How often have you come across a line while reading a book, and felt a sudden surge of… something?
Something that makes your heart pulse a little more fervently, something that heats your chest, something that sparks a little fire in your soul. How often do you turn to whatever journal, book, or writing device you have nearby just to write it down, to remember it because it meant something to you?
Odds are, particularly if you’re a creative type, that’s happened quite a bit. It’s been a commonplace thing for many creatives throughout history, so much so, there’s even a name for the style of journaling. It’s called a commonplace book, and you should totally start one.
What is a commonplace book?
Simply put, a commonplace book is a journal in which phrases of note are copied or recorded for one's own personal use. This could be passages from books, quotes seen on Pinterest, things overheard, and even things you've thought.
How do you start a commonplace book?
Starting a commonplace book is simple. All you need is a journal, a pen/pencil, and a bunch of things you want to record.
Five tips for your commonplace book
Starting any kind of creative task can be daunting, so here are my tips for compiling your commonplace book.
1. Ignore the temptation to strive for perfection
A commonplace book isn't designed to be a beautiful thing placed on display. It's simply a place to record things you love. You can, of course, work hard to make it aesthetically pleasing, or filled with adorable drawings, but don't let the idea of creating something perfect stop you from starting. A messy commonplace book is better than none at all.
2. Don't worry about having things in order
Fill your commonplace book with passages as you find them. You don't have to work out a table of contents before you begin and proceed to categorise your work as you go. That will simply take time and cause confusion. The theme of this book is 'Things that Inspire Me,' resist the temptation to further divide that into subcategories.
3. Allow yourself creative free reign
Your commonplace book doesn't have to be solely reserved for quotes, or other written media. Mix things up a little with drawings, doodles, photographs, magazine cut-outs, or even pressed flowers. You can even write passages on different papers and glue or sellotape them into your book.
4. Make the experience an event
I understand that sometimes you don't have a spare moment to sit down and artistically add something to a notebook, but sitting down and recording things you love is such a relaxing experience. When I come across a passage I want to add to my commonplace book, I take note of it on my phone. Then, once I've compiled quite a list of things, I'll make myself some tea, sit in the sunlight, or cosy up with a blanket and a crackling candle on a rainy day, grab my pen or pencil and have a calm moment or two while I write. It's a form of self-care. Enjoy it.
5. Find inspiration everywhere
I have a list of things on my phone that inspire me. Strange things that I probably shouldn't reveal. Things like ants, climbing the gaps in cobblestones while carrying a crumb twice their size. Include strange little lists like these in your commonplace book, and seek inspiration everywhere you go. You can find it in nature, in books, in lyrics of songs, dialogue of movies, words of your best friend. If it inspires you, include it.
Stationary I love to use
I use a little journal for my commonplace book, which allows me to put it in my handbag and take it with me if I feel like I'm going to wind up somewhere that I'll be able to write. I picked up this blank book by seeso graphics at TK Maxx, in the discount section for around $2. If you're looking for something bigger, I thoroughly recommend Rhodia journals - their pages are some of the softest I've ever felt. As for writing utensils, I either use pencil (the pages in my journal are fairy see-through), or in my Rhodia journal, I use nothing but Stabilo Fineliners. I somehow scored a pack of 30 for $10, so keep your eyes peeled for discounts.
Ah, writing tips, you and I have had a tumultuous relationship.
I’ve been writing stories my whole life, there was never a beginning moment and I hope there’ll never be an end. It’s something I’ve simply had to do, because there is a story inside me that torments me until I get it out. It’s part of who I am. It took me longer than I’d like to admit, to realise that it’s not just about the story – it’s about the writing too. A tale can be well conveyed and … not so (spoiler alert: all of my earlier works definitely fell into the ‘not so’ category).
It was a bumpy ride through my teenage years, from the time I was twelve, when I penned my very first novel-length story featuring trolls with orange feet and pink hair and green noses (or some variation thereof). I thought it was the best piece of literature to ever grace the Earth (it most certainly was not). It wasn’t until I turned sixteen, having just finished a sci-fi dystopian that I looked back and thought perhaps it wasn’t so great – after all, I couldn’t bring myself to read a single word back.
Now that I’m 22, and I wrote my first novel-length story a decade ago, I’ve realised that some of the reasons my earlier writing was so poor was because I never listened to any writing tips at all. Sometimes I wonder what would have been different if I had listened, so here are the top ten writing tips I wish I’d listened to when I first began.
Would you believe that I only started editing my novels when I was seventeen? I laugh about it every time I think of that. It’s silly. Why did I ever think that a first draft was the best draft? I think I had a weird, twisted superiority complex. I’d always been the nerd, top of my class, effortlessly A+ student, and I wasn’t accustomed to producing anything but my best on the first go. Thankfully, I am no longer that person, and I know that my first draft is not my best draft, in fact, my first draft is my worst draft. That’s rock bottom, everything from there on out is up. I know sometimes it’s easy to look at editing as an arduous task, but I suggest you look at it as something exciting. You have the bones of your book, now you get to decorate it and make it look pretty. Have fun!
2. Take Your Time
Like a good wine, a tasty cheese, or most human beings, a novel gets better with age. Keep it cooking like a slow roast, fermenting like yeast or growing like a beanstalk that you planted with the sole intention of discovering if giants actually live in a secret, magical realm on the clouds (okay, but seriously, any sci-fi/fantasy writers out there? Can you write me a Jack and the Beanstalk re-telling that lends itself to historical fiction involving the first space mission piercing through the magical realm and landing in the land of giants instead of the moon? Thanking you very muchly).
3. Read Widely
When it came to this piece of advice, I was worried that the books I read were going to influence my writing style so much it was going to lend itself to imitation. The thing with read widely though, is that the operative word in the sentence is not read it’s widely. If you read a whole bundle of different books, with different writing styles, about different things, your writing style will not become imitation, after all, how can it if everything is so different? Sure, if you read ten books with exactly the same writing style you’d probably end up with your own work that is an imitation, however if you read widely the worst you’ll get is that your writing is influenced by such authors. And if you love the authors who influence you, is that really such a bad comparison? I think not.
4. Make Your Characters Three-Dimensional
This takes me back to number 2. Take Your Time. If you don’t rush the novel process, you’ll have more time to develop more ideas. I’m not saying they’ll be better ideas, just new ones, more in depth ones, more intricate ones, and perhaps *gasp* more interesting ones. When I began writing I was always scared that thinking about things too much was going to take away the authenticity of my writing or something like that, but with experience now, I can tell it doesn’t. It adds to it.
5. Edit Again.
Rewrite if you have to! I have a bare minimum of two rounds of edits before I send my projects out to my trusted readers. The first, I fix glaring errors and plotholes, the second, I fix language issues. Then, I send it to my readers and make appropriate changes when I receive their feedback. Mostly it’s just little line edits (spelling and grammatical errors) but sometimes they’ll bring something up and I’ll have to make a substantial change because I had overlooked something, or neglected to explain something because I understood it (being the writer). The editing process can be more arduous sometimes than others, and I always find that depends on how shiny my first draft is, and if I edit as I write (which I usually do, otherwise I’ll forget something).
6. Listen to Writing Advice
My mum gave me a piece of advice once, she said ‘Always listen to any advice you’re given. You don’t have to use it, more often than not, you won’t use it, but listen to it anyway. You’ll never know, you might actually need it someday.’ I listened to that piece of advice, and I’ve used it for all its worth. Writing advice is not going to hurt you, not going to sabotage your ability or talent, and it doesn’t need to kill your ego either (actually, yes, let it do that. We don’t like egos).
7. Change Your Mind
It’s easy to get stuck in your ways while writing, especially if you feel like your original idea is locked in and permanent, but in all truth, you are the writer, and if something isn’t working, or if you’re not loving it, you can change it. Figuring that out was an empowering moment, for such a long time I’ve felt a slave to my characters as if these figments of my imagination could actually dictate what my conscious brain was doing. Well, they can’t. I can, you can, and we will.
8. Let Someone Read it
I had a myriad of reasons why people were not to read my work under any circumstances, and if I’m honest, each one was fabricated to cover the fact that I was too terrified to share my work. I also found it super hard to find people who were interested in my writing, I didn’t want to give it out to just anybody because I didn’t trust their advice. My writing, and lack of connections with other writers is a major reason why I decided to join bookstagram, I figured a book community was the best community to start making friends in, and I hoped that those friends might someday become trusted beta readers.
9. Take a break and come back
This is one of those tips that you read in all of the how-to writing guides, but it’s definitely one I stand behind. Writing is often an emotional experience, and I know that when my emotions are high, it seems like my brain function is somewhat impaired, so I often leave my writing for a short while (especially after finishing a draft) and come back to it, to read it with a clearer head. Taking a break also works to smash through that annoying writer’s block.
10. Be humble (and realistic)
Here’s the truth of the matter, younger me, thinking you’re the very best at something isn’t exactly conductive to learning. If you are the best, where is your drive to improve? Where is your room to grow? Stagnation should be feared above all else. Trust me, you want nothing less in life than to be stuck where you are forever. Be humble. Open your mind to more possibilities than you being the best writer out there (and don’t wait until you’re 16 to do it). Allow yourself to grow, in fact, push yourself to grow. You will be so much better if you do.
Need Extra Tips?
If you’ve followed me on social media or read my blog for a while, you’ll know that my favourite book about writing is Letters to A Young Writer by Column McCann. I highly, highly recommend it. I love it because it’s less of a how-to-write book and more of a fun pep talk.
P.S. Never feel bad about your early writing attempts
Some notable early works of mine that stand out include the one written from a dead girl’s perspective as she tried to break through into the land of the living to save her sister from something (the mysterious threat was never revealed) aided by her sidekick who had no face, and the 300,000 word paranormal historical romance (300,000 words is rather excessive… especially when there wasn’t any plot).
Happy Writing! Let me know your favourite tips in the comments below!