On Writerly Note-taking: Capturing the Essence of an Idea

It’s one thing having a great idea.  It’s another to capture it in a way which will resonate with you hours, days, weeks or even years later.  It’s what’s needed though for sometimes it takes that long for an idea to find its way into a story.  In fact, I contend that those writerly notes, which still inspire us to make something of them years later are the best of the best.  That is note-taking done well.

The writerly note is not just about what happens or who it happens to, even though it may contain plot points and quick character sketches.  It may be about a place too or a sound or a colour or a smell, but these will not give this note the kind of inspirational endurance we might need for the long run.  The perfect note is one which tells us why we are writing it in the first place.  It records our excitement and our wonder at this thing we wish to remember.  It tells a story about the story of the story, if you like.  If we wish to recapture our excitement over an idea, we need to write that down too.

The thing is that at the time of writing we are already inspired.  We can’t imagine not being so.  We write from the height of our epiphany and, to us, what we write is imbued with it and inseparable from it.  We are often wrong.  It’s strange, but mostly true, that when we read back these notes, they are dry and very nearly disinterested in themselves.  Mine can be anyway.  We can look at our table napkins, read our scribble, shake our heads and throw the napkin away, wondering what the hell we were on about.  It’s like when your stoned and everything….I mean everything is soooo profound.  I mean cheese is profound.  That’s the morning- or decade-after feeling when reading these un-writerly notes.

The thing is though, we could have been on to something.  We could have stumbled upon the greatest thing.  We are just really crap at writing notes.  The trick is that you need to record how you are feeling about this new idea.  Some ideas are subtle.  Some are elusive.  They waft around the edges of our consciousness and are difficult pin down with the usual approach.  In that case, we need to almost journal it.  Like:  i’m having this great idea which has to do with ###.  It came to me just now when **** said that thing about the drinks not being cold enough.  Just go on like this and allow the threads to weave themselves together a little more.  If they don’t, you’ve still told your brain that this was important and so it might solidify for you later.

But that’s really about hunting down the skittish ones.  Even the one that hits you between the eyes has a habit of slinking off over a period of time.  We read our crappy little note and shrug.  What we are missing is the context and the context is everything.  The context is the where and why, not just the who and what.   As fiction writers, we are not just saying stuff on the page, we are attempting to draw the reader into our story using everything we have in our arsenal.  That’s what we need to do with ourselves, when writing notes.  We are our future audience and if future ‘me’ is not going to understand it, present ‘me’ needs to do a better job.

Some people are fond of mind maps and diagrams, and while I having nothing against them, I am learning to write my notes in prose, the way I write my books.  This way I can delve into the idea.  I can be more lurid than I would dare for publication.  I can include in-jokes with myself no one else is ever going to get.  And the longer I go, because these can be long notes, the more likely it is that I will come up with a turn of phrase which nails the concept to the wall and keeps it there over time.  So keep going.  Whoever said notes needed to be short?  Put yourself into them.  Record where you had the idea, if you need to.  You know how a setting can take you back.  Find other instances where you have felt a similar way.  In short, do what you must.  Of course, there are times when you will need to keep it short because you are in a rush and need to move on with your day.   Make a time with yourself as soon as possible to get it out on the page.  Write just enough in the first instance, so you can continue on with it later, but be sure to capture some feeling in there.

The primary rule is not to tell yourself you will remember.  You possibly won’t and even if you do, it won’t be like it was.  The complexity will be gone.  The bits that make our fiction unique will have wandered off someplace else.