Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Note to self: write better notes to self

I was in the shower yesterday when an idea hit me like a pair of lard-filled pantyhose dropped from a skyscraper.

Since I wasn’t in the mood to run dripping and naked down the hall for a notepad, I did what most writers in my position would do.

I scrawled it on the glass shower door with a broken piece of soap.

That evening, I saw Pythagoras studying it. “What does ‘gma gw wd bsd msct’ mean?”

The funny thing is, I knew exactly what it meant. By then I had already written a draft of the scene and found the idea to be perfect for what I’d hoped to accomplish.

There are oodles of tools on the market to help writers arrange their thoughts in an orderly fashion. There are special notebooks and software programs and gadgets whose primary function is to make us feel inadequate for not being more organized.

To be honest, I don’t know many writers who are very organized. Most of us, it seems, live our lives surrounded by scraps of paper we’ll spend hours squinting at in hopes of determining whether we’re looking at a brilliant plot twist or a reminder to schedule a pap smear.

I felt better about this recently when I stumbled upon a blog entry by my idol, Jennifer Crusie in which she posted a photo of her office. If the grand dame of romantic comedy can write masterpieces in a workspace like that, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Pictured at right is my trusty palm pilot. Please note my highly complex system for separating shopping lists from general household errands and more complicated plot ideas.

OK, admittedly the color-coding was an accident. It’s less a system of organization and more a matter of which pen I grab when an idea strikes, but it looks nice, doesn’t it?

The thing is, it works for me. My flesh and my work surfaces may be covered with words that look like gibberish, but they all mean something to me. More often than not, the system works.

How about you? Is your workspace a mess? Are you surrounded by a confetti of notes to yourself? Or are you one of those disturbingly organized writers the rest of us secretly want to smack? Please share in the comments.

31 comments :

Caitlin said...

I scrawl ideas on random pieces of paper, lose them, and discover them months/years later. It's like finding buried treasure in my clutter!

Lard-filled pantyhose from a skyscraper? Was it you I hit? Sorry.

Karla Nellenbach said...

I like to describe my workspace as "ordered chaos" I have one of those handy-dandy cork/dry-erase boards that is overrun with little snips of info that I sometimes look at and scratch my head. It's kind of like trying to crack a highly classified government code!

Al Stegall said...

I'm sort of in between. My workspace is horribly disorganized- I don't think I'd be able to function if it weren't. I also don't take notes- not on hands, not on scraps of paper, not on back of the dog. If an idea is good enough, I'll remember it when the time comes to write it.

Flannery said...

Hahaha! My hand looks JUST LIKE THAT right at this very moment. What I really hate is when I forget about all the very important notes on it and accidentally wash them, smudging and smearing so that I have to squint even harder than usual.

I mean, I also have a notebook, but that's more a compliation of scribbles than anything. In my own disordered-orderly way.

Candyland said...

Nice hand.
I used to draw on my hand, too, but ever since motherhood struck, I find it never stays put. My notes? In my phone (I forget I put it there) post-its (the child runs away with) and random pieces of scrap that I ultimately lose.

mumfusa said...

I have a weird issue of perfectionisticism, where I can't write in my "scrap notebook" unless it's neat and tidy. So instead, I write on bits of paper and napkins and arms and legs because that just seems much more casual. And that's how I roll.

Xuxana said...

Just the other day a new scene idea came to me as I was doing my makeup, so I wrote it down on my vanity, with my eyeliner pencil.

annmariegamble said...

I love, love, LOVE colored pens. Using them has the side benefit of making observers think I am highly organized ("Ooooh, color coding!") when the reality is "Child! Unhand that gum wrapper!" Good gawd, people, if there's writing on it, don't throw it away, put it on my desk.

Lola Sharp said...

On the back of receipts and napkins, in my car, because driving seems to be when most of my solutions/ideas hit me.

Hands never work for me, because it always smears.

Cynthia Reese said...

With my luck, I'd use a permanent Sharpie. Nope. Can't write on hands. Might encourage The Kiddo to go get a tattoo. Besides, like Candyland, I find that as a mom, I have to wash my hands too often.

The ONLY thing I miss about hauling a Blackberry around is the way you could wirelessly synch your calendar. Ah, bliss, a reminder that would tell you to do something in a non-nagging beep.

Now I try to store things on my itty-bitty cell phone and when it blares a reminder, I squint at it and think, "Now, what was this? I'm supposed to be where?"

And don't even ASK me what my office looks like. My co-workers say that I'm just about ready for an intervention. :-)

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I don't even have a workspace to organize, so you can imagine the chaos. Mostly, there's post-its on the fridge, revisions on the microwave, and other things scattered where ever they are when I wrote them down. Thank heavens for laptops. At least I can go to my mess, since I can't seem to keep it all in one place. :)

Tawna Fenske said...

