Thursday, 29 July 2010

Notebooks are our friends

I have a lot of notebooks. Every birthday and Christmas it's the default gift that people give me. They're usually quite posh leather affairs with pre-worn covers sealed with magnetic clasps and filled with creamy premium bond paper. I receive each one with genuine delight, I marvel at the workmanship, I am properly touched by the sentiment, and I place the blank book on a shelf where it remains with its fellow blanks that remain so ever after.

The problem isn't that I don't like those gift notebooks. I do, very much so. In fact, I like them so much that I can't bring myself to write in them. The sort of people who give me notebooks don't realise that writing is a very messy business full of scribbles and doodles and weird lists that end up not meaning anything. The sort of notebooks filled with neat copperplate or crammed with all sorts of manly observations written in a bold fist interspersed with elaborate diagrams only exist in the movies or in bookshops on the remainder tables under ridiculous titles like "The Lost Journals of Dr Frankenstein".

A notebook of mine would be called "Scribblings of a nut case who must be living rough somewhere". Anyone opening my notebook wouldn't read "Today was the day when all of my apprehensions about the world came to fruition" They're more likely to find "Dust off green car" followed by "mortars", a crude picture of a duck, and a shopping list.

You might think from all of this that I don't care for notebooks. On the contrary. I'm rarely without one and "rarely" is only employed because I haven't yet figured out how to use one in the shower. Leaving Chez Szondy is a time-old ritual that involves slipping my phone in one pocket and my notebook in the other.

That's because a notebook is the most valuable tool that a writer has. It's a memory dump for every odd fact, fleeting thought, turn of phrase, observation, and idea that I come across in the course of the day. It's the reason why I always have something to do in odd moments and why I get honked at a lot at traffic lights. A notebook is my recorder of facts and the testing ground for ideas and bits of immature prose.

But you might think that you don't need a notebook because you have a good memory. Maybe, but the sort of things that go into a notebook are often so fleeting that you might not realise that it was worth remembering until you've already forgotten it. I know because I often forget something because I didn't get a chance to write it down and I'm cross for hours afterward. Indeed, the act of writing something down allows me to focus on an idea, bring it out in detail, and remember it well enough that I don't even need to read the note later.

Writing notes also helps to organise thoughts. Scenes that looked so perfect in the mind's eye come off half-backed and full of holes when put down on paper for the first time. I find it more productive to thrash out ideas in my notes first rather than stare at the screen and wondering why my keyboard isn't clicking away.


The important thing about a notebook is that it's portable. I always have it with me, so I can always write something down. It may be something important, like a record of an interview I'm conducting; it might be something absurd, like an observation on the shape of the barman's nose; or it might be something vital, like a well-caught simile. The notebook as intellectual catchall.

Choosing a notebook

What sort of notebook to use is a matter of circumstance and intellectual preference. Some people with pots of cash and a penchant for gadgets might favour ipads, netbooks, and other sorts of electronic jiggery pokery. They have their advantages, but I can't really see hauling one along to the dog park on a wet January morning. At the other end of the spectrum are cheap, pocket-sized spiral notebooks that you can pick up at the supermarket. Portable they are and cheap they are, but they fall apart something awful in the pocket.

For my part, I prefer to spend a couple of quid on Moleskines. They're well-bound, have rounded corners, a built-in page marker, and a little elastic strap to keep the covers closed tight. They even have a little pocket in the back for holding business cards and the like. Moleskine has even expanded into specialised notebooks, so, for example, if I'm storyboarding a screenplay I can get a book with the frames already sketched out. They even have thin, softcover books that can be slipped into a trouser pocket, though I find that they soon become so crumpled and bent that it's impossible to write in them.

Notes without a notebook

This brings up the biggest problem of the notebook, which is how to keep it with you when you need it. In the normal course of the day, there's no problem. Someone who lives a predictable office schedule and commutes by train may find that it's easy to use a laptop as notebook. At the other end of the scale is someone like me who finds himself on a blazing summer day wearing shorts and a polo shirt and, consequently, without a pocket large enough for the Moleskine. In that situation, I fall back on a digital recorder that slips into the little cargo pocket on my shorts. It's a pain because it means transcribing my dictation later, but it's better than nothing. I also can use my phone in a pinch now that even the most prosaic of models include audio and video recording.

One last thing

Which brings up one other vital point about notebooks. If you ever see rumpled, middle-aged Englishman on a street corner jumping and down while spouting in impotent frustration while waving a battered notebook above his head, that is me and I've forgotten to bring a pen.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Getting started

So you want to be a writer? Excellent. The question is, where do you start? How does one become a writer? The answer is simple: You write.

There. I've shot my bolt. The whole point of this blog has been fulfilled and anything else that I have to say will be mere elaboration. If you want to be a writer; if you want to learn all the basics, the tricks, and tools of the trade; if you want to become a published success, then you must write. It's as easy and as difficult as that.

Write what? I hear you cry–metaphorically speaking, of course. Good question. The answer is, again, simple: Write anything. What you write and how you write it is ultimately up to you. The important thing is to get those words down on paper or up on the screen. If you keep doing that long enough, then everything else will follow.

You don't have to dive straight into your Great American novel that will sweep the board of prizes and change the course of civilisation for all time. Start with something smaller. A diary is ideal. One of the skills that a writer must cultivate is the ability to observe and a diary is a very good exercise for this. It doesn't matter what you put in it. You can make it a prosaic "I had a soft-boiled egg with toast for breakfast; cornflakes were slightly soggy. " Or it can be a highly coloured and detailed self-examination of your life and your reactions to the world around you that is so revealing that you wouldn't let anyone except a trained psychiatrist or a priest look at it. Either of those or anything in between; the important thing is that you write in it every day.

The every day part of the exercise is essential. It isn't a question of what you are saying in your diary that is important or that you are saying it well. The important thing is that you sit down every morning or every night or every whenever and fill up those pages. This will give you the practice that you need as a writer and develop the discipline that is essential if you're going to keep at it. Write a bit every day and you'll soon discover that it stops being a chore and turns into a compulsion. Before you know it, you won't be forcing yourself to write; you'll be forcing yourself not to write.

If diaries aren't your thing, then find some alternative. Start a blog (I'll discuss that later) or make notes for your novel (I'll discuss that also). Take a cue from H P Lovecraft and annoy your friends with endless streams of letters and e-mails. If it really does annoy them, just write and don't send. Carry a notebook with you for when the muse strikes. Or go high-tech and make it a netbook or an ipad. If you have a long commute that eats into your day, invest in a pocket recorder and dictate your thoughts as you sit on the train or get stuck in traffic. Who knows, you may accidentally write a story that gives a penetrating account of what you really think of that *&^* in the Ford Fiesta who keeps tailgating you. It's all good.

The key to all of this is to write and write and write.

And if all else fails, write.

Go on. Get going.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Day One

If you're a reader of my other sites (links to the right), you'll find this blog a bit different. In my main my site, Tales of Future Past, I deal with how we used to look at the future. On my daily blog, Ephemeral Isle, I rant about a range of subjects as they catch my interest. Here, I concentrate on literary matters.

The Quill and the Keyboard is about writing. If you need some freelance writing done, want tips on how to be a writer, enjoy book reviews, or just like to read about writing-related matters, then you've come to the right place.

It's still a work in progress, so the look and feel will get tweaked, and the topics covered will get a bit more focus. Think of it as a journey of discovery.

Let's get started.