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Get a Scribblebook

Black and white of Aaron Pogue's scribblebook, showing a scene from Gods Tomorrow.

Put it on paper to improve your prose.

Last November, I headed into my fourth NaNoWriMo, but it was my first as part of a regular writing group. That added some excitement to the experience, and Courtney and I ended up conspiring to throw a kickoff party. We invited everyone in the group to meet together on the night of October 31 at IHOP (which we chose for two reasons: late hours, and free WiFi).

We had a pretty good turnout, too. We started at 11:00, giving us an hour to chat (and get to know each other) before the clock struck midnight. We made good use of our social time, but as November slipped ever closer, the energy in the air almost began to crackle. We were all there for one reason: we wanted to write.

Courtney announced when midnight struck (according to her watch), and there followed immediately a great shuffling as ten or eleven excited storytellers put away their pancake plates and pulled out their fancy laptops. Not me, though. I made a little room in front of me, flipped open my little black leatherbound notebook, and started scribbling.

I heard some chuckles, and suffered a teasing comment or two as the only one in the group using Stone Age technology to compete in an internet-based writing challenge. I just smiled good-naturedly, and kept scratching down paragraphs while they all waited at loading screens. That took a minute or two, and then silence fell while everyone tried to connect to the WiFi network there at IHOP.

Thirty seconds of that passed before someone said, “Where is it?”

“Is it the Regency one?”

“Uh-uh. That’s the hotel next door, and it’s password protected.”

“What about…nope, that one doesn’t work either.”

“They are supposed to have free WiFi, right?”

“Well, there’s a sticker on the door. I saw it on the way in….”

The excitement tripped and stumbled. Silence fell again, but it was one full of frustration this time. After a moment, someone said, “Has anyone managed to open up their documents yet?”

I grinned to myself, never taking my eyes from the pages of my scribblebook, and raised my free hand high in the air. “I’m connected,” I said, “but it’s running a little slow.”

I got hit with a couple balled-up napkins, while everyone else gave up on cloud services and started working in notepads or text editors.

Always Ready

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love technology (as you know if you’ve been reading my short series the last two Tuesdays). In fact, at least two of the people frustrated that night were frustrated because I had gotten them addicted to Google Docs.

If you’re a creative writer, though, technical solutions alone aren’t enough (at least, not yet). That’s a lesson I learned in my college creative writing courses. Early in my first semester (of six), the professor showed up to class one day, told us all to get our paper and pens, and then without warning she shut off the lights. And gave us a quiz.

The objective there was making us understand the importance of being able to write legibly in the dark. The point of that lesson was to be able to capture those midnight inspirations, the brilliant realizations and the quickly fading memories of dreams. That was part of a message she taught again and again — inspiration is a devilishly tricky thing.

“Don’t wait for inspiration before you start writing,” she always said. “But inspiration does strike, you must be ready.”

A scribblebook is probably the best way to handle that. Sleep with one by your bed, and carry it with you wherever you go. You must be ready, anywhere and everywhere. So when you’re shopping for one, make sure you get a scribblebook you can carry anywhere and everywhere.

I like to buy fairly nice ones for precisely that reason. It’s also worthwhile to get fairly small ones, just for the sake of portability. It might be worth considering how rugged a book you need, too, depending where you might be writing (or how clumsy you are).

Of course, if you don’t need that durability, it’s nice to get one with a stylish cover and nice gold-leaf pages. If you play your cards right, a good scribblebook can make you look sensitive and classy when you’re stuck having lunch by yourself at McDonalds. That’s…well, that’s really my primary requirement.

Make a Mess

Once you’ve got your scribblebook, it’s time to start scribbling. For my part, I just work front to back, using a little squiggle mark and a blank line to indicate new entries, and often some kind of contextual clue next to my squiggle like “blog post” or “GT:3 Ch. 4.” Then at the end of the line, a date code.

Now that I’ve been doing this for several years, I’m just discovering how important it is to include the year in your date (at least once per book). I recommend getting in the habit right from the start, though.

I don’t know how many people have answered this suggestion by saying, “Oh, no, my handwriting is way too bad….”

There’s a reason it’s called a scribble book, though. Handwriting is sloppy, no matter whose it is. That’s actually part of the point. Your goal with this book is to capture ideas before they escape, not to share a hand-crafted masterpiece with the world at large. So let yourself go, forget about building a beautiful folio, and scribble something ugly all over the first page. You can only improve from there.

Once you embrace the ugliness, there’s something psychologically liberating that can offer profound benefits to your writing. For one, you’ll quickly give up on trying to write a single story start to finish in your scribblebook, because you’ll come to rely on it.

The first time an idea for a blog post hits you or a couple lines of excellent poetry, you’ll break away from your Work in Progress to scrawl those on the page, and after that you’re free to mix and match.Cram a shopping list into the margins. Follow a novel chapter with an important phone number with a haiku with a scene you want to insert back in the middle of that last chapter. Capture inspiration, in whatever form it comes to you, and nail it to the page.

Another benefit is the death of a dream — the fantasy of creating a perfect rough draft. When you’re scribbling a scene in spotty blue ink, slashing through sentences and drawing big arrows around paragraphs, you abandon such romantic notions. You can jot your thoughts as they come to you, try out a plot path that might not work, change your protagonist’s name from Katie to Karen (and back again).

In other words, you can let go of perfection and just write a first draft. That’s what you should be doing anyway, but often the simple act of scribbling on paper sets you free in a way hard to match with typeset characters on a gleaming computer screen.