Caitlin, I believe Letterman actually did a stunt many years ago where he filled pantyhose with lard and dropped them from a rooftop. I never saw it, but I've imagined it many times.

Karla, I like that, "ordered chaos." Sounds much better than "freakin' disaster zone."

Al, the dog probably appreciates your method, though I'm not sure I could trust my memory as much as you trust yours!

Flannery, I usually write with permanent Sharpie marker (which obviously isn't permanent, but does have the staying-power to get me through multiple hand washings).

Candyland, maybe tattoos would work for you? Though I suppose you'd run out of flesh pretty quickly.

mumfusa, er, OK. Whatever works for you! :) See, this is what's great. Every writer has his/her system, even if it's only effective for a single person.

Xuxana, I've done this with lipstick!

annmariegamble, I love Sharpie markers with a fine point on one end and a regular tip on the other. I have 'em in at least four different colors, just for special occasions!

Lola, don't you hate the fabulous ideas that hit while driving? I've been known to pull over to the side just to write things down.

Cynthia, try the permanent Sharpie, it's really the way to go! The Blackberry seems to complicated for me. Maybe someday, but my palm pilot seems to work just fine for now.

Kayleen, so you're saying you have a mobile mess? That might not be so bad. Easy to shove in the closet!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Linda G. said...

I write each and every thought I have in a leather-bound volume of fine vellum, with a fountain pen, in printing indistinguishable from the Times New Roman font, after which I transcribe it into my computer and cross-reference each separate thought into as many places as it might be applicable (writing, home, social, etc.). I then...

(You buyin' any of this?)

Okay, so my writing space is a big mess. Who has time to clean?

Sierra Godfrey said...

My notes are scattered everywhere. I rarely look at them again after writing them – that’s if I can find, them. The act of writing down notes however helps commit them to memory and make them real. Here’s a wee secret in fact: when I write things down that I want, I usually get them. Yes! True!

Deborah said...

LOL! This struck a chord with me. My office is amazingly neat. Because I'm never in it. I set it up a few months ago, folders in file cabinet, pens on desk, paper stacked, etc. and then, because I find the basement (where office is located) too cold (and lonely) I took my laptop upstairs to the recliner (where I sit at this moment)and work. I have my behemoth dictionary, tea, and water on side table; and a gadzillion exercise books with snippets of brain matter that only I can decipher. My daughter asked me just yesterday, "Why did you set this office up if you never use it?" Answer: Because it makes me feel official and looks good when company comes. :)

christinerice said...

I was organized almost to the point of OCD before, but the more I let my creative side take over the less organized I become. I don't have an actual office space (I work from a laptop) so maybe that's a good thing!

KAK said...

I have an office, assorted notes, and a laptop...I don't think they've been introduced to each other.

Jaydee Morgan said...

My office and desk is usually piled with books and paper. It gets worse the further I progress into my manuscript. Funny thing is, I half-clean it before I start writing in the day but by night - the mess has struck again.

Delia said...

Hoarders would be envious of my collection of notepads and journals. Notes for my current WIP are spread between three journals and two notepads and I'm only 12,000 words into it.

Oh, and stuff always, always, ALWAYS comes to me in the shower, especially dialogue. I think it's because my kids aren't in there with me. I, however, am at a disadvantage as I have a curtain and not a door. Soap worketh not. I'm considering getting a waterproof field notebook and pen and suction cupping them to the wall. I bet it would work. Of course, I'd have to have more than one so I could have the notes travel between shower and computer. Hmmm...

Well, at any rate, you're not alone.

Amie Boudreau said...

Unfortunately my workspace is cluttered.. but not with my own clutter. My kids and family seem to think my desk is a 'catch all' and I'm lucky to find my pc among the wreckage.

I keep these little spiral notebooks.. you know the little 'mead' books.. fit in the palm of your hand sell for 50 to 79 cents a piece.. and I fill them with scribbles, ideas, quotes, or just anything that comes to mind.

My spouse has post it notes..... they cover the walls around her desk and workspace... if I didn't have to use post its so much at my day job (bank) that might appeal to me... but I like my notebooks... an idea I got when reading about Daniel Pearl and how he kept notebooks for his ideas and such.

Margaret said...

I keep erasable markers in the bathroom so that I can jot notes on the mirror. It can get a bit crazy...like when I can't see myself clearly anymore. However,I know what you need for the shower :D. Those soap crayons that write on the walls and wash off when you're done.

Claire Dawn said...

I have a sheet of paper on my desk which has every thing from kanji for my Japanese coworkers' names, favourite 80's tv, the words to the Irish Drinking Song, future blog posts, goals for the month, and the Japanese word which means both homosexual's partner and youthful vitality.

