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What a Difference Five Minutes Makes

December 4, 2009

I promised to speak a little more about the use of the notebook for a writer pressed for time.  You are likely well-versed, already, in the general functionality of a notebook as a repository of… well… notes, of course. 

Previously I kept notebooks as a place to write all my ideas down so that I could keep a record of them, and review them later.  While in my head, the ideas were still malleable and amorphous.  Once written down, they seemed more real, more concrete.  Once in written form, I felt my mind freed to build on previous ideas and link the ideas together.  I also felt safe letting my mind wander freely to the next idea, secure in knowing that my last good idea was already written down, and easily retrieved if my brain forgot it.

Of course, scanning through a tome of handwritten notes isn’t, in this day-and-age, the most efficient way of retrieving previously recorded information.  So, after working a great deal on my second full notebook of ideas, I started looking at options for digitizing the information for faster searches and retrievals.  My initial foray into digital storage and retrieval was somewhat awkward.  I began by writing up each entry as a separate Word file, storing all the words files together in a single folder.  After I had typed up a dozen-or-so entries, I realized how cumbersome it still would be to search for information – it was really no better than manually flipping pages.  For a while I abandoned the idea.  But I returned to it one day after browsing Wikipedia.  I thought how great it was that you could write a wikipedia article and include links to articles that did not exist yet, and someone else could come along, click your link, and be taken to a page allowing them to start creating the new article.  Wouldn’t it be great if I had an app that did the same thing, but was just for me?  A little surfing and searching and, Lo and behold, I discovered the existence of numerous Personal Wiki platforms.

I started by using a decent (and free) little app called wikidpad.  With a simple interface and markup language, you could write up little articles on your personal database and easily insert links to titles of other pages.  If a page with that title existed, a live link would go straight into your document.  If that page didn’t exist, then the link would take you to a blank page so you could start creating the new document.

Later (after the previously mentioned car-break-in), I switched to an app called Connected Text.  While not free, Connected Text could do everything I wanted to do in wikidpad, and had a few additional features that (at least at the time) wikidpad lacked a full implementation of, including the ability to tag documents with categories (and have the corresponding category pages automagically created) and a very nifty visual navigation tool allowing you to surf effortlessly through webs of documents – and all for a relatively nominal fee that didn’t hurt my wallet.  I still use Connected Text today – yes, I type up everything I hand-write in my notebooks into Connected Text for future retrieval and elaboration – and recommend it heartily to other writers, but if your budget is too tight, wikidpad is still an excellent alternative. 

For the tech-savvy (and well-compensated), a portable digital device (a smartphone, pda, or netbook) might be a more elegant solution – giving you both the portable nature of a dead-tree notebook and the copy-and-paste, search-and-retrieve super-powers of an electronic format all at once.  For the rest of us, it’s hard to beat the cost-efficiency of paper and pencil (and I’m assuming you have a laptop or desktop computer elsewhere that you don’t want to carry around with you everywhere).

So, how do you use a notebook to improve your writing productivity, you ask?  Wasn’t that the question I was going to address all along, you imply sarcastically?  But of course, my friend.  The advantage of a small, easily portable notebook is just that: you can take it everywhere with you.  Even in a fast-paced, activity-filled life, there are those short moments, those lulls, between one event and the next.  And, if you’re like me, during this whole time, in the back of your mind, there are things bouncing around in your head just screaming to be written down.  If you have a notebook handy, during those lulls you have your chance.

A notebook is not for pretty prose or polished drafts.  It is for ideas, short scenes, dashes of dialog, snatches of character studies, and quick vignettes – anything that can be jotted down on paper in fifteen, ten, or even five minutes or less.  The intent is that some of these ideas, scenes, and bits and pieces of story will later be elaborated upon when you have time to more fully devote to creative writing.  Perhaps you don’t yet know when that time will be, but when it comes you will have preserved that initial flash of inspiration.

If you are like me, you may find that you have a large collection of ideas that together clearly revolve around a single story, and the ideas begin to form a web, which provides the initial form and structure of your story.  With the pieces in place, the next challenge is finding a large enough consecutive block of time to transform the loosely structured notes into the finely crafted prose & poetry you know you’re capable of.  Or at least, that’s my next big challenge.

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