Why the best novels are written on the back of an envelope

Writers, are you daunted by a  blank sheet of paper? Here’s a remedy

Do you have special notebooks? I have several. Many of them were gifts from friends who wanted to give me something writerly ‘to help with my new book’. The most extraordinary is upholstered in buckskin and inhabited by rough-edged Japanese paper with glints of gold, as though it is recycled from illuminated manuscripts.

It is undoubtedly lovely. But I have used only half a page of it.

When I need to chew over a plot arc or talk to myself about my themes, I reach into the bin for an old cover letter from my contact lens supplier, a delivery slip from Amazon. Or an envelope.

Dave tells me off for never emptying my bin. I regard it not as full but as well stocked. Anyway, he’s just as bad. His bin may be clear but beside his desk he has a pile of old printouts, with workings for his WIP, Mirabilis Year of Wonders. Each time he starts a new Mirabilis book, he buys a formal, lined notebook. They remain unused.

Why do we prefer to work like this? Perhaps it’s because the first idea is rarely the perfect one. Ideas need to be tweaked, turned upside down and shaken, scribbled out and started again. A scrappy page or an envelope that was already in the bin is not a serious document. It allows you to be rough.

Of course, it’s obvious to write notes on the blank side, but I prefer the side with the print on – where the only room is in the spaces between the original dull prose. Somehow this invites my most creative graffiti. My Inland Revenue PAYE coding notice (which was destined for the filing cabinet, not for throwing away) will now probably not be filed for months as it was in the way when I needed to make a research list for my new WIP Echo.

Real creative work goes through a lot of rough stages, and a blank sheet of beautiful paper is way too daunting for this.

I wonder how many posh notebooks are bought by writers’ friends and relatives and remain sacrosanct on the bookshelf?

Which do you use? Posh notebooks or scraps from the bin?

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  1. #1 by Lyn on April 10, 2011 - 3:53 pm

    Excellent point, Roz. I’m making myself use up the steno tablets, composition books, and lastly, the bound blank books. They are so delicious in the store–and so daunting, as you say, on the desk. But they are supplies, not furniture, so I’m going to try to make this year the year I fill them all up, transcribe them to the computer, and throw the ugliest ones away.

    What do you have to say about all those thumb drives we now own? 🙂

    • #2 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:05 pm

      ‘Supplies, not furniture’… you’re right, Lyn. We have to take charge of them. But I’m really fond of my bin now.

      Thumb drives? Love them. I can make multiple back-ups of everything and feel really smug.

  2. #3 by Dave Morris on April 10, 2011 - 3:58 pm

    Every time I write an idea on a scrap of paper or an envelope, I think of Guy Pearce’s character in Memento, forever skirting panic and chaos as he tries to hold all those thoughts together. The scraps pile up, I write the scene. Then I find a stack of notes in my jacket pocket, or wedged inside various books, and I have to go back and rework it. It would be so much easier if I put all my ideas down in one notebook – yet I feel like a cat that just won’t use the nice bowl you bought him, he just has to go and nibble that morsel off in a corner of the kitchen floor. The pristine scares us.

    • #4 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:18 pm

      Just don’t start tattooing anyone, dearest.

  3. #8 by laurastanfill on April 10, 2011 - 4:06 pm

    Yay for scraps! Of course my desk (and the kitchen table) suffer a bit from this method. I do have a three-ring binder for this novel, but it includes pictures of a particular instrument that a lovely man sent me from France. And his letter. And one helpful page my mom sent. And that’s about it.

    • #9 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:18 pm

      Laura, I am deeply curious about the pictures of this instrument from a lovely French man…

      • #10 by laurastanfill on April 11, 2011 - 2:38 am

        It’s actually a rare type of music box, and the lovely French man works at a museum where there is one. He was ever so kind to send me a CD, photos and written information. The box itself is a key object in the historical novel I’m writing, so I’m so thankful for his help–thankful enough to start a binder!

        • #11 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:28 pm

          What a lovely object to have to keep you inspired.

  4. #12 by Stephanie on April 10, 2011 - 4:07 pm

    Definitely scraps of paper. Fancy notebooks somehow put me off. I just need something to scribble on before reaching the computer keyboard.

    • #13 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:20 pm

      Hi Stephanie! I do like notebooks for other purposes, just not those problem-solving moments.

  5. #14 by last_lines on April 10, 2011 - 4:12 pm

    Great post Roz!
    I would have to be honest and say that I use both. I have an obsession with stationery of any kind and this includes beautifully bound notebooks. (Aside: I am already salivating with envy at your Japanese papered one gifted to you.) I also tend to use serviettes. But I splurged this month and bought myself to mini-moleskins. They are both lime-green and are unlined paged. I bought them mainly because I kept on misplacing the serviettes and random post-its. Already I am filling them up. I will still use whatever will keep ink…although I have been known to scribble down thoughts with eye pencils when said ink was not available…so yes there will still be serviettes for thoughts but now I will transcribe them to my lovely moleskins.

    • #15 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:21 pm

      Hi Kim! Yes, the Japanese notebook is a work of art. I’ve got a Moleskine too, completely untouched as yet.
      And serviettes! I’ve done that. Plus when I’m in the gym I rip pieces off leaflets.

    • #16 by Dave Morris on April 10, 2011 - 4:23 pm

      Actually I just looked in the Japanese notebook and there are some notes on just the first page. The trouble is, it is so lovely that I feel I can’t write anything rough in it – I have to have really worked an idea out before it deserves a page of its own.

  6. #17 by Alexander M Zoltai on April 10, 2011 - 4:12 pm

    I know I’m weird (in the etymological sense of the word) but I found this particular post of yours quite enchanting.

    Alas, I’m just geeky enough that I have multiple .txt programs on my computer for scrap-note-taking.

    Of course, when I leave the apartment without the computer, there are at least three sheets of paper torn from a Marble Composition notebook in my shirt pocket.

    I do use envelopes and such, but it’s always for mundane to-do notes.

    Must ponder why this post so delighted me…

    • #18 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:23 pm

      Hi Alexander – thank you! A Marble Composition notebook… I have no idea what that is, but I am imagining Italian water-marbled paper bought in an exotic location.

      • #19 by Alexander M Zoltai on April 10, 2011 - 4:31 pm

        Nope, it’s a cheap American thing–100 sheets, stitch-bound, 9.75X7.5 inches–with a fake marble design printed on the covers and handy tables and info boxes on the inside of the front and back covers.

        Oh, though popular here in America, I just noticed it’s made in India 🙂

        • #20 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:57 pm

          That’s the thing with creatives. A name grabs us and from then on it means what we want it to mean. Humpty Dumpty was the same.

  7. #21 by Maggie on April 10, 2011 - 5:02 pm

    Nice notebooks for journaling, scraps for jotting down random ideas for the WiP.

    • #22 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 5:47 pm

      Journaling – now that’s different. I think the key point might be the lack of stress to get it right!

  8. #23 by Erin Cawood on April 10, 2011 - 5:34 pm

    This is so true. I always buy a new note book and binder for every new WIP. (Although this might have something to do with my secret addiction to beautiful stationery.) Generally most of the creative work it done on my walk to/from work. Forty-five minutes of uninterrupted bliss. White noise playing in my ears and mobile ms office exercising my thumbs. I’ll tell you, one day, I’m going to get run over! Nice blog 🙂

    • #24 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 5:49 pm

      Thanks, Erin! I love walking too, although I walk very fast and if I tried to text at the same time I would probably dent a few bicycles.

  9. #25 by Birgitte Necessary on April 10, 2011 - 5:55 pm

    I used to use little notebooks that fit in my purse. I could whip them out and scribble in them while stuck in traffic. After reminding myself that notebook-scribbling while driving shared a lot with texting, I’ve tried to use the digital recorder on my iphone. But lately I bought a Moleskine…not horribly expensive, bit lovely and tactile and I’m finding myself filling it with ramblings and notes. I do have to remind myself that it’s okay to write crap in it…there’s an innate hesitancy around that.

    • #26 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 6:17 pm

      Oh I scribble in the car too, Birgitte! Some days I welcome red lights…

  10. #27 by Zelah on April 10, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    These days I almost entirely work on the PC if I’m at home. I have separate documents saved for plot ideas/brainstorming & for character lists (and names of made up things & places) that run alongside any major plot I’m working on.

    However, if I’m out and about and struck by inspiration then I grab whatever comes to hand. Usually an envelope or a leaflet I’ve been handed and was too polite to refuse.

    When out on training courses or other situations where I’m likely to have spare time on my hands, I’ll use a notebook (just a simple ring bound one with pages that tear out). This will then get typed up at some later date unless it’s something like a brainstorming diagram of possible plot elements.

    The thing is, since I can type over 80 words a minute and my handwriting is dreadful, it’s generally much faster and always more efficient for me to work electronically, at least that way I can read what it is that I wrote!

    The only exception is that I sometimes find song lyrics and poetry flow more easily on paper than on the screen.

    As for the expensive notebooks. I’ve got one that I use for writing out my better poetry, one that I use for writing down particularly inspiring quotes/passages by other writers & the rest generally get used for personal development stuff. If I want to work through a self-help book or similar, then I’ll reach for a notebook.

  11. #28 by Sally on April 10, 2011 - 8:47 pm

    I too make good use of envelopes. Makes the bills look less intimidating! 😉

    • #29 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:29 pm

      Good plan, Sally! Livens them up no end.

