The idea of precious stationery was anathema to me as a journalist: reporters’ notebooks are basic tools, and very scruffy ones, too, by the time they’ve lived in a bag or back pocket for months.
Now, as a fiction writer, I buy beautiful hardback notebooks in the expectation that they will become repository of inspiration for the work-in-progress, and a holding place for half-formed ideas. But so far only one of them has become a treasured item.
This notebook contains jottings about character arcs and plot structure, and the workings out of a manuscript that didn’t go anywhere, but in fleshing out the theory of turning points etc. has become invaluable as a ‘worked example’.
The contents of this notebook are disorganised to a shameful degree, any sense of logic having fallen by the wayside over the years as I cherry-picked advice stumbled across online, or distilled from the great structural guidebooks that I love (McKee’s Story and Story Grid being my current must-reads).
I kid myself that writerly disorganisation is inevitable since writing a book isn’t a linear process. For me, a story idea rambles and circles and spirals as the main character becomes more and more real in my head, until ultimately the core of their story crystalizes and imposes events on the plot.
A messy process in other words, too messy for a pristine notebook.
This, I suspect, is why the most useful stationery I own is a roll of A2 sheets of paper (four times the size of A4) which I spread across the kitchen table, and scrawl upon in pencil, drawing freehand associations, and writing in capitals MAIN DRAMATIC QUESTION and WHAT ONE THING WILL STOP MY PROTAGONIST FROM SUCCEEDING?
In this way I outline a story in the round, free from worries about voice or imagery or sentences. I play with alternative endings. What if the inciting incident became the climax? Or, more likely, the other way around?
I hardly ever handwrite a story as I always feel I’m being dilettante if my workspace doesn’t include a keyboard and screen – another hang over from journalism, I expect.
Today, thinking about this blog, I came across an old and boring-looking notebook which I thought contained research data for my debut novel, The Goose Road.
There were pages devoted to First World War, but also something else very precious indeed: notes from an event held by Bath Spa University to celebrate Hilary Mantel’s award of an honorary doctorate during which she was interviewed by ‘Professor’ Faye Weldon.
These two grand dames of fiction looked mad in their pale blue and yellow academic robes (whoever selected those colours can’t have had much respect for academics!) but their words were marvellous and magical. It was like eavesdropping on two ancient sorceresses discussing their own tried and tests spells. Re-reading their words, I remembered the event in great detail, how much I admired Mantel and wished Weldon would speak up so I could catch every word.
In an ideal world, I would have typed up these notes and kept them accessible, but to chance across them in a dusty, half-forgotten place had a charm of its own.
PS Regarding pens, an apology: I pick them up and put them down at random, so if you have a special one, please don’t leave it anywhere near me!
Find out more about Goose Road at www.rowenahouse.com