Some novelists scorn the use of notes. They want the writing process to be organic. As more pages are written, the vague whorl of a book inside the writer’s mind takes better shape. A protagonist gains his stride. A plot starts to follow a logical sequence. Pretty soon, as the toy maker Geppetto declared of Pinocchio, the author exclaims: “It’s a real boy!” 

While I advocate working organically, I also believe in being economical. Writing a novel can be likened to exploring a medieval city, with many crooked blind alleys that, while interesting along the way, lead to nowhere. For my first novel, I wrote 200 pages before I finally realized who my main character was—and then had to start all over again at the beginning. Do you really have that much time to spare?

You can work from notes and still be organic. Good notes help a character gain definition right away. I have read debut novels in which I vaguely sense where the main character is coming from—but she doesn’t have enough unique qualities to stand out. The author has not put her idiosyncrasies on the page—because she hasn’t stopped to think what they are. You can do this deliberately. 

Write a character sketch that is focused entirely on finding out her little tics. You want to stay away from generalities. Focus on specific attributes. She can’t help stealing little things while shopping, for example. A pack of gum, a cellphone car jack, etc. Not worth much, but she loves that thrill of having it in her pocket as she goes through the checkout line. How long has she been doing this? What was it like the first time? Has she ever been caught? 

You can go deeper than that too. Did she have a special talent early on that her mother suppressed because it was antisocial? All of these questions have specific answers. When you consider this aspect of your heroine before the book starts, your notes will ensure that it frames your writing about her.

Exercise: You can also use these notes as a way to reject what at first seems like a promising idea. Perhaps you decide that your protagonist eats Cheerios for breakfast. He’s done that since childhood, indicating a conservative bent that marks his overall personality. That’s not a bad idea, but then ask yourself: is that really the best way to indicate his conservatism? If you, for instance, had him insist on paying the check when eating out, then you might be able to write a scene in which his girlfriend yells at him in a restaurant.

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