I also have a word doc - novel concepts, with one liners about story ideas I have while writing other stories.

There are some out there who are organised. Good for them. When ideas start making appointments ahead of time, I'll start writing them somewhere decent.

Jamie D. said...

My writing is actually pretty organized. I carry a small notebook in my purse specifically for ideas that hit when I'm not home. Otherwise I have an "ideas" folder on my SD card (goes back and forth to work with me) for lists of ideas and brainstorming sessions. I do all my brainstorming/outlining/research on the computer too, so the only piece of paper near where I write (on the couch) right now is the three page scene outline for the ms I'm revising. Everything else is on my SD card/hard drive/PDA, or in that ideas notebook in my purse.

*ducks to avoid rotten fruit*

As I mentioned on twitter though - my house is messy/cluttery...and deep in pet fur. LOL

Marisa Birns said...

I don't have a private workspace. I usually write at the dining room table, or I sit on a chair by the doors leading to the balcony.

Write in a notebook or stickies or napkins or straight onto the computer.

Now I saw something that amazed! It's waterproof pad and paper that you stick on the tile wall in the shower. Can you imagine that?
You don't have to, here it is http://bit.ly/bOnTM0

Jade said...

I was so excited when we bought our new house last year because I got my own STUDY. I had all these grand dreams for the interior design. Instead it looks like a lazy librarian vomited over it.

Oh well.

Tawna Fenske said...

Linda G, that's exactly how I pictured you! You have one of those old-fashioned quills with the feather on the end, right?

Sierra, good point about the process of writing things down helping commit them to memory. I've found that to be true as well. Even though I take pages and pages of notes when doing story research, I never end up referring to them as often as I expect to.

Deborah, too funny about the abandoned office! For a couple years, I had "real job" that allowed me to work from a home office. Since my layoff in December, I haven't fully reclaimed it as my writing space. I think it still has "real job" cooties.

christinerice, it's sorta liberating to give up the tidiness and just be a slob, isn't it?

KAK, you made me laugh out loud!

Jaydee, I've definitely found the piles get deeper as a manuscript progresses. By the end, there's a distinct risk of avalanche death.

Delia, check out the suggestion from Marisa a few comments down from yours. Is that the coolest thing ever?

Amie, I'm a notebook fiend, too. I like the ones with the spiral at the top that are 6 or 7" wide and about 10" tall. I have hundreds of them in storage boxes around the house.

Margaret, I like your marker idea! Much better than me with my lipstick or Xuxana with her eyeliner!

Claire Dawn, I'm dying to read a book that includes all the things you mentioned there!

Jamie D, as long as you promise you have some clutter in your house, we will forgive your organized approach to writing.

Marisa, this is a fabulous suggestion! I love that notepad. Ordering one online RIGHT NOW!

Jade, love the idea of lazy librarian vomit (er, maybe not on my notebooks).

Thanks for reading, guys!

Tawna

Sydnee said...

Um... I'm probably closer to those insanely organized writers you want to smack. *sheepish grin*

My workspace is a little cluttered, but I always know where everything is. I have a special notebook, which I call "The Writer's Notebook" to jot down all my ideas and scenes in. All my stories are organized in computer folders according to fanfiction, original fiction, or stray scenes that don't fit anywhere else. Now if only I could do something about my crappy time management...

Jennifer X said...

Oh, man. I write on everything and anything. Then, I lose them, finding notes in random places like pockets or at the bottom of my purse. I have a notepad in my Blackberry, but they expire and get deleted! I haven't figured out if there is a setting I can change. If I carry a book, I end up forgetting the book. I'm hopeless, so basically, if it's important, I'll handle it immediately so as not to lose the reminder.

atsiko said...

It's all about the palm pilot, Tawna. I used to have a hand that looked like it went through a meetgrinder when I was really busy not writing. It's gotten better since I bought a laptop, but I still keep notebooks in key areas of the house. If only I had a shower door to write on...

tt said...

I love you guys! I feel so much better!!! For me it's the post-it note!! I had them everwhere and finally 3-hole punched some sheets of card stock to put them on and put those in my working copies binder. That lasted about a day!

Tawna Fenske said...

Sydnee, yup, you're right. I hate you now. I will say that in spite of my disorganization, I seldom have trouble finding what I'm looking for. It looks like a mess, but I know where things are!

Jennifer, my husband is just like that. He loses EVERYTHING. I can count on him losing his wallet for several days at least once a month.

atsiko, did you check out that shower notepad in Marisa's comment? Isn't that the coolest thing ever?

tt, I like the idea with the post-it notes on cardstock. Even if it didn't last, I can appreciate the effort!

Tawna