  12. #30 by Gabryyl on April 10, 2011 - 9:42 pm

    I get fancy notebooks every year for holidays…which I then regift or sell and buy loose leaf notebook paper by the truck load.

  13. #32 by Carmen Esposito on April 10, 2011 - 10:34 pm

    I too have the beautifully decorated leather journals that my friends have given me. They look great on my bookcase – untouched. I’ve tried several times to use them. After opening them, admiring the covers, the pages, and remembering the occasion when I received them they go right back into the bookcase.

    I have a Word Document called “Save Tidbits and Stuff for Later Referrence” and this is where I dump all my stray thoughts, ideas, character breakdowns, etc. Somehow, I feel better doing it this way. I can write drivel or genius on this document, spell check, delete, or play with fonts. The file looks pretty crazy and chaotic but it makes perfect sense to me.

    There’s no way I can bring myself to do that to the beautiful journals that I own. They’re on a pristine pedestal and I don’t want to marr their pages with scattered thoughs and crossouts. Perhalps I’ll grow out of this in the future but this is how I feel about it now.

    • #33 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:30 pm

      There’s definitely a pattern developing here…

  14. #34 by Engrid (Penny Epel) on April 10, 2011 - 10:42 pm

    4 lined….2 unlined….2 graph paper….1 leather bound 8″X10″ (a gift) – ALL unused.
    20 post-its stuck to my desk, lamp, and monitor – 3 envelopes – the margins of a wall calendar – ALL full of notes.
    1 Moleskin reporter’s notebook that lives in the outer pocket of my handbag – half filled with notes that I scribble when waiting in the car.
    Apps on my iPhone that I use ALL the time to keep track of stray dialogue, the errant character, or some description of a place I’m at or have just seen.

    I, too, am crazy about stationery….love the whole idea of a notebook, maybe a notebook filled with envelopes instead of paper. That would work for me. 🙂

    • #35 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:31 pm

      Maybe keeping a notebook in the car is the way to start actually using it, because when you need to write a note while driving you’re usually desperate. Or I am..

  15. #36 by Natalie on April 10, 2011 - 10:50 pm

    My favorite WIP began on the back of an envelope informing me I could win twelve million dollars* 🙂

    *free entry with annual subscription!!!

  16. #38 by Jonathan Moore on April 11, 2011 - 12:25 pm

    I keep a policeman’s notebook on me at all times (unless I forget). It fits in the pocket and has the advantage over the moleskin of having somewhere to hold a pencil. In the past I’ve asked a barmaid for the use of a pen and a page of her pad for food orders.
    For scrapping out ideas (as I’m doing at the moment trying to make notes for a second draft) I use the back of printouts from work rather than clean A4 paper.
    In my bureau there’s a leather bound, hand stitched, handmade paper notebook that looks lovely. I thought I would use it for a first draft before I realised how many mistakes would be involved, so maybe I’ll use it for a final version.

    • #39 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:32 pm

      Jonatan, doesn’t the policeman want it back?

      • #40 by Jonathan Moore on April 13, 2011 - 1:46 pm

        No, it saves him having to do paper work. Leaves more time for kettling and the like.

  17. #41 by Emma on April 11, 2011 - 3:04 pm

    Hahahaha! God, this is a great post! I don’t know why I seem to have the same thing about notebooks (esp. beautiful ones!). When I go to write something down I get writer’s block…. must be my unconciousness telling me not to ruin the book with blathering!
    I have books with pages carefully ripped out because I did’nt like what I’d written!
    Must…..keep…..envelopes! :^)

    • #42 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:33 pm

      Ho ho, Emma, ripping pages out is cheating!

  18. #43 by Mark Feggeler on April 11, 2011 - 3:34 pm

    Napkins, agendas of meetings to which I’m supposed to be paying attention, envelopes, scraps from the trash, sticky notes, receipts, and even toilet paper. When I must appear professional — or at least not like a schizophrenic homeless person — I carry a cheap spiral notebook.

    • #44 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:33 pm

      Agendas from meetings… certainly cheers them up to be creative with them.

      • #45 by Jonathan Moore on April 13, 2011 - 1:42 pm

        To be pedantic, agenda is a plural already (of agendum) so agendas is an oft used pretendy word.

        • #46 by rozmorris on April 13, 2011 - 8:54 pm

          Did you steal that notebook from a language policeman? Actually, with my editor hat on, ‘agendas’ is allowed now as the word has become anglicised. At least, on the magazines I sometimes work on, it is.

  19. #47 by Sally on April 11, 2011 - 8:13 pm

    Reading all these comments, can we safely conclude that creative people can’t put down their ideas in one single place (i.e. a special notebook), because their ideas can’t come at predictable times?

