The End of the Notebook Experiment

Small Brick of Writing NotebooksLast week I set aside my first draft notebooks and fired up my writing computer for the first time in two months, kicking off the first chapter of a project that’s living in my head as Untitled Space-Bro! Space-Marine Novel for about two years now.

I’ll be honest: this surprised me.

I was pretty sure I’d given my heart to notebooks, promised myself to them for the foreseeable future. There was something innately pleasurable about the process of opening up a blank page and scribbling in it with pen. I adored the portability of the notebooks, the fact that I could head off and write while tramping around the streets of Brisbane.

Instead, I’m sitting them aside. Because I am fickle and heartless.

And because a few things changed my mind.


I often get irritated when writers use the word experiment to describe their approach to an aspect of the craft/business of writing. Too often it’s used to imply I just want to try this thing without putting too much thought into it, rather than I’ve got a hypothesis based on existing data that I’d like to test in a somewhat rigorous manner.

I went into the notebook experiment with a hypothesis I intended to test, based on experiences to that point: that I would probably end up writing more, using notebooks, than I would with a computer.

The first month was good.

The second month, leading into GenreCon…well, when I actually sat down and crunched the numbers, I was wrong. I am about as productive in a notebook as I am on a computer, all things considered, but I’m not noticeably faster.  When I factor in redrafting time I may even be a little slower, since the drafts that I produce on the computer tend to be a little cleaner and don’t require as much rewriting as the novel draft will.

Here’s the thing: metrics that do not help you make decisions aren’t worth tracking. If you’re not looking at the data and thinking, well, how does this inform my next step, then why bother tracking the information at all?

And I’ll be honest – right now, the idea of being even a smidgen faster appeals to me. After a few years of fighting against my own body just to get stuff done, I feel a powerful need to catch up. So many stories to write, so little time to get them done, and I feel like I’ve lost a few years.

It’s not rational at all, but it’s there.

In another time, another place, that might be a lesser concern. I would look at the quantitative data and weight it against the qualitative information and think, yes, I can deal with being a little bit slower for a smidgen more joy in the process.


My last project everything I don’t usually do in fiction: third person; big, sprawly story; lots of story elements that were way outside my comfort zone. Switching to the notebooks freed me from the old habits and kept me from getting bogged down when things got tricky.

This project…not so much.

In fact, it’s right in my comfort zone and, bizarrely, more planned out than anything I’ve ever written in the past. Every time I sat down to write the notebooks would irritate me because I wanted to be focused on doing different things with voice or pace or subtext and far less on getting the plot right or figuring out the structure of the scene. That shift in focus made it far harder to trick myself into sitting down and working on the story.

The moment I put the story on a screen, that changed. All systems were go. All the characters started talking and all the guns started going pew-pew-pew.

This story needs the pew-pew-pew. The pew-pew-pew makes the screaming and dying at the end worthwhile.

The notebooks were getting in my way.

And I do not believe in getting in my own way, when it comes to getting shit done.


You know what’s great about notebooks? They’re not connected to WiFi. You can’t check Facebook. You sure as hell can’t update Twitter or check or your email or search Wikipedia for answers to a research query. Your choices are literally forward momentum or staring at a blank page.

You know what sucks about notebooks? Sometimes you need to do that other shit.

The creative side of the writing is about five-sixths of the job, but the rest involves a certain measure of treating your business like a business and being a goddamn professional. Responding to email in a timely manner is part of that, especially when you’re working on collaborate projects or working with an editor/publisher.

This is…not something I have managed well in recent months. In fact, I got really good at ignoring my email when I wasn’t logging into a computer into my computer every day, and I am not a man who needs to make ignoring my email easier.


None of the above tells me I shouldn’t write in notebooks – it taught me the value of them as a tool and how it should be deployed.

If I look at my three-moth plan and noticed a whole lot of travel coming up, I’ll be kicking off a new project in a notebook right-quick so I don’t lose momentum while I’m on the road.

If I find myself stuck in a project that wasn’t moving forward, I’ll be busting out the notebook and forcing some forward momentum via the magic of being unable to erase things.

I’ll certainly be planning on at least one project in 2016 that will be entirely handwritten, coinciding with the busiest periods at the day job.

If I find myself dropping under a certain word count for several weeks in a row, I’ll almost certainly be stepping away from the keyboard for a stretch.

If my priorities shift – an unlikely turn of events, given the mortgage hanging over my head like a Sword of Damocles – you can bet your ass I’d be hefting the keyboard into a deep, dark hole and scribbling it up like a mother-fucker.

Until then: new tool in the toolbox, clearer vision of how to use it. Personally, I call that a win.

  1 comment for “The End of the Notebook Experiment

  1. nickystrickland
    11/11/2015 at 11:50 AM

    "After a few years of fighting against my own body just to get stuff done, I feel a powerful need to catch up. So many stories to write, so little time to get them done, and I feel like I’ve lost a few years"

    I *totally* know that feeling (though, for me, it's frustratingly a decade….at least *sigh*). You do what works for you and you've tried it and seen the effects. Like the idea of purposeful notebooking.

    For me, notebook is a necessity of the muscle memory of writing and usually is strongest at the start of a story. I've noticed once I've built up the momentum, I can flick between the two. One thing I do like the "soft-edit" that happens too in the transference from book to screen. I also do not allow the backlog of typing-in to blow too much either (approx. 20 pages is the limit).

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