Happy Preptober, everyone! In this week’s post, I’m going to share with you how I set up my writer’s notebook for my NaNoWriMo project.
Yes, I have decided to participate in NaNoWriMo 2018.
In case you didn’t know what I was talking about,
which I highly doubt, especially if you’re reading my blog, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a global event in which many writers from all over the globe take on the challenge to write an entire novel of 50,000 words within the month of November. Preptober, on the other hand, is what NaNoWriMo veterans use to call the month leading towards NaNoWriMo—October.
Now I’ve talked quite extensively about how I used a Midori Style Traveler’s Notebook as my writer’s notebook last year, but I’ve decided to shake things up a little bit for this year’s challenge. Don’t worry—I still use my Midori Style Traveler’s Notebook regularly. I just thought that for NaNoWriMo 2018, I would need a separate system to organize my thoughts about the writing project.
And since I am planning to start a new project, I thought that I could use the occasion to share with you guys a more in-depth look at how I build my personal writer’s notebook.
So right off the bat, the first thing I consider whenever I’m starting a new writer’s notebook pertaining to an upcoming writing project is this: how long do I expect the project to be?
This is especially important, not only because I would need to have a general idea of what kind of story I want to write, but because otherwise, I would have a hard time deciding on the type of notebook to use.
Take my NaNoWriMo project in 2012, for example. Back then, I attempted to write a high fantasy novel with an expected total word count of over 150,000 words. At that scale, I decided that the best medium to store my thoughts would be in a digital format.
I would have loved to hand write everything, but that would be unrealistic with a project of that scale. Not only would it be a huge pain to search for information if I’m storing them longhand, but I would also take too much time compiling my research, whereas I could just organize things instantly with an Evernote Web Clipper, for example.
Sure, I would lose the tactile feeling I get whenever I’m handwriting my notes, but that’s a small price to pay in order to flexibly browse through the abundance of information I accumulated.
In contrast, my NaNoWriMo 2013 project, which would then become my debut novel, was much smaller in size. Because the project genre was contemporary dark romance, I didn’t need as many pages to store information about the settings, character traits, and magic system, as I did with my NaNoWriMo 2012 project.
I recall I picked a small notebook as my writer’s notebook back then. And it was more than enough to write every spark of inspiration I got during the writing process of 3 (Tiga). And it should; the project was relatively small.
For NaNoWriMo 2018, I’ve decided to work on a novella project, which would be relatively shorter than a novel project. Naturally, that means I don’t need as much in order to make it “work”. Lo and behold, this is the notebook I’ve decided to use for NaNoWriMo 2018:
I know, it is a very small notebook.
And for good reason, too! Firstly, I really don’t need that much to store all the information I’d need for a novella project. Secondly, I shouldn’t have that much information to write. By keeping my notebook small and compact, I’m limiting myself to only write the essentials, and not potentially turn a novella idea into a full-blown novel.
Now, after I have my notebook of choice, I usually turn to the first page of the notebook and write my name on the top-left corner. This is where a lot of people usually put their contact information, just in case they lose the notebook somewhere.
Think of this cover page as a welcome page for your writer’s notebook.
You can put anything you want here that makes you want to open the notebook. I have friends who doodle on their writer’s notebook “cover page”. According to them, they feel extra motivated to open the notebook and write on it because they know they will be greeted with a colorful “welcome page”.
Personally, I like to keep this page mostly blank.
Why you might ask? First and foremost, I really prefer a clean “welcome page” over a crowded one.
Secondly, and this might differ between writers, but I tend to come up with the story title much, much later in the project. I usually just keep the first page (mostly) blank so I can write the actual book title there after I’ve decided on one.
(On the other hand, if you’re the type who always knows the perfect title of your upcoming project, feel free to write it down here, too.)
