Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Writer’s Way: Stocking your writer’s notebook

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 06•20

Before I went to sleep last night I paged through  my latest writer’s notebook.  The two tools that inspire me most are reading widely and analytically, and keeping a notebook. Writers need tools for flat and unenthused times, need word collections to spark fresh phrasing, and a place to secure inspirations and notes.  My writer’s notebook is my lens, my not-buried treasure, my portable sanctuary. Notebooks old school, companionable, easy to tote around.

The first page that fell open has only one paragraph: It was November–the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great swooping wind blow the fogs out of her soul. L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

These evocative sentences create a tone and lovingly paint a place–Prince Edwards Island.  Montgomery’s descriptions of nature are one of her finest techniques that I study and sometimes try to emulate.

You see, I collect word pictures and suggest you do too.

Another page hosts a typical, but delicious word list because I’m always compiling words: spawn, behemoth, bleak, lament, sneeringly, grapple, succor, sprite, forsake, bedraggled, jagged, seethe, scuttle, garrulous, unmoored

Then there are word combinations jotted down: faceless behemoths, bone-deep despair, feral cunning, withering condemnation, toxic absurdity

Descriptions of characters, gestures, and mannerisms are scattered through the pages. I’m often  helping editing clients find fresh ways of expressing emotions and reveal the inner lives of their characters. Here are recent jottings: When it’s over she smiles a big hungry smile. She had a beautiful voice, burry and low.  Snores like a John Deere tractor. Shivering like a stray puppy. A weird flare of anger lanced through her. The laugh that came out of her was one of surprise. It was a pissed-off laugh, a bark of incredulity. The thought hit her in the heart like a fist.

A sound rose out of her. A low sound, an animal whine. A new fear buried itself under Shana’s skin like a burrowing tick. It was the sound of something in pain, alarmed, even full of rage.

I’m always studying and writing down all-important beginnings of essays, novels, and short stories, especially noticing the mood and tone expressed. It’s so important to establish tone in the opening pages–light, grim, unsettling–whatever is needed. When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child beside him.Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world… Cormac McCarthy, The Road

And, of course, my notebooks feature inspiring quotes: “Yes I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he can see the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Writers need to deepen as life goes along.

Some suggestions for keeping a writer’s notebook:

  • Be sure to use a notebook that feels right, invites you in. Shopping for a notebook is great fun, but comes with decisions. Leather cover? Lined or unlined? White paper, colored paper?
  • Have a plan to use your notebook to address deficits in your style or methods. Most writers need more varied vocabularies and more imaginative figurative language. Most writers need help crafting secondary characters and creating a potent sense of place.
  • Read other writer’s notebooks or journals for inspiration such as John Steinbeck’s above.
  • Describe seasons, weather, and the sky.
  • Collect smells.
  • Keep asking yourself: what does this remind me of?
  • Really notice the color, hue of things you encounter in daily life. Everything from blossoms, hair colors, and oceans.  Don’t wait to take a trip to notice intriguing details. Then find fresh names for the colors you encounter. Pearl. Alabaster. Rose. Cinnamon. Smoke. Wine.
  • Dig into memories, churning them over to notice your latest understanding of what happened.
  • Write reviews of books and films.
  • Track your word count.
  • Start your day with your writer’s notebook.
  • End your day with your writer’s notebook.
  • Carry it with you for the unplanned pauses and lulls.

The year is still  young. Plenty of time to develop new habits.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep gathering from all around you

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