Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

The writer's notebook, or Let's not really write

Standard advice to the beginner writer is to keep a notebook or journal. Jot down phrases that come into your mind, they say, paint word pictures, keep a diary of what happened to you every day, your thoughts and feelings, practise with writing exercises. This, you are assured, will get the writing juices going, will encourage a facility with words, and will hone your observational skills.

I say baloney. I say that you will end up with a nice collection of notebooks, but you won't be a writer.

Keeping a journal or notebook fosters the journal-writing skill, not the fiction-writing skill. Fiction requires skills that journals won't bring out, can't bring out. Journals are the eddies in the stream, the procrastinator's heaven. I repeat: if you want to write fiction, journals won't foster the skills you need.

What are "notebook skills" and why don't they encourage the skills of fiction-writing? Let's look at a few.

1. Me, Myself, I
Delve within yourself, say those who preach journal-keeping to beginner writers. Learn your motivations, what makes you tick, and then you will be able to write about deep and complex emotions.

A few years of this kind of journal-writing will make you well acquainted with yourself, but at the end that's what you'll be able to write about – yourself.

It's easy to write about yourself. And there are plenty of thinly-veiled autobiographies masquerading as novels these days that show that editors accept them. But how many great books are simply portraits of the writer as a young man? Not Crime and Punishment.

Real writers love characters. Writers catch fire at the thought of inventing a really interesting person. Most writers say that their stories began with a character who leapt up, whole and complete, in their mind's eye, a person with a story that had to be written. Writing about your own inner thoughts and feelings, your own daily life, won't get you a Huckleberry Finn or a Holden Caulfield. Actually writing fiction will.

But, you protest, journal-writers are encouraged to create word-sketches of characters, to invent people. I say again, baloney. Characters-sketches are not characters. Characters live in a fully created world with a past and future, they inter-act with other characters, they go through time, they change and are changed by inner motivation and external circumstances. What part of writing a character sketch is the actually working on a real novel? Which brings me to:

2. A plate of spaghetti, all covered with cheese
It's fun to write scenes, character sketches, mood pieces, quick word-pictures of rainy streets or of the ocean touched by sunrise. It feels so creative to do ten-minute free-flow, free-association writing exercises. And writing story ideas: all writers jot down story ideas and it's a wonderful intense burst of creative energy. The difference between the jotting down of short pieces and a novel is that journal-keepers do the short bursts and the real writers write the books.

Journals full of short bursts are like plates of spaghetti: a big heap of stuff without structure.

Then there is:

3. Death by a thousand bon mots
Those who encourage the journal habit will tell you to keep a notebook constantly at hand. Write down phrases and sentences that come to mind, they say, for later use in stories.

Picture the scene: you are writing your novel, you come to a point where you need a powerful descriptive scene, and you think "hey, I wrote one a couple of years ago. Now where the heck is that notebook?" Or you have a brilliant sentence saved that you just have to put in a character's mouth. Hmmm, no character seems likely to say such a thing, so let's tweak the narrative so one of them can. It would be a pity to waste a good line.

Sort of like dumpster diving: this looks like it might be useful one day. Let's keep it.

Some writers are able to use these little treasures they have invented. They are usually writers of the pointillist, perhaps even brittle, "aphorist" school of fiction. Think Truman Capote. But rare is the good narrative writer who interrupts his flow of work to look up something he jotted down months or years ago. Who even remembers what they wrote years ago? When you are really writing, the words you need come to you. The words the story needs arise from writing it.

Writing fiction is not in the snippet, the phrase, the sketch, the free-flow exercise. It is about really writing a whole piece of narrative with all the components of a story: plot, character development, conflict, mood, all worked out, all working together. The cartoonist Nicole Hollander has a "writing test" typical of those published in magazines by people who are selling writing courses. The cartoon begins: "Complete the following sentence and then write 300 more pages..."

A journal is "complete the sentence". A novel is "300 more pages". Novels need discipline, concentration, determination, the ability to see a project through though months or years, the ability to recognise good writing from bad, in order to edit and refine, the strategic, god-like view of the narrative as an entire, interwoven system of character, motivation, time and circumstance. What part of journal-keeping teaches these?