    • #48 by rozmorris on April 12, 2011 - 12:38 pm

      Sally, I think you’ve nailed it. I often find if I’m struggling, the best thing to do is something messy where I can’t pick up a pen. Then the ideas are clamouring.

  20. #49 by DazyDayWriter on April 12, 2011 - 2:45 pm

    Roz, excellent post with practical advice that resonates totally with me! My journals are used but only if I think an idea, a phrase, an insight is “special enough.” Otherwise, I too, like to grab whatever is handy to make notes on about a creative project. The challenge is finding all those notes when needed, but it’s the risk we all take (no matter where we record a thought, an idea), and sometimes it’s getting it written down that’s important … not looking back one day. Making notes helps me figure things out, and for that lovely process, I don’t want pressure to perform via nice paper, impressive journals, and so on! Thanks for sharing your always great notes here @ NYN blog and have a lovely spring week. –Daisy

    • #50 by rozmorris on April 13, 2011 - 8:55 pm

      Thanks, Daisy! You’re right – those notebooks do get used sometimes, but not for working ideas out.

  21. #51 by Madame Paradox on April 16, 2011 - 11:28 pm

    Oh my goodness I love this post. I have been using scraps for years. Back of envelopes are always wonderful, but my favorite is probably the bank receipt from the ATM. I always have those shoved in pockets. When inspiration hits, often between the gym and the walk to get groceries, I stop on the street corner, scrounge for a pen, then cover every empty white space on the print side and the blank side in tiny little words. For some odd reason, I can always work out problems better when forced into that tiny bit of writing space. How wonderful to know I’m not alone. Thanks.

    • #52 by rozmorris on April 17, 2011 - 8:27 am

      Thank you, Heidi! My husband gets struck by ideas when in the gym too. He has to take paper and a pen onto the Lifestep.

  22. #53 by Cynthia Briggs on April 17, 2011 - 12:33 am

    In reading your post I couldn’t help but think of a piano concert I went to many years back. The pianist was Walt Wagner who is known around the world but particularly in the Pacific Northwest. He told a hilarious story about writing a complete song from beginning to end on bar napkins. What made the story even funnier was it was titled, Humptulips, which is a real town near the ocean where he was staying. When an artist is struck with magic, they’ll grab whatever scrap they need to create.

    I have 5 “special” writing notebooks…I’ve written in only one. Envelopes are a big draw for me too, but I frequently misplace the envelope with the profound words written on the back and then I have to tear the house apart looking for it.

    Cynthia Briggs
    Cookbook Author

    • #54 by rozmorris on April 17, 2011 - 8:28 am

      Hi Cynthia! Humptulips… love that name. And the misplaced envelopes… we know in our house that scribbled-on envelopes are precious documents so they are never thrown away.

  23. #55 by Matt Cliff on April 26, 2011 - 3:45 pm

    Scientists work like this too! Many equations are derived by me on the back of bank statement envelopes. Part of the process is to see if two derivations end up the same. The use of notebooks has its place (in the lab), but working things out in notebooks requires a proper filing system that creativity has no place for. I have lots of things in notebooks I can’t find, and so they are no better than the bits of takeaway menus etc. Of course if you have a good idea, it stays in your head anyway.

    • #56 by rozmorris on April 26, 2011 - 10:34 pm

      Matt, that’s brilliiant to hear! However did you find your way over here…? Never mind; creativity is is no way just the preserve of writers. Thank you for commenting!

  24. #57 by Stephen on May 12, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    I use index cards for outlining: I number them consecutively, which makes it easy to change something, just use a new card and replace the old. I aim to lay out in reasonable detail the plot as it comes to me, and also to feel free to change it around or go in a different direction if it’s not working. But if I get an idea in the middle of the workday, or at the pub… I just type it into the note application on my iPhone.

    I do have a whole pile of Moleskines and other interesting-looking notebooks and pads that I never use for anything. I think you’re right about needing something informal and disposable to capture those first ideas.

    • #58 by rozmorris on May 12, 2011 - 3:42 pm

      Hi Stephen! I’m a big fan of index cards too – I love to fiddle with the order to see which way round events have most impact. Alas, I am not in possession of a phone that does anything other than make calls, so if the muse descends while I’m out I end up scrabbling for leaflets, flyers – and occasionally the torn-off corner of a poster. Shhh

  25. #59 by atombaby on May 13, 2011 - 1:57 am

    I absolutely love stationery. But like you, I find that the fanciest notebooks get the least amount of attention (though they’re each dedicated to a specific purpose and story) while the crummiest ones — i.e., the 10 year old Mead composition books and the bills on my desk get the most writing action. Of course, making sense of and transferring those notes to the special stationery is always fulfilling!

    • #60 by rozmorris on May 13, 2011 - 8:40 am

      Ah, you have the patience to transfer the notes to proper books? I’m always in too much of a rush!

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