After you’re done with the cover/welcome page, turn over to the next sheet (not on the back of the page you’ve just written on). I know this sounds super wasteful, but I really like to keep the cover/welcome page separated from the actual content of the notebook, if that makes any sense. Feel free to adjust my method to your preference if you wish, though, as most of these things are not set in stone.
On this brand new sheet, I always start with writing “PROJECT STATISTICS” on the top left corner and underlining the heading to give an emphasis on it.
A project statistics, as the name suggests, is just that. Basically, I start by writing my “wish” for the project. You know, like the working title, targeted word count, genre, project deadline, and a general premise of the story (more on this on a later post). Try to jot down the most basic, general facts about your project here. Don’t worry too much about not writing enough information at this stage. We should worry about them later.
This is what I’ve included in my “PROJECT STATISTICS” page:
- Project Working Title
- Targeted Word Count
- Project Timeline
- Project Format (Novel/Novella/Short Story)
- Project Overall Genre
Actually, I might consider changing the name to “PROJECT OVERVIEW” in the near future, but for the time being, I’ll keep it this way.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I really like brainstorming for the story idea in the same notebook that will end up being my writer’s notebook.
Although it could potentially make the notebook a bit messy, I find it easier to cross-reference a certain idea for the project if I store everything I’ve ever thought about it in the same notebook.
You know, for example, you might have an idea to write about a character named Anne during your brainstorm sessions. Then you might decide to omit her character from the final, official, character sheets because she lacks a purpose in your story. You would never know, you might decide to re-include her character in the casts during the writing process.
And this is not limited to characters; who knows? A clever plot twist you wrote during a brainstorming session that you have forgotten might be usable for the actual manuscript, months later! So never throw away anything—that’s my policy.
That policy is probably why my house is never organized, but I digress.
Having said that, I always dedicate the next section of the notebook as the “Brainstorming Pages”, which usually include these bits:
- Project Theme Board
- Theme Definition
- Key Imagery
- Things to Research
- Things to Consider
- The Master Bullet Points of Important Things
- Chronological Order of Things
- Braindump Space
Don’t worry, I’ll explain about each of these things below.
Project Theme Board: the look and feel of your entire project
Even long before deciding on the story premise, I need to know what kind of a story do I want to tell. You know, what do I want my readers to feel when they’re reading this story? What kind of emotion do I want to invoke with this story? What would the “look and feel” be like?
I’ve seen other writers who use Pinterest to pin a mood board of some sort. Basically, these writers collect pictures from Pinterest that inspire them to write their writing project. For example, a YA Dystopian writer could create a board called “YA Project”, and pin pictures of ruined city landscapes, barren lands, futuristic technology, huge walls, etc.
Personally, I think creating a Pinterest board is too much work. And remember when I said I prefer to keep everything project related in one organized system? Since I’m not exactly a visual person anyway, I thought of incorporating the same method in a subtler way. So this is what I came up with: a project theme board.
Basically, I’m setting this page into 3 to 4 invisible columns. (I don’t actually “draw” the columns, but you get my point).
On the leftmost “column”, I started listing adjectives that I could associate with my project. You can essentially write everything you think you’d associate with your project, although I’d recommend against listing too many of them. I usually don’t think too much on listing the adjectives on this first column, either. My goal is to just get them written.
This is where having a small notebook is a lifesaver; I can’t really list down too many adjectives, as I’d run out of space. So I suppose that’s a huge win.
Anyway, after populating the first column with adjectives, I move over to the (invisible) second column. Just by glancing at the first column, I’d usually find duplicates/adjectives that essentially mean the same thing. Sometimes, I’d also find several themes that are “out of place” and doesn’t make for a cohesive story.
After grouping similar adjectives and removing the unnecessary ones, I started writing this refined list on the second column.
As you can see from my example, I actually stopped in the second column. But I deliberately gave some space for a third and fourth column, just in case I want to narrow the themes down even more.
In any case, the goal of this page for me is to find no more than 5 or 6 “themes” that I want to incorporate into the writing project.
