Category Archives: books & writing

Books, Literature & Writing. Maybe Art too.

idea notebook tips

I am a big supporter of idea notebooks. I (kind of) consider myself an expert in them – or at the very least a success story. Because I’ve been keeping mine for years now (as I wrote about some a couple of years ago) and it works so well for me – I’m on notebook number 41 (a couple from high school, but really I’ve been numbering them since ’99 – good golly, does that mean I’ve been at this for ten years? I believe it does!). So I’ll share my personal tips.

I think of mine as “writing notebooks,” but they’re really a combination of ideas, lists, a daily journal, sketchbook, writing exercises, the occasional pasted-in ad or photo, copied quotes, and whatever else. I also keep “kid notes” in the first few pages of each one, funny things my kids say or do, milestones, things like that, very useful for scrapbook journaling which I then (when I finish the notebook and start a new one) transfer to a binder where I keep all of them together. And yes, this is all about physical notebooks, though I know a lot of people like to keep their version of the Idea Notebook on the computer or some other device – for me, actual paper is simple, inexpensive, with no learning curve, no problem with batteries or power outages or crashing – basically, no excuses. Also, it’s what I know.

Use just one notebook.

Buy or denote it specifically as an idea book but DON’T use a fancy hardbound beautiful book. Of my 41 books, only the one I’m on right now is hardbound – always before I have used spiral notebooks. It sounds silly, but it’s not – I love beautiful notebooks but I was ALWAYS too intimidated to actually write in them. I didn’t want to mess them up, or I felt like what I wrote in them had to be Good, or Brilliant!, it couldn’t just be average or (heaven forbid) bad, scribbled out, or a mistake.

One of my favorite sayings is: “Perfect is pretty, but finished is BEAUTIFUL.” That feeling of perfectionism was stopping me, so just using a regular, one subject spiral notebook made it so I could write anything, and it was okay. (Also spirals, even the awesome spirals with pretty covers at Target, are fairly inexpensive, so I can always get another easily – just that much less pressure, unlike the beautiful leather hardback books that cost $20 or more.) Even then, sometimes the first page of a notebook – all blank and scary – is a little intimidating, so I always pick a couple of inspirational quotes for the very first page, sometimes with a theme; that way I don’t have to write my own words on it.

If for whatever reason you really want to use a hardbound book, that’s fine, of course, but maybe try the quotes-on-the-first-page thing or something. I’ve even heard of people who scribble all over the first or second page of the book – then they can say to themselves, oh look, it’s already messed up, now I can write whatever I want. (If you don’t have this perfectionistic hangup of “Oh, I don’t want to mess it up!” well, then hooray for you! I will still be your friend. Probably.)

The other thing is that you don’t have to use regular lines – I like graph paper personally, or once you get practice, totally blank sheets can be freeing. I started with regular spirals – in fact, I got a box of plain ol’ spirals on sale for dirt cheap soon after I started. After a while I started decorating those with stickers. Now I usually get one with a pretty cover from Target. You can absolutely decorate them if you like – but I would recommend NOT doing this to start with, as it can so easily become one more thing you get hung up on and never get past. Start using your notebook first – then embellish if you want to.

Always keep it with you.

It’s not a lot of use to you if you can’t record something in it at any time. I buy my purses so that they fit my notebooks. You COULD do it the other way around though. 🙂 I generally prefer to write in full size spirals, 8.5×11, but of course you could use a smaller one.

If I were giving advice (oh wait, I am!) I would say try setting a timer and writing for five or ten minutes in it each day, just to get into the habit of knowing it’s there, and using it. You could write to-do lists, a draft of a letter to a person or company, rough draft journaling for a scrapbook page, draw a sketch of a magazine ad for later use on a layout, make a list of stories you still want to tell on scrapbook pages, brainstorm ideas for upcoming projects, or whatever applies to you.

Number your idea notebooks.

Like I said – I am on notebook number 41. I know this because I, well, number them. (Revolutionary, right? LOL.) I used to write the number (and the dates it covered, January to May of 2001 or whatever) on the inside cover – now I use a white sticker label and put it on the back top corner of the book, but whatever. But I do think that numbering them has helped me stick with it – it gives me a sense of progress, and helps me stay with just one notebook. The one notebook thing is important because otherwise I am tempted to start separate ones for different subjects and projects. And that way madness lies. Or at least, that way a pile of scattered, random notebooks and papers lies, and then I give it up.

A couple of ideas for fine-tuning:

As I just mentioned, I put a label on the back of each notebook as I finish it with the number and the dates. If I did hardcovers I would put this info on the spine, but I’ve already discussed that.

Mostly I enjoy just putting my lists and so on wherever I want in the book – but occasionally I’ll be keeping a list that I know I’ll refer to a lot and want to know where it is. My answer to that is either use post-its as markers on the page so I can find it, or I’m trying something new – use a punch or a small cup, make two circles, paste them back to back over one piece of paper, as a tab several pages in from the back of the notebook. Then I put some lists, or projects in progress notes back there, where I can find them more easily.

Anyway, those are my (extremely long and overly wordy) tips on idea notebooks. Mine are such an indispensible part of my life now, I hope this helps someone out there.

spaiku, part 2

Remember spaiku?

Throbbing headache makes
me fear: impending illness?
Probably not – just needing some sleep. I hope. 

I am so tempted to just write spaiku for the whole rest of the month….

Share your spaiku in the comments! (5 syllables, 7 syllables, then whatever!)

Since I would rather eat my own arm than talk about politics…

…particularly on my blog, and because the meme I was working on is way WAY too hard to finish up before bed, and because it is now terribly late…

Here is a link to a quite short story, a little weird or possibly creepy, but definitely interesting: Don Ysidro

Here is a poem by e. e. cummings. Did you know that he wrote some mostly normal ones?

it may not always be so;and i say
that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
another’s,and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart,as mine in time not far away;
if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as i know,or such
great writhing words as,uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be,i say if this should be–
you of my heart,send me a little word;
that i may go unto him,and take his hands,
saying,Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

e.e. cummings

And… Continue reading

all good books

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened to you, and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

-Ernest Hemingway


First, and unrelated: this is a great post about toys, buying, making, all those concerns brought up by recalls lately. I know it’s old, but still good — and I wanted to save it on my blog. Read it.


[This post began as a comment on this post over at Kerflop. However, as is wont to happen, it started to get lengthy and I decided I needed to just move it on over here. And then, as is also wont to happen, it languished in the drafts for a while. (This is why I will never be a news reporter – not so good with the “timely” thing. Also because it is random and doesn’t really hold together.)]

I am a definite PZ4 — a term I first heard here, and I find it positively endearing, so dorky and intellectual and perfect — a fantasy/scifi fan. I read Lord of the Rings (including the appendices) for the first time in fifth or sixth grade, and then scores (possibly hundreds) of times after that. In eighth grade we had to make a newspaper (ah, the basically pre-computer days still, no desktop publishing programs, just cutting and pasting onto big sheets of paper — though I did include a few pixelated graphics/clipart) and mine was the Hobbiton Herald. It was awfully fun to do, too — making up ads for hobbit holes and wagons, lost and found classifieds, articles about arcane pieces of hobbit history (some of it from the appendices of the books, some that I made up myself).

So much in my sense of how-a-story-should-be, especially anything fantasy, was shaped by Lord of the Rings. For example, I can’t stand it when the pace is TOO fast, when the characters never get to eat or rest, ever. I don’t find it exciting, it just exhausts and unnerves me. Chalk it up to all the Tolkien in my formative years. In fact, in my early English literature class in college we read Beowulf in a prose translation. Something about it — not the story, but something — seemed so familiar to me. Eventually I figured out that it was the rhythm, the style of the language — it was just like Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien the tremendous Old English scholar, go figure.) And so when I took an Old English (the language) class my junior year, for the final translation project I was one of only two people in the class to choose to translate something in English into Old English — I picked various poems and riddles from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It was sort of almost easy.

(The other person was my friend John – remember John, in Ireland? – and he picked the harder task of translating Dr. Seuss’s book about the Sneetches into Old English. Because he’s cool like that.)

Kerflop talked a little in that entry above about finding Twilight et al more “believable” than most books of its genre, that maybe that was why she liked it. Now, just about all of the fantasy/scifi I read, I would say is “believable,” as far as characters experiencing a story goes. (Some of that is in how well it’s written, I suppose, and of course it varies depending on the book, just as it does in any genre, including “mainstream” or whatever the heck you want to call it. I like to think this means my taste is impeccable, though I suppose it could just mean my standards are low and I am easily drawn into a story. Not so much now though, now that I am a crochety adult.) Of course, the world they inhabit is not always (in fact, usually not) ours — and for most PZ4s that is a major part of the appeal, gradually discovering and finding out about the fantastical world. Maybe for those who aren’t usually “into” fantasy that’s why Harry Potter (and apparently these Twilight books) are more accessible, because they start in the “real” world? Even if later they basically segue into something completely different (the wizarding vs. Muggle world, etc). But maybe they can still refer to familiar reality as well, something that a lot of fantasy (Lord of the Rings for example) can’t. Hmm.

It’s funny actually, so many things, especially TV and movies, are now incorporating scifi or fantastic elements in them, that people are much more familiar with that sort of thing than they used to be. I am (not so?) woefully television-ally ignorant, so I’m hardly one to start making a list, but there’s the overtly fantasy shows (like Heroes) and those that are more subtly so (Pushing Daisies? ok, that’s pretty overt, or so it appeared from the five minutes I saw the other night; but LOST, there’s a good example). “Science fiction” is so often fantasy anyway, the magic is just done by pushing a button instead of by waving a wand. All stories are pretty much fantastic, more or less, I suppose that’s what makes them fiction (and yet we all know those true stories that are really stranger than fiction, that you would never accept in a movie without rolling your eyes, and yet they happen — what does THAT say?).

Finally, two quotes from fantasy writers, and then I must shut down my ridiculously laggy computer:

by Gene Wolfe:

Fantasy is the easiest thing to write, and one of the hardest to write well. It is hard because good fantasy, like good art, demands that we depict what we see.
          And not what we “know” to be “true.” I once put a witch and a private detective in the same book, and I have been told ever since that I am not to do that by people who will not see that the private detective and the witch often live in the same block.
          The universe is extensive, and time wider than any sea; it is our good fortune, Horatio, to live at a time and in a place vastly richer than most in those things that are not to be found in your philosophy.
          My editor says, and says truly, that he has become the man he wanted to be as a child. I, too, have been fortunate. As a child I wanted very badly to have adventures and go to Oz. I have had many and look forward to more; and on the tenth or it may have been the twentieth occasion that I watched Bert Lahr rescue Judy Garland from the pigs (the newspaper I read every day does not even know that pigs are dangerous) I realized that I was born here: Kansas is black-and-white, and that’s not where I live.
          Not so long ago I saw a magnificent German shepherd lunge from between two parked cars, held in check by a blonde who could have played first base in the National League. And it struck me that a fantastic adventure could have been filmed on the spot simply by hanging a skull about that woman’s neck and equipping her with a broadsword – but the woman and her dog are everything, while the skull and sword are nothing.
          Fantasy is life seen whole, and reading fantasy enables us to do it. (I will not say “only life seen whole,” because life includes all that is and is not.) We have heroes and heroines, castles and curses, seers and sorcerers, angels and alchemists, and invisible airplanes. We have that woman and her dog and a million more wonders, and all that is necessary for fantasy is a visitor from Kansas.

by Patricia C. Wrede:

Technically, all fiction is fantasy. It hasn’t happened in “real life”; it has been invented. But there is a divide between fantastic literature and other, more realistic fiction.
          Most fiction is like a pane of glass, a window that we look through to see another view of the world outside ourselves. It is not a tale of real events, but it looks real. Fantastic literature is not merely not-real, it is aggressively not-real. The events in a fantasy novel are not simply things that have not happened; they are things that cannot happen. Dragons and unicorns exist only as metaphors, and the daylight world suffers a serious shortage of magic swords and flying carpets.
          Thus, fantasy does something different from realistic mainstream and historical fiction. Fantasy takes the window and coats the outside with the silver of wondrous impossibilities – elves, dragons, wizards, magic. And the window becomes a mirror that reflects both ourselves and all the things in the shadows behind us, the things we have tried to turn our backs on. More: In the best tradition of magic mirrors, fantasy reflects not only ourselves and our shadows, but the truth of our hearts.
          I think this is one of the reasons some people fear fantasy.

how bookish

Found on Owlhaven (a long time ago!).

1. Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback? I’ll read any, but I’m partial to the trade paperbacks, large, pretty paper, smooth cover, mmm… and hardcovers are pretty too of course. But heavy.

2. Amazon or brick and mortar? Almost equal. I even go to my library online (lots of reserving and renewing books there) but of course have to drive to the building.

3. Barnes & Noble or Borders? Uh, whatever. Do they have books?

4. Bookmark or dog-ear? I love bookmarks but never seem to have them on hand. No, I’m not above dog-ear-ing. Somehow I missed being instilled with the horror of this. Quirk: I usually dog ear the bottom corner rather than the top.

5. Alphabetize by author or alphabetize by title or random? When my books are “organized” (which they are not at present), I have a semi-complicated system, more or less topical/genre which allows me to find things quickly, but without being burdened by the onus of alphabetizing.

6. Keep, throw away, or sell? I almost never buy a book without reading it first, so yeah, keep. On occasion I exchange it for store credit at the local used book store.

7. Keep dustjacket or toss it? When I was younger I used to stick them in a drawer, now I keep them on the books. And my kids take them off, which irritates me.

8. Read with dustjacket or remove it? Read with it on — and use the end flap as a bookmark!

9. Short story or novel? Novels, but I like creative nonfiction, and the occasional book of short stories or essays. And poetry, by authors I like.

10. Collection (short stories by same author) or anthology (short stories by different authors)? Either. I tend toward best of anthologies.

11. Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket? Definitely Harry Potter. The first Lemony Snicket was amusing in style (even the author’s name is delightful), but I want something with a soul.

12. Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks? I don’t even register chapter breaks when I’m really into a book. When dawn peeks through the window, or someone drags me away.

13. “It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”? Once upon a time.

14. Buy or Borrow? I love our local library and use it as much as possible.

15. New or used? I also love our local used book store… et cetera.

16. Buying choice: book reviews, recommendation or browse? Mostly recommendations, though many from blogs – is that technically a review? Hm. And like I said, I almost never buy a book before reading it.

17. Tidy ending or cliffhanger? Tidy — well, satisfying is my real criteria.

18. Morning reading, afternoon reading or nighttime reading? Um, all of the above? I am especially bad about nighttime reading though — I get sucked in and can’t stop and read till 3 am. I don’t feel like I’m done winding down for the night till I’ve read a few pages of something though.

19. Stand-alone or series? More or less equal of each.

20. Favorite series? Oh, Lord of the Rings, Dark is Rising, Harry Potter, the Wrinkle in Time books, Narnia, Little House,

21. Favorite children’s book? There are too many. But I love Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, and The Ropemaker, by Peter Dickinson. And Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.

22. Favorite book of which nobody else has heard? How do I know what you’ve heard of? Um, I really like The Changeling Sea, by Patricia McKillip, and Black Unicorn, by Tanith Lee.

23. Favorite books read last year? I don’t keep track so much of the time when I read things. But here’s a smattering: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean; Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy Rosenthal; Fledgling, Octavia Butler; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, Susanna Clarke; The Big Picture, Stacy Julian; Guns, Germs and Steel … I’d best stop there.

24. Favorite books of all time? The aforementioned Black Unicorn, and The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle. Just about anything by Robin McKinley and Orson Scott Card.

25. Least favorite book you finished last year? Wicked, but I didn’t even finish it. Blech.

26. What are you reading right now? Salt: A World History.

27. What are you reading next? New Moon, by Stephenie Myer, as soon as it comes into the library.


Sometimes, oh Internets, when I look things up, crazy things, like What if a planet had two moons, what would the effect on the tides be? and How far can a pony travel in a day? — it is for things like this that they invented the Internet. And at those times, I love you, Internets.  Mwah!