how to use a writer's notebook

Writers And Their Notebooks: Lian Tanner

May 17, 2020

Earlier this year I launched the Writer’s Notebook Series. This series of posts is focused on learning how published authors use their writer’s notebooks so that teachers can implement these tools more authentically with students.

As you will see throughout this series, there is no one ‘correct’ way to use this tool. Having an awareness of the many different ways published writers use these will help teachers and schools navigate their own consistent approach.

I’ve been in contact with a bunch of fabulous Australian authors (all featured on the Oz Lit Teacher mentor text reviews) and will be sharing their insights as a part of the series.


This week, we hear from Tasmanian writer Lian Tanner. Lian has written a number of junior fiction books including The Keepers series, The Rogues trilogy and the Hidden/Icebreaker series.

Lian’s first picture story book, Ella’s Ocean was featured on the Oz Lit Teacher mentor texts reviews last year (click here to download the bookplate) and was recently announced as the WINNER of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards for Children’s Literature. (It was also long listed for the 2020 CBCA Picture Book of the Year) Wow!

I asked Lian a few questions about how she uses her writer’s notebook and here is what she had to say:


Writer's notebook use in the planning stage

I start a new notebook for each novel or picture book. For me, it's a thinking space, a place to gather things together that might become part of the book. I don't do exactly the same things in each notebook, because every story is different and has to be approached a slightly different way, but there are some things that usually happen.

So right at the beginning, way before I'm ready to actually start writing the story, I'll put my notebook somewhere very obvious and start jotting down ideas. It might be something that comes into my head when I'm walking on the beach, or when I wake up in the morning – something that I think might go in the story. At this stage, nothing is definite, so I ask a lot of questions as well as making notes. Most of the things I write down start with the words 'What if—' or 'Maybe—'. Because at this stage I don't want to pin things down; I want to keep the ideas as loose as possible to see where they go.


A page of "maybes" from Lian's writer's notebook. (This page is thinking from her upcoming novel 'A Clue for Clara.')


After a while, some things/ideas will start to grow more solid. I might get a sense of what characters I need, or what the conflict in the story might be. I might start thinking of some possible scenes, or bits of dialogue. Or what the story feels like – is it dark and mysterious, or more brightly lit and funny? But I'm still asking lots of questions, and not necessarily answering them. I should point out that at the same time as I'm doing this, I'm often also using large sheets of butchers paper, and I go back and forth between the two, jotting down ideas, drawing circles and arrows. I want to emphasise how muddled this stage is – I'm dreaming a whole story into existence, and much as I would like it to be linear and sensible and step-by-step, it isn't. It's incredibly messy and disorganised, which is one of the reasons why I need to keep a notebook, so that I don't lose all my wild ideas. And also because I think better on paper than I do in my head.


It's incredibly messy and disorganised, which is one of the reasons why I need to keep a notebook, so that I don't lose all my wild ideas.

Lian Tanner, author.

At some stage I will consciously go looking for pictures – online, in the library, in magazines, in photography journals or the programs for arts festivals. Quite often, I'm not looking for anything specific, just an image that sets up that little tingle of excitement in my gut. At other times I might be looking for a particular character. Or an animal. Or a landscape or ship or museum. Whatever I find, I print it out or photocopy it or cut it out and stick it in my notebook, even if I don't know why it's there. (If I find an image that really speaks to me, I'll often make it into my desktop wallpaper for the duration of that book, as a sort of reminder/inspiration.)

Images collection during the writing of 'A Clue for Clara.' (Lian's upcoming novel).


Sometimes I'll set my timer and write for ten minutes about a particular picture in my notebook, just to see what comes up. Again, I try to do this as loosely as possible, and not control where it's going. (Click here to see this activity in the Oz Lit Teacher's writer’s notebook resource) It's all about trusting the unconscious mind (a.k.a. the girls in the basement).

I don't often draw in my notebooks – though sometimes I'll do a quick and not very competent sketch of a character, if I have a particularly strong idea of them in my head. I do draw maps. And timelines. They are both very important once the story is starting to take shape. Though often I'll write the whole book, then come back and fix up the timeline later.


Writer's notebook use in the drafting stage

Eventually, when I've got a few scenes, I'll start moving them around, thinking about where they might go in the story, and what the high points of the story are. I think a lot about structure, and this goes in the notebook too. What starts the story off – in other words, what throws the protagonist out of their usual life and into the story? What's the point of no return in the story, where the protagonist has changed so much that they can no longer go back to who they were? What's the crisis? What happens at the climax?

Then there comes a point where I start putting the scenes into my computer – usually using Scrivener (a software program many authors use to write on digital cards that they can move around, one scene per card). Again I'm back and forth between the computer, my notebook, butchers paper and scrap paper. A huge mess, gradually working its way towards a shape.

When I've got a decent outline, I'll start writing. But if the voice of one of the characters is really strong, I might start writing earlier. Or if I’m getting sick of the plotting process. (Like I said, there's nothing linear about this.)

Sometimes I write directly into my computer. Sometimes I write the entire first draft in my notebook. But regardless, I still use my notebook all the way through. I might make notes about what I'm going to write tomorrow, or about a part I've already written that needs to change and I don't want to go back to it just yet, or some ideas about something that lies ahead – dialogue, character development, whatever.


Working on the problem in 'A Clue for Clara.'


Writer's notebook use in the revising and editing stages

When I get feedback from my editor, it goes in the notebook so I can keep track of the changes I need to make. I also keep word counts (both daily and cumulative) when I'm writing my first draft, to encourage myself. I might spell out my task for the day (e.g. ‘Do a rough chapter outline’, or ‘Work out what the main character wants’.) I might be starting to get a sense of what the theme of the story is – though this doesn't usually happen until well into writing it.


General notebook reflections

You've probably realised by now that my notebooks are very messy. There is no obvious organisation to them at all; just thoughts and ideas spewed onto the page when they come to me. Plus arrows going from one point to another and calculations as to how long a particular part of the book needs to be, and big solid circles around something that I think might be important.

When I look back at my notebooks, well after the book has been published, I'm usually surprised at how far the story travelled from that first fragile idea. Quite often it has become unrecognisable, and a hundred times better and more original. But I don't think it could do that without the freedom and messiness of a notebook.

Australian children's author, Lian Tanner


FYI: Lian is available for school visits (face to face AND virtual) and you can find her on all of these pipes:


My reflections

Some points that stood out for me in Lian's notebook insights:

  • The recursive nature of the writer’s notebook. Lian uses it first to plan, then to draft and then again for edits and revisions. It is integral at all stages of the writing process.
  • The importance of visuals for stimulating ideas and getting to know characters. I wonder if we need to incorporate more of this when working with students?
  • The ‘research’ part of creative writing- this is not about researching facts so much as researching possible characters, their looks, backgrounds and personalities. It's also about brainstorming / researching various problems the character could face etc.
  • Writing requires loads of thinking! It's all about constantly refining thinking and ideas. Refine, refine, refine.
  • Creativity and writing are messy and non-linear. How does this fit in with some of the strict writing planners/approaches we have in school?

I strongly recommend teachers read Trace Balla’s writer’s notebook post and consider the similarities and differences between how these two wonderful authors use their notebooks.


What were your takeaways from this insight into Lian Tanner’s writer’s notebook? Share your thoughts on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.



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