How to write a novel, II. The notebook

The one question that any novelist is certain to be asked is, “how do you get your ideas?”  Isaac Asimov records, somewhere (I forget where) a writer’s retort “how do you not get yours?”  The point being that, to a writer, ideas are just there; and very often they are there when and where you don’t want them.

Sitting on the train; watching television; at work…

It can be pretty embarrassing to find that you’ve been working out the dialogue of a scene out loud, in the office. At least, it used to be. People who talked to themselves used to be regarded as nutters. Nowadays people just assume you have one of those hands-off mobiles. Still, in its extreme forms, being a writer may conceivably count as a mental illness.

Now, as I related earlier, I am one of that type of writer; ideas just ooze unbidden from every corner of my brain and so I am stepping beyond my personal knowledge if I say that ordinary people (should that read “normal people”?) can develop ideas but it’s safe to assume that if you think that you can be a writer, you must have at least some ideas. In that case, it’s a question of identifying them, developing them and developing the faculty.

The first step is the notebook. Get a notebook, keep it with you (make sure you have a pen, too) and jot down everything.  I suppose you could use a smartphone or a PDA but I wouldn’t; you’d need to back it up regularly and paper is a far more flexible medium for recording thoughts as they come. Write everything that comes to mind: ideas that you have, of course; things people say; things that happen, in your life and in the news. In an interview, Nora Ephron once revealed that her mother, screenwriter Phoebe, told her “everything is copy” and Nora found that an emotional upset she had experience at school resurfaced in one of her mother’s screenplays.

“Everything is copy!” Make that your motto.

Once you have the notebook and you’re writing in it, this will have three effects (I’m told — like I say, I’ve always found that ideas come easily to me.  I keep a notebook so that I can remember ideas but if I have to right them down they usually don’t amount to much). Firstly, it will develop the writing habit. The more you write, even just in the notebook, the less likely you are to be afflicted by writer’s block. Secondly, you will have a pool of incidents, dialogue and thoughts from which to form build your story. Finally, you will develop the habit of looking at the world in terms of what you can write; this is when you start looking at the world as a writer.


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