Italian writing journal with blue marbled paper and leather binding how to use your notebook to help you write a novel
Needsss the precioussss…


I’ve been talking on the blog for a few months now about #TheNotebookProject and the role notebooks play in strengthening your writing life. But most of the discussion has been about short forms, like poems and short stories. 

So guess what, aspiring novelists? The notebook’s just as valuable for you as it is for the poet. 

I’ve broken it down into three main areas: planning, visualizing, and problem-solving.

1. Planning: Outlines, sketches, and more

Your notebook is a great place to work out an initial outline of your novel. 

Yes, you’ll probably eventually want to transition that outline over to the computer. It’ll be easier to move things around and make changes when the plan inevitably shifts. (Or, you can be like some writers and use a whiteboard or cork board—you can pin scenes or chapters and move them around as needed!)

But your novel idea probably didn’t spring into your head fully formed. You’ve got maybe a rough concept or premise, or even just a character; J.K. Rowling likes to talk about the day a bespectacled wizard boy popped into her head on a train. 

Your notebook can be a good place to jot down the general idea for your novel and see what happens. 

One character can lead to others, and the relationships between them. You can map all that out in the notebook. 

Or maybe you’ll start with a setting—a campground, let’s say—and then as you write, you discover other things about the setting: Is the campground on the beach? What sort of waterfront—lake, river, ocean? Maybe there’s a fishing industry that employs half the town; is it thriving or struggling? What’s the political climate like? The more you write, the more you discover. 

If you’ve got a rough idea of your protagonist’s personality, but can’t quite see them yet, then take your notebook to a café (or park, train station, whatever) and people-watch. Find someone who reminds you of your character and write about them. What are they wearing? How do they move? How do they talk?

And that takes us to…

2. Visualizing: Don’t just stop at words

Your notebook can include things other than writing. 

Go through magazines, postcards, art books. Surf the net. Find photos of people that could inspire characters.

Collect pictures of landscapes, buildings, rooms, or even whole planets that reflect the type of setting you imagine. 

Tape or glue these images into the notebook. If you want to keep your “writing” notebook from getting too cluttered with extra pages, there’s nothing wrong with having more than one notebook—a 3-ring binder could work nicely for this. But there’s nothing wrong with using the same one for everything, either. Do what works for you. 

If you’re artistically inclined (and even if you’re not), you can also draw up sketches of people and places. Draw your protagonist just the way you see her, in a typical outfit on a typical day, then draw her again in her wedding dress after being dumped at the altar. Draw the church where it happened. 

A big, sprawling fantasy epic could probably use a map, a timeline, and a family tree or two. Draw those out! Draw the magic swords, the dragons, the elves. 

In Storyteller, Kate Wilhelm suggests writers might want to sketch out floor plans for the houses where they set their books. Not only does this help you understand your character(s), it could prove incredibly useful when you get to the scene where a satellite has just fallen from the sky and crashed through the roof into the narrator’s den—what did it hit? Where was the narrator standing when it landed; from what angle did he see? 

3. Problem-Solving: Write your way to the answer

The character is in Situation A, and you need to get them to Situation B, but you can’t figure out how to get there. Sometimes you’re not going to figure it out until you just sit your butt down and write. 

But if you’re nervous about this section and you’re wary about writing yourself into a corner you can’t write your way back out of, then trying this out in a notebook might be a safer, less intimidating way to try to tackle it. 

If your notebook noodling doesn’t work, you haven’t tied the scene(s) to the rest of the draft yet, so there’s nothing you have to undo. 

You can even do a compare-and-contrast of your own writing. Maybe you’ve got a subplot about a character who has just inherited a large sum of money, but you can’t decide quite how large.

Write some exposition about what you imagine your character would do with fifty thousand dollars, and then write what you imagine she would do with fifty million. Which story seems more promising, offers the most room for development and compelling conflict? Go with that one. 

You can also adapt writing prompts for use in the novel. Take the prompt and view it through the lens of the characters and the setting you’ve already created. This is sometimes even easier than using a writing prompt that’s totally open—the added structure can give the prompt more substance and depth. 

And finally, your notebook can be a place for your own personal reflection about the novel. Writing a novel is a huge undertaking and it’s bound to drum up all kinds of emotions: excitement, yes, but also fear, uncertainty, maybe even pressure. 

When your novel’s got you down (or up!) you can journal about your feelings in the notebook, work your way through your anxieties and hopes. 

Just like Steinbeck did.

#TheNotebookProject: Free Mini-Course and Writing Exercises are NOW LIVE!

Want access to more notebook writing tips and free writing exercises?

Join #TheNotebookProject and get immediate access to a free mini-course guiding you on how to set yourself up for using your notebook effectively AND a monthly set of 4 new writing exercises for you to use in your writing notebook.

As part of the mini-course, you’ll receive 4 new writing exercises on the first Monday of each month, every month for 6 months. (That's 2 dozen different writing exercises in total!) It’s completely free for my email subscribers (Yay!) and you can sign up here to get access. The mini-course is live now!

And don’t forget that as part of #TheNotebookProject, on the last Friday of each month, I’ll be giving away a notebook during my regular weekly Facebook Lives. Next giveaway is Friday, June 25, at 5pm Eastern—don’t miss out!


How to Use Your Notebook to Help You Write a Novel