Because a Novelist Needs Notes


Because a Novelist Needs Notes

Now, I don’t want to mess with your personal creative flow. This is not about whether or not your novel needs an outline before you start or a chapter-by-chapter synopsis before you write. No, really … I’m not here to tell you how your personal genius moves from your brain to the page. Khaled Hosseini writes some of the most jaw-dropping stories of our time, and the man doesn’t outline. So who am I to judge your creative process?

However, as an editor of many published novels I just gotta tell you, at some point in your process—at the very end, if making notes in advance or stopping to take notes along the way is not your thing—it would be very wise to create careful “detail” notes about your plot and your characters and other elements, to help you find the weaknesses, repetitions and inconsistencies in your work.

If you believe you can skip this part, then I hope you have the memory of an elephant or that you’ve already got a book deal, because editors and agents just really aren’t impressed by things like …

  • changing a character’s name halfway through the manuscript
  • changing something unchangeable about a character (i.e. being short or tall)
  • changing the town a character lives in halfway through the manuscript  (unintentionally)
  • changing background characters drastically without intention or explanation (i.e., the giggly corner store clerk from chapter one is suddenly and inexplicably grumpy and 20 years older in chapter four)

Or even …

  • having the same song play in the background twice (unless it was a conscious choice for the plot)
  • having a character quote the same poem twice (again, unless this was a conscious choice)

You get the idea. And, sadly, I’ve seen most of the above (and much worse) in unedited manuscripts from writers whose books (once fixed by an editor) do sell by the millions–no exaggeration. But it’s incredibly frustrating when the author’s attention to detail can’t be trusted even a little bit. So, if you don’t have an agent who has come to depend on you for his mortgage payment or a multi-book deal with a publishing house that never wants to lose you, you probably need to make a practice of writing with precision and care and doing at least one round of edits for the sole purpose of finding your own detail errors. A prospective agent perusing your manuscript might be less inclined to take you on if she sees lazy writing exemplified in forgotten nicknames, characters who are morphing physically (not on purpose), and other inconsistencies or obvious detail redundancies.

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As an editor, I typically start an organized list of the author’s details during my second read-through and organize the list by category (songs mentioned, characters/traits, street names given, etc.). But you can stay a step ahead of your editor (and make a better impression on everyone in between, especially that agent you’re hoping to find) if you’ve done this to your manuscript yourself at least once.

For some of you, your best option is to create these notes during a detail-specific edit after your first draft is complete. But for others, you may find that creating the detail list in advance as part of your outlining process (and adding to it) works well for you. Or if you don’t outline in advance, you may like to simply create it as you go, which could actually  be helpful to your process.

No matter when you do it, the bottom line is that creating a details list at some point has the potential to keep your writing sharp in more ways than one:

  1. It will keep you from harping annoyingly on single notes of your character development. (For example, telling your reader multiple times—unintentionally—that Bob loves nothing more than hot, buttered toast.)
  2. It will allow you to see which characters are not being developed as richly as others. (For example, noticing that while we know Rachel’s hair color, calf size and first grade teacher’s name, all we really know about Tony—a character equally vital to the plot—outside his dialogue is that he prefers to wear tennis shoes.)
  3. When the detail notes are created as you write—rather than at the end of the process—they can also serve as your cheat sheet when you unintentionally put your novel down for too long and lose touch with your characters. (Not that any of us ever does that.)
  4. It will be a record of sorts—a reminder to you, as you start your next novel, of archetypes that you’ve already covered, character traits your readers might be bored with, names that you’ve already favored, songs you’ve already mentioned.
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You can argue all day that you don’t need these notes—and if you’re killing it with book sales, I’ll never argue back—but the rest of us could probably use the help and the fine-tuning this practice offers.


So far I only dabble in novel-writing myself—as in, I’ve never even tried to get my personal fiction published, though I’ve written quite a lot of it. It may be that as an editor (and one-time book reviewer) by trade, I’ve become my own very, very worst critic. But when I do work on my great American novel, I actually do create certain details in advance and then keep a running list of other details as I go—even when not working from an actual outline (a topic for another day).

What about you? Have you developed a system for watching your details yet?

Authors: Rachel M. Gonzales from

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Meet Tamara Rice

    Tam is a lover of words and Jesus and family, though perhaps not in that order. She’s an editor, writer, a breast cancer survivor, and an advocate for mental health and for victims of sexual abuse.