Writers And Their Notebooks: Meg McKinlay (Part 2)

How do real writers use writer's notebooks? Interview series.

In last week’s blog post I shared the first part of my interview with Australian children’s author Meg McKinlay. Meg gave us plenty of fascinating tidbits of information on how she uses her writer’s notebook as a tool to help her writing.

As I’ve said previously, this Writers and their Notebooks series of interviews I’ve been doing with different authors (including Claire Saxby, Jodi Toering, Lian Tanner and Trace Balla) is all about building your (and my) understanding about authentic use of the writer’s notebooks so we can better use them in our classrooms. If there’s anything to learn from this series, it’s that there is no one ‘correct’ way to use a writer’s notebook- all published authors use them differently and that is completely OK. 

In this week’s continuation of our interview, Meg talks about the process she goes through to take her ideas from seed to published piece. I just love what she shares here!

Mentor text for narrative writing
If you’ve done my Traits Masterclass you’ll know Meg’s Ten Tiny Things well.

What do you write in your notebooks vs directly onto your computer?

My notebooks are mostly for those seeds, those little bits and pieces I harvest from the world around me. I transcribe whatever is there onto the computer fairly regularly, using a rough kind of sorting process. Unless something clearly belongs to a particular project, I put it into a document I call “Slush”, and I have several of these – one each for poetry, picture books, junior fiction, young adult, and writing for adults. It’s usually fairly clear in broad strokes which of these categories things are likely to fit into, but if I’m not sure, I’ll sometimes put it into more than one.

Once I’ve decided what my next project is going to be, I gather everything from the ‘slush’ that seems like it might be connected to that idea and copy it into a project document to read and think about and play around with. Most of the process from that point on takes place directly onto the computer. I do many, many messy drafts, deleting and moving huge chunks of text, and it’s much easier to keep track of things that way. I know some writers also keep specific notebooks for each project, where they collect all kinds of things to do with that book, but I never work like that; all my material is stored digitally, with multiple back-ups!

That said, I do occasionally do a little extended work on a particular project directly into a notebook. This is generally either because I’m not near my computer when inspiration strikes, or because I’m a bit stuck and want to loosen things up a bit. Handwriting feels like a different mode to me, and I find that I work a bit more freely that way sometimes, that my thinking becomes more associative and stream-of-consciousness in a way that can be quite useful for getting things moving again. I find this is particularly true if I either work in an unlined notebook or just ignore any lines that are there altogether. Try it! You might be surprised at how creatively freeing it is, the different sorts of paths it leads you down. You can also turn your notenook upside down or sideways or write in spirals or shapes or just all over the place with arrows and whatever you like.

And then: transcribe it or take photos! And make multiple backups. 😊

How do you take an idea from your notebook and turn it into a completed piece of writing?

Meg McKinlay award wining children's author

The first thing to say is that I never trawl through my notebooks – or the ‘slush’ documents I generate from them – looking for inspiration or ideas for new writing. That kind of conscious hunting or gathering process doesn’t work for me. I need to wait for one of those little seeds to germinate of its own accord and I find there is always something pushing its way to the surface. My problem tends to be that there are too many things trying to sprout at once; I never need to go looking.

Once I’ve decided what the next something is going to be, I do a lot of idle daydreaming and mulling and scribbling of notes. This is in no way like a plan; if it’s anything, it’s a freewheeling assortment of ‘what if this?’ and ‘maybe that?’-type thoughts. I generate lots and lots of these before I start thinking about the story in any structured way. In this stage, I’m playing, trying to hear the voice of my main character, to get inside their head, and to generate as much raw material as I can. Only a small fraction of this will end up in the book but it’s all necessary to the process. I find handwriting useful for much of this ‘whatiffery’, and often use notebooks or large sheets of paper for this stage; here, I need to be messy and non-linear, giving myself the freedom to add arrows and big question marks and exclamation points, to draw lines between things as connections form, to generally scribble and scrawl.

I’m not someone who can plan stories in the way many writers do, setting out each movement of the plot and the story beats in between. My process is much more intuitive, which is probably why I do so much cutting and re-writing along the way. My work tends to be very character-driven, though, and to ensure my story has a sound footing, I’ve learned to think very deeply about my characters and their motivations before I settle in to the drafting process. For me, this means asking what it is my character wants, why they want it, and making that reason as strong as I possibly can. Then, as I feel my way into the plot, I’m constantly reminding myself to connect those things to as many aspects of the story as possible. [You can read more about this in a blog post she wrote for her publisher’s website]. After that, I just do approximately 64 drafts and the rest is history.

What does your notebook look like?

My notebooks are a scattered, often-illegible mess. And while the content is mostly writing-related, other things do sneak in as well: things like shopping lists, to-do lists, directions to places hither and yon. This can sometimes get confusing but I like the idea of the creative stuff just being there in the midst of the everyday, among the minutiae of my life.

Once I’ve transferred notes to the computer, I put a line through them so I know I’ve captured them elsewhere, and can move on wherever I’m heading next.

Also, my notebooks aren’t always actual notebooks. Although I do have a lot of those, I also use old exercise books, bunches of scrap paper I’ve stapled together, basically any cluster of blank-enough pages I think will hold together long enough for me to carry around until they’re full.

How to use writer's notebooks with students

How often do you use your notebook?

It depends. If I’m not at home, I’ll be in and out of my notebook several times a day, jotting down bits and pieces. If I’m at my desk, I mostly work on the computer, apart from the few exceptions I’ve mentioned. Once I’m into drafting mode on a novel of any length, the notebook is mostly set aside: at that point I’m working almost entirely with material on the computer.

Even if not physically using my notebook, though, it’s important every day; almost everything I’ve written began as a tiny thought somewhere in those pages.

What advice do you have for young writers and illustrators?

“Follow your own particular strangeness down whatever paths it leads you.”

(Meg McKinlay, 2021)
  • Read read read! Read poetry as well as prose. Read it out loud. You’re absorbing a feel for the rhythms of language. No matter what you write, this will stand you in good stead.
  • Write – and draw – out of your own life and in your own voice. Note that I say out of your own life, rather than about your own life. No matter what you’re writing about, bring yourself to it, along with your own distinctive way of seeing the world. Follow your own particular strangeness down whatever paths it leads you.
Mentor text for teaching writing

Who influenced you to become a writer?

Even though I’ve always been a scribbler, becoming a writer wasn’t a conscious choice for me, at least not in the beginning. It was something that happened fairly organically, as some of my jottings and odd little thoughts seemed to be leaning towards a kind of shape, and I think I was mostly drawn to it by the child-reader I used to be. I can’t say that I was influenced by anyone in particular except for myself and probably my young daughter, through whom I returned to children’s books and remembered that love of whimsy and the fun of just making things up. That said, I’m inspired every day by people who transform the world creatively, and who make choices to follow what drives them as individuals rather than some external measure of ‘success’.

What are your contact details (if teachers want to get in contact with you for school visits etc)?

I’m not doing a lot of visits these days, but I always love hearing from teachers and readers. Anyone wanting to get in touch can do so via email to meg[at]megmckinlay.com. If you have questions about me my work, there is a lot of information available on my website: www.megmckinlay.com. There are specific types of queries that should be directed either to my agent or publisher in the first instance; these details can be found on the Contact page of my website.


Wow! There’s just so much goodness in Meg’s responses.

  • What did you find interesting?
  • How could you use this knowledge when teaching writing?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.

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