Artist Corner: My Fiction “Brains”

C.J.'s Artist Corner

Artist’s Corner | My Novels/Fiction “Brains” (Reference System

As an author, I most often discover that coming up with a new idea isn’t my problem so much as keeping track of all the ideas I previously created. Particularly as my work segues into full-on sequels and series, it’s imperative for me to be able to reference seamlessly from book-to-book and keep track of threads & ideas for future books as well as having a quick guide to past books.

Thus my “Fic Brains” (the ideas-reference system I use to organize all my book series from start-to-finish) was born. The greatest part is they are kinda-like having a second brain, thus my coining them, because they store my book notes for as long as I wish (my earliest versions are from my teen writing years in the ‘90’s) and make it possible for me to juggle multiple series and fiction works, because I can come back to the references at exactly the point where I left off.

So right now, I’m writing a comedy series and a children’s series concurrently but I can switch back and forth seamlessly between them (as I burnout or need the writing break) thanks to the excellence of my “fic brains”.


Like most of my creations, my fic brains are a process that evolved as I’ve learned and streamlined (mostly through experience) to what works best for me to stay organized with my ideas.  I imagine most writers (and authors) have evolved a system of their own for tracking ideas and such, but this is mine.

I “sort of” built it off my “art book” template, though honestly, I’ve used both for so long that asking which came first is asking the chicken or the egg. Probably the “fic brain” technically came first since I’ve scribbled my fic notes in notebooks and on scratch paper since I was first able to write, but I’ve definitely streamlined it. {find the post on my art books here}

One centralized location was key. And it needed to be portable “on-the-go” so that anywhere I had/saw an idea (now I’m good about quickly snapping a photo on my phone, but at the time phones didn’t have good cameras), I could capture it instantly, to work out the details and recreate it later.


I said above, I’ve now got it to a beautifully visualized and organized system that works best for me. My “fic brains” are a “book series at a glance” authors reference that I use to track my ideas -&- to write on the go when I don’t always have a computer handy.

Much like my “art books”, I imagine there are apps for mobiles and tablets to convert this system to digital-cloud-based (if that works for you).

But, as an author, I don’t always do my best writing seated at the computer. I may scribble notes in coffee shops or crowded restaurants. A lot of the time, I scribble fic notes during my lunch hour just to clear my head. I often do inspiration walks, or fact-finding tours, or write on beautiful days in the park or along the Riverwalk. I hope this summer to engage in a few weeks of freewriting on the beach.

In most of these cases, I don’t have a laptop at my beck and call—and I just can’t wrap my head around trying to free-write on my tiny phone. Plus, I started out writing longhand and I still like that style. Something about me, a pen and a notebook helps me align my thoughts and get in the right groove—the slow, methodical style of handwriting helps my fingers not to type faster than my mind can keep up.

Even though sometimes I do type direct-to-page in Word, it’s still a great “on-the-go” system for when I don’t or need to write someplace else and people-watch awhile.


My fic brain for @CrackleDust, with its customized cover
(organized with page tabs, for a simple flip-thru system)


(Side view. I hadn’t laminated the front cover yet, so that’s the clear laminate sheet on top.)


See below for the details.


  • A good solid notebook or journal. I find these all sorts of places; a bunch I use I collected from Ross stationary dept for $2.99 but Walmart had these amazing “back to school” spirals {good-sized; vinyl covers} for $1.99 so I scooped up bunches, since I know I’ll use them ALL and remake my covers anyway!!
    For this project in particular, I always choose a sturdy, SPIRAL-BOUND notebook /or/ journal over a hardbound book. {More on this below}.
  • STRONG Write-On page tabs to organize sections. I love these by RediTag, which I ordered on Amazon. I use them for both my “art books” and “fic brains”. (I reinforce them with invisible tape usually, to make sure they don’t tear/fall off in my purse or tote bag).
  • Stickers & Embellishments to decorate (optional) and laminate paper if you want to seal your outer-covers. Interestingly though, I don’t decorate my reference “fic brains” like my art books; I usually remake the outer covers. They are basically extensions of my novels so I like them to correspond by design. {More on this below}.
  • Invisible tape. I get it in two-packs at Walmart and sometimes I even find two-packs in Target’s dollar bin. Usually around gift-wrapping season. Be sure to use invisible so you don’t obscure your notes.
  • Craft scissors. For cutting up your printouts.
  • Fine print colored Sharpies. (or any fine print permanent marker will do.)
  • Pencils or pens. 
  • Scratch paper. I take plