Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On keeping good notes

with 5 comments

Last year, in an interview with The 99 Percent, Francis Ford Coppola offered up a piece of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. When asked for the most useful advice he’d give a student, Coppola said:

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

This may seem like a small thing, but we should pay close attention, because here, for once, is a piece of creative advice that is practical, immediately applicable, and utterly important. The more time goes on, the more I come to agree with Coppola that an artist’s notes are crucial, and one of the first things any writer needs to figure out is a system for dealing with the countless pieces of paper that any novel automatically generates.

Simply put, this is a bookkeeping problem of enormous difficulty, and every writer is will come up with his or her own solution. In my own case, a novel like The Icon Thief will usually end up producing something like two thousand separate pieces of paper—index cards, notebook pages, and various random scraps and jottings, all of it accumulated over the intense work of a year or more. And being able to keep track of this material is essential. It’s basically impossible for me to hold the shape of an entire novel in my head at once, so I’m completely dependent on my notes. If I don’t write something down, or if I lose it, it’s quite possible that I’ll forget it entirely. In the end, my pile of notes comes to seem like an extension of my brain—or an urgent means of communication, a la Memento, between my past and future selves—which means that all this paper needs to be treated with particular care, even as it continues to multiply.

As a result, I’ve had to implement a system for what one of my friends compares to inventory management—a means of keeping track, at least in a rough sense, of what’s there at any given time. My system has evolved a great deal over the past couple of years, but at the moment, here’s how it looks:

  1. I keep a notebook for writing down big, fairly permanent pieces of information about an unwritten story—its premise, its major plot points, and any areas that require further study. This is especially important when you may not get to a novel for a long time. In my current notebook, for instance, I had a page devoted to notes for The Scythian well over a year before I started work on the novel itself.
  2. An informal card system, using the business cards I mentioned earlier, on which I jot down smaller plot points, beats for specific scenes, and other things as they occur to me. Such items can end up almost anywhere in the finished story, so it’s important that they be sortable. These start as a big stack in a designated corner of my desk, and end up in separate piles for each chapter, usually on the floor.
  3. Finally, a series of text files on my MacBook that contain slightly more systematic notes, especially detailed research on particular topics.

The result has a sort of jury-rigged feel to it, but it seems to work. And its somewhat ad hoc nature is a big part of its usefulness—because a novelist can’t be too organized. It would be a mistake, for instance, to do everything in text files: it might be easier and more convenient, but it would lose some of the serendipity that comes from seeing cards and notes thrown together at random, in which the juxtaposition of two otherwise unrelated ideas will sometimes lead to an insight. I’ve found that it’s also a good habit to take as many notes by hand as possible, as my hero Walter Murch—who has worked with Coppola on some of his most famous movies—does for his scene cards. And finally, if you possibly can, take Coppola’s advice and date each page. I don’t always do this, but I should, and so should you. Years from now, when you’re looking back with wonder at the pile of notes that somehow turned into a novel, you’ll be glad you did.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2012 at 9:55 am

5 Responses

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  1. Good one…

    Readers Cafe

    May 1, 2012 at 10:00 am

  2. This is a nice suggestions. Often times I randomly think of things I would like to write in my blog about so I grab almost whatever is near to jot the idea down. From a piece of a magazine/newspaper, unopened mail, either of my laptops, and my iPhone. It can be quite hard to keep track where I placed an idea when it comes the time I want to write a blog post.

    Frances antoinette

    May 1, 2012 at 10:05 am

  3. @Readers Cafe and Frances: Thanks! (Come to think of it, I also have a Notes file on my iPhone that I occasionally use to jot things down. I should probably check to see what I have there…)


    May 1, 2012 at 10:08 am

  4. Great suggestions–What do you recommend for research? I recently spent some time looking up bicycle handlebars from the 1940s until I found the handlebars that worked for the description I was writing. For awhile I saved all my research as PDFs and filed it away, but these seemingly trivial details seem not to merit a “file”. How do you keep track of your research? I also created a gmail account for my book so if I see/experience something that triggers a scene in my novel, I email it to the novel’s gmail account . . . Thanks for your wonderful ideas!

    Samantha Rajaram

    May 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  5. Awww…Bicycle handlebars from the 1940s! You’re a writer after my own heart.

    As for research, this really deserves a blog post of its own, but in addition to separate text files with notes on different topics, I also have a folder called Visual References, in which I keep any useful photos I find online, titled as descriptively as possible. (For example, for The Scythian, I have a lot of pictures labeled “Serco Security Van”—and yes, that’s a very slight spoiler.) The key thing is to label everything and keep it searchable, or at least all in one convenient place.


    May 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm

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