Theme Definition: so you know where to steer your story.
After deciding on the themes from the previous page, I write them down again in the next section: Theme Definition. The only difference is that this time, instead of just listing them down, I make an effort to also write what I think makes a story have that certain theme.
For example, I wrote “HAUNTING” as one of the adjectives from my Theme Board. In Theme Definition, I started writing what do I consider “haunting” from a story. Quoting my own notes, I wrote:
Remaining in someone’s consciousness; not easily forgotten. The main character and the love interest must share an unforgettable memory together. Either their first encounter or further down the road.
Notice that not only did I define the theme for my story, I also wrote how I thought of incorporating the theme to the story. As each writer will have a different perspective from one another regarding each theme, I think it is important to clearly define not only the theme of the story but also what the writer perceives could make a story have that certain theme in them.
Rinse and repeat.
Key Imagery: to differentiate your story from others.
After deciding on the story themes, I think the next most important thing to write down is key imagery that you could think of for the project. You know, the things that supplement the story themes. It could be anything from an object to a phrase; a character to an organization.
For example, in my debut novel, 3 (Tiga), the key imagery I thought of were: birds, sky, rain, apartment, school, phone call, and freedom.
In Unspoken Words, the key imagery were: kemuning flowers, bicycle, stir-fried spinach, house, origami crane, and dream.
You see, even just by listing down the key imagery for each of my books, you could already see how different they are from one another. I think this is also a good verification tool to have in order to make sure your writing project is not too similar to another existing one.
So if your key imagery were: magic, boarding school, wand, train, scar, magical stone, and flying on brooms, people might see the similarities between your writing project with the first book of a certain phenomenally popular series. You get the gist.
Things to Research: because research is tedious, and having a list forces you to be reminded of it all the time.
At this point, usually, I would already have a rough idea on what I was going to write. Sometimes this means I have decided on where the story takes place. Sometimes this means I have decided on the when. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure you would need to do some research in order to write the book.
The same thing applies to me: I might only be planning to write a novella, but that doesn’t mean I can slouch on my research either. I keep this list in a numbered points just so I can quickly reference what to look into—again, having a small writer’s notebook limits me from being too paranoid and list out a bunch of not-so-important things to research, which could potentially hinder the actual writing process.
See how important it is to have the right “notebook” depending on the size of your writing project? 🙂
Things to Consider: because we all need to keep our sanity in check during writing projects.
No, this isn’t the same as “Things to Research”. I know the title might confuse a lot of people, but essentially, this is where I write down all my insecurities about the project. You know, questions like:
- What “scares” me from writing this story?
- Will this story impart new things to the readers?
- Is this an “honest” story?
- How fast can I draft the story?
Often times, us writers think too much, especially after writing down the things to research. At this point, the project could start to look daunting, and I would inevitably start asking those pesky questions to myself. And more often than not, these questions don’t matter—so I just decided to write down any insecurities I might have on this page, and move on.
Much later, when the manuscript is actually finished, I would refer back to this page, and try to validate each of my insecurities. Usually, most of the things I wrote in this page would become irrelevant by the time I finished drafting the story. But that is the purpose of this page for me: to act as an interim storage for my negativity.
The Master Bullet Points of Important Things: just in case I forget about them.
If I thought of something important, but doesn’t need to be researched thoroughly, I tend to just dump them into this list. Usually, this could be very basic things like “The story should take place in Indonesia”, or “Maximum amount of supporting characters”. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good idea to keep these things as a separated list, for a quick reference.
Since I’m writing a novella, one of the things I’ve included in this list is: “Since this is a novella, focus on one simple plot/conflict”.
Of course, the larger your project is, the more pages you might need to dedicate for this. For my novella project, I’ve decided that one page should be more than enough to cover all the important things I might need to remember. And even if it’s not enough, I guess I could add more notes using a sticky note.