Clean it Up

Why would a scribblebook make so much difference there? It’s because of the way the words look on the page. In a Word processor, as you type, you’re seeing the way your manuscript would look, finished and printed, even if you’re just stumbling your way through the first page. You see all the little red squiggles yelling at you over typos and spelling errors. You see paragraphs that are too short or too long on the page — all the things you need to care about during your review, but you’re not doing a review. You’re doing a rough draft.

A scribblebook takes away all those tools, all those little subliminal cues chastising you for less-than-perfect writing, and leaves you with a vivid reminder of exactly what it is you’re doing — riding the frantic, chaotic process of creation, desperately clutching at whatever bits of inspiration you can reach and trapping them in all their raw, messy splendor. It’s a thing of beauty.

It’s not a finished product, though. You still have to clean it up. You always have to clean up a rough draft. The nice thing about a scribblebook is that it forces the issue. When I write a novel in Word, and type “The End,” my first instinct is to go celebrate and put it out of my mind for a month or two. After all, it’s done now. Sure, I know I’ll have to do some more work on it someday, but for now it’s done.

When I finish a book (or even just a scene) in my scribblebook, my first instinct is to go type it up. That’s because it’s inherently unfinished. It’s not something I can be terribly proud of, because (among other things) it’s not something I really share. So I get to a computer, I flip my scribblebook open, and I start copying it over.

The beauty in that step is that it’s a built-in rewrite. I don’t agonize over it, I don’t go back and redesign my plot structure or anything along those lines, but I revisit all the words, all the phrases, as I go through the transcription process and that gives me a first-pass review of my scene’s language, its structure, and its tone. If something’s off, I can spot it early, fix it, and flow right on.

And, yeah, it’s slow. It’s a lot slower than just sitting down and typing out a first draft. But that’s a good thing, too. Typing 120 words per minute, it’s easy to get caught up in the avalanche of words, in the outline in my head and everything later in the story that I’m rushing toward, and to lose track of the reader’s experience.

Writing by hand is a much more deliberate process, though. It’s a walk instead of a run, and that slower pace gives you time to feel the real impression your words are creating, instead of just the heady rush of ideas.

Going slower, encountering each paragraph on its own, you have time to process what’s happening, time to think ahead to the several different ways the narrative could go, and also experience the gradual decay of information you were dealing with two or three pages back. Typing, if you’re really on fire, two or three pages back might have been five minutes ago. Writing by hand (just like reading, with all the little distractions of real life), two or three pages could be fifteen or twenty minutes ago. That matters, in the shape of your discussion.

I know how hard it is to give up the speed and convenience you can get from all those programs I’ve been talking about on Tuesdays. Consider it, though. Just for drafts, even just for those precious moment’s of perfect inspiration, get yourself a scribblebook, and watch your terrible handwriting improve the quality of your storytelling.

Photo credit Aaron Pogue.

7 Responses to “Get a Scribblebook”

  1. I do much the same thing. I always have something to write down ideas in. there are several laying around with song titles, band names, and lines for stories. I also like to use my digital recorder so I can get the torrent out faster if it is a good one, especially with dreams. I have a paper I can barely read with a great dream I am trying to turn into a book. I also found a note in one that my just be my favorite thing I have ever written: “The sarcasm began to flow like cheap wine from a broken bottle, staining the rug and making the children cry…” I would have lost that trying to remember or waiting for the computer to come up.
    Great ideas Aaron. PS look for clearance sales, I picked up 6 leather bound 3M diaries at walmart the other day for $1.25 each. I use them to write everything when I am not at my computer.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      That’s some good imagery, Justin. And thanks for the tip. I’ve been surprised at the quality books I could get at Wal-Mart (after years of buying them from bookstores), but I never thought to look for sales.

  2. I have one. Okay, more than one. My favorite thing about them is that I can write for five pages and then draw a floorplan of the protagonist’s house or diagram of something I need to visualize before I can write about it.
    My writing notebooks are typically bound graph paper (awesome for drawing) within a cool patterned cover that I got for free from a rep. (Designers are always getting cool freebies and I have tons stacked in my closet.) And I like to write/draw in pencil.

    The only place where we differ is that I prefer to keep one for each WIP (or several for each), not letting different stories get intermingled. It helps me with organization.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      I think I’d do the same thing, Becca, but I’m just not that organized. I’d lose a book and give up on a project forever.

      I’m digging the moneysaving direction this conversation is taking, too. Great use of your resources!

  3. Todd says:

    My scribblebooks are yellow legal pads. I have them sitting around everywhere. Like Rebecca, I like that I can diagram things I need to visualize. (There are many crude street maps in mine.) But there are two downsides: The ink smear on the side of my writing hand that never seems to go away no matter how much soap I use and the fact that, when it comes time to type these scribbles, I sometimes have a hard time deciphering my handwriting. Penmanship is not my strong suit.

  4. *sigh* Aaron, I swear…you and Carlos are going to be the death of all my bad habits. Good grief.

    Okay fine. I give! I’ll get a scribblebook already! For the record, I used to have one. This was in the heyday of post-college excitement over going out into the world and conquering and all that jazz. But right around the time the scribblebook filled up, the excitement dulled (hmmm…..connection there?), and I degenerated into scribbling on napkins, shreds of paper, and the occasional Walmart receipt.

    Alas, I sit now chagrined…but hopeful. Here’s what happened: I read this article about getting a scribblebook and thought, “Yeah, I should do that…”

    …and then I read your creative exercise guidelines on filling up some pages, taking a photo, and posting it, and I thought, “Ooooooooh, I wanna do that NOW!”

    You guys are killing me. You really are. ;o)

  5. P.S. As one of the people you got hooked on Google Docs, I would still throw a napkin at you, scribblebook or no! ;oD