Writers on writing: an interview with Jeff Abbott

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As readers of this blog already know, Jeff Abbott, bestselling author of suspense titles Panic and Fear, uses Clairefontaine notebooks to sketch out his works in progress. Here, Jeff answers a couple questions about his methodology.

On your blog, you mentioned that you use notebooks to keep track of ideas that occur to you while writing, to sketch scenes, outline plot points, and so on… is this something you do systematically, or just whenever inspiration strikes? Do you organize your notebooks according to project (i.e., a specific novel or screenplay) or by theme (characters, research, plots)?

Each novel starts in its own Clairefontaine notebook, and serves as a catchall for ideas as they come to me. I don’t try to organize it overmuch (with separate sections for characters, plot points, etc.), except I do keep a running list of research issues and questions. If I do need a separate section I mark it with a durable index tab from Post-It. Those are easily labeled and removed when I don’t need them any more. But pretty much, ideas get written into the notebook as they come to me. So one page might be the initial sketch for a character’s background, and the next might be an idea for a scene that involves a different character. That’s okay. This approach provides a map or diary to see how the book evolved. For other projects that aren’t books, I keep a small pocket notebook with me all the time, and notes about those ideas, or any ideas non-book-related go in there. If an idea evolves into a bigger project (such as writing a film treatment for a studio), then the project graduates to its own Clairefontaine notebook. I label the front of each notebook so I know what’s covered inside at a glance. Right now I have active notebooks for the new novel I’m writing, one for short stories, and for a film project I’m involved with.

I don’t want to overorganize the notebooks there is a lot of value in flipping through the pages, revisiting ideas as the book evolves, and seeing what I originally planned and how the book turned out.

Do your methods change from book to book?
It really depends on the book. Some books have required a lot more notes than others, for no specific reason. I suspect sometimes I have a surfeit of ideas when I’m concepting a book and just have to figure out how to merge them or cut them, and the best way to do that is to get them all down and consider them. I have had to think more about some books than others, or I’ve pursued more tangents related to the main idea. My novel that will be out this summer, Trust Me, had its first draft written in longhand in Clairefontaines; I’m not doing that with the book I’m currently writing. But if tomorrow I wanted to write all day in longhand, I would without hesitation. Sometimes shaking up your approach will shake up your thinking always a good exercise in avoiding falling into a rut.

Where do your paper planners come in?
I think of a planner as a tool to help a creative person keep focus, rather than simply listing to-dos and appointments. Focus is critical in any creative effort. Projects die when focus shifts or drifts. Procrastination is a mortal enemy. I use two basic strategies:

* plan for that week what I need to do to keep the project(s) moving forward
* block out time (both work and personal) so I have a view of how I’m ideally spending my time, and make notes of how I’m actually spending my time when it varies from the plan (here the planner becomes a bit more like a diary)

To me, the most important thing a paper planner can help a writer with is in keeping that momentum going by offering a visual representation of what you’ve gotten done, and a sense of perspective as you approach your deadline (whether self-imposed or from a publisher). Jerry Seinfeld once said that every day he wrote, he drew a big red line on his calendar for that day, it gave him a sense of ongoing momentum to see how many days he’d made the mark in a row. It’s the same idea here. I can see what I’ve done each day and hopefully know that I’m working well and moving forward. This is a use of a planner that’s just hard to do with an electronic calendar. Looking at the Quo Vadis formats, I’d probably go with either Notor (I like the minimized schedule I don’t have tons of appointments; the priority space, and the room for notes/reflections) or Journal 21 (I like the monthly/annual views in addition to the daily pages, which gives a nice overview of what’s coming up later in the year.) Right now I’m using a weekly view planner and it’s a bit cramped, although I like the weekly overview it gives me. But often creative pursuits are very day-by-day, so a daily planner is a good choice.

Do you feel that your use of paper notebooks and planners affects how you write, or just how you plan and execute your projects? If the former, how do you think your writing is affected?
I had always kept a notebook of sorts, but probably kept too many of my ideas and my thoughts in my head. The first book I wrote that I got very serious about using a notebook to track every idea and develop my thoughts as I wrote was Panic, and that was the book that changed my career: a bestseller in several countries, optioned for film by a major studio. Before that I kept a lot fewer notes, lots of brainstorming sketches on an artist’s pad, usually jammed into a cheap notebook. Then I made a lot of notes in the manuscript itself. But I knew that Panic was going to be a bigger book that I’d done before, and I needed a better way to track and flesh out my thoughts.

The notebooks make me slow down in my thinking, which is good. There is a great impulse to go with the first idea that strikes when you’re in the heat of composition, and it’s not always the strongest idea. I can type off a ton of ideas, but it’s harder to see them in relation to each other electronically. It’s easier to daydream, to explore ideas, on paper. (I do finally put them in an outline on my Mac, though, when I feel I’m ready to structure the book a bit.) And I think there is a subtle boost given to you when your tools like your notebooks or planners are good quality. It suggests that your work matters. It’s nice to write on quality paper. Notebooks are more portable than laptops, they’re freer of distractions. I keep the notebook at hand while I’m writing and additional thoughts and notes go inside it usually ideas I want to consider a bit more before I commit them to the manuscript.

Re planners, I think the paper planner makes me slow down as well and encourages me to be a bit more reflective. I like striking out with a highlighter what I’ve gotten done. I’m a visual person and it’s more satisfying. I also like having this mental snapshot of what was going on in my life while I was writing the book, whether in the notebook or the calendar. You can’t get that with an electronic calendar. I will write awful day or great writing day on a date in the calendar, depending on how the work went. It’s interesting to flip back through at the end of the year and see how the year took shape, creatively.

Do you keep your old notebooks, once you’re finished with them? Have you ever revisited an old notebook?
Absolutely, I keep them all. It’s a great exercise, if feeling starved for an idea, to go back and look at my old notes. Sometimes an idea that seemed a bit off two years ago will, placed in a new context, be fresh and interesting to me. Sometimes a note for a character that I never used before will take on new life when I’m thinking of a new book.

Is there a specific pen you use when writing fiction?
I like Pilot G-2 and Uniball Signo gel pens, because they’re inexpensive and easy. I’m not a big fountain pen user, although I have three Lamy Safari pens that I like and I use sometimes. They’re moderately priced, durable, and reliable.

One thought on “Writers on writing: an interview with Jeff Abbott

  1. Thanks for this post! I really like hearing about how you use your notebooks. I love the idea of recording your ideas in a notebook chronologically and seeing how they develop over time. I have never tried to write a book, but I would imagine that I would get bogged down with categorizing ideas, characters, scenes etc. as I tend to do with most things. I like the idea of letting things develop organically.

    Just today my sister and I were emailing about using paper planners and how we prefer them over electronic. She summed it up nicely with, “Nothing like seeing your handwriting and remembering what it was like to live in that moment.” It’s true, I jot things into my planner as the idea occurs to me, so it is captured on the page at the moment I thought it. I can imagine your notebooks have a similar way of capturing the creativity of the moment and letting you relive that mindset when you read it later.

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