But with a note-taking app on your phone, and some good habits, you'll never lose another idea again.  Wouldn't that be nicer than a pen and a notebook?

For me, the thought that I'll catch every idea that comes whizzing out of my subconscious reduces stress :)

But what notes should you take?  Well for obvious starters, any random story or scene idea that pops into your head should get written down.  Of course.

But beyond that, there are four running lists I recommend you keep:


  • A Key Inspiration List: Every time you see a movie, TV show, documentary, or read a book that makes you say "I wanna do something like that!"  put it in this list, and write a little bit about why it inspired you.  What did you like about it?  Any ideas you want to outright rip off? (this is a thing we all do, I advise you to get comfortable with it.  there's nothing new under the sun)  Whatever it is, put it in this list, and just forget about it.  Then, when you're developing a new story, take a peek at this, and see if anything jumps out at you.  You might decide to pull elements from a few disparate sources, and come up with something original.
  • A Word Collection: This isn't just a collection of single words (although great words are certainly welcome), this list is about writing down every quote or turn of phrase that catches your ear.  Mine is mostly movie quotes, but there are a lot of random tidbits from the recesses of my brain, and a lot of random strings of words pulled from every corner of reality.  You never know when you might use them in a story, and not only that, but being on the lookout for this stuff tunes your ear to beautiful language, and that in itself makes you a better writer.
  • A Beat Collection: If you don't know what I mean by "beats", read this.  But the short version is beats are those little snippets of action and stage business that surround dialogue.  My Body Language Lexicon contains quite a few that are more or less universal in Western culture, but the universal stuff will only get you so far.  Beats are one of the ways we let readers into our characters, and a truly unique beat can bring a moment to life.  So watch other people.  Watch yourself.  Every time you catch a unique or telling piece of body language, write it down.
  • A Sensory Detail Collection:  If beats bring characters to life, sensory details bring settings to life.  The more senses you involve in your descriptions, the more vivid they'll be.  And as I said in this article, the smart writer only describes the details that aren't obvious.  So every time you notice a detail that isn't obvious--say the rush of air in a subway station just before a train arrives, or the smell of dander and wood shavings in a pet store--write it in this list, and you'll build a database of beautiful details to draw upon in your descriptions.
Because puppies.
I don't know about you, but I go into a state of near panic when I lose an idea, even if it wasn't that good.  Writing down ideas is a habit, and it's a good one to be in, because when it counts, it really counts.  With a good app, and the running lists above, you'll never miss out on anything again.

For other stuff I recommend, check out this page.