As important as I think the size of a writer’s notebook should be, I also think that we should also be flexible. Don’t be afraid to add more space if you think your project needs more. Trust your gut; you are the writer, after all.
Chronological Order of Things: where I finally have a general idea of what happens in my story.
Remember how in “Theme Definition”, I wrote a more detailed explanation of what I thought a story needed in order for it to conform to a certain theme? At this point, I usually have a general idea of what scenes I needed to include, only that the ideas are still vague.
For example, I wrote about how a story needs to have a scene with an everlasting impression on the characters in order to make it “HAUNTING”. After coming up with the kind of scenes needed to invoke each of the themes, I will usually attempt to map the scenes in a general timeline.
It doesn’t have to be specific at all. It could as simple as something like:
- The main character and romantic interest must have their meet-cute in school.
- The main character and romantic interest must have their first kiss before graduation.
- The main character and romantic interest get separated after graduation. They will meet again years later.
- The main character realizes she was in love with the romantic interest.
As you can see, these are more like “scenes criteria” instead of actual scenes. But it’s perfectly fine! By having these rough plot points at hand, I will usually get a sense of direction with my story. I might not know what exactly happened in the story yet, but I know what should happen first, and what should happen next.
By having this Chronological Order of Things ready, I find it easier to conceptualize my plot and story premise.
Braindump Space: just write anything. Just dump everything.
Finally, my favorite part.
Even though I have been quite detailed with my approach earlier, I would usually still need a lot of blank space to let my mind roam free. And I think it’s perfectly fine to dedicate a section to just write about whatever you’re thinking about the project, unstructured.
I have to admit, this braindump space usually takes most of the space in my writer’s notebooks. And when I said I write whatever I’m thinking about the project, I really meant anything.
I find that most of the time, the best ideas I’ve had are always found during the braindump process. This is the only space in my notebook where I allowed myself to ramble about everything. So I would start to write about plot ideas, and then on the next paragraph, I would comment about how cheesy the idea in the previous paragraph was, and started drafting another idea in the next paragraph.
…and so on.
Basically, there is no rule to when I stop this braindump process. So instead of fighting it, I just decided to spare a lot of blank pages for this purpose, and periodically write on it whenever I want to. I find that it’s the best way for me to work. And trust me, I’ve been known to spend hundreds of pages just to ramble about my story ideas before deciding on one.
To be continued.
Okay, I realized that I couldn’t fit this topic into a single blog post, because I’ve only just explained a third of what makes my writer’s notebook, and look at how long the blog post already is!
So I’ve decided to split the topic into 4 different blog posts, which I will post weekly during the month of Preptober.
Constructing your very own writer’s notebook requires a lot of hard work. But I think it will be worth it in the end, since not only will you have a handy “guide” when you’re writing your project, you could also read your past writer’s notebook and relive the creation process, as each notebook is your personal “project documentary”, so to speak.
I hope you can use my personal method of constructing a writer’s notebook for your own NaNoWriMo prep. If you decided to try out my method, please let me know in the comments section below how you’re customizing it to fit your needs. I would love to learn how other writers plan and store information about their projects!
COMING UP NEXT
Part 2: Story
- Project Premise
- Project Plot Definition
- Project Sub-Plot Definition
- Project Synopsis
- Project Outline
Part 3: Characters
- Character Name
- Character Alignment
- Character Bio (Sex, Birth, Height, Weight, Physical Description)
- Character Personality (Quirks, Strengths, Weaknesses, Hobbies)
- Character Reason of Being (why are they in the story)
- Character Notes
Part 4: Settings
- List of Locations
- Notes for each Location
- Story Timeline
- Project Writing Playlist
- Project Thank You List
- Revision Notes
Good luck with your Preptober, everyone!
I will be posting new content every Saturdays, be it writerly stuff, or just things that I like to write about. This includes my own stories, information about my books, and things that interest me. Keep yourself updated by following me on Twitter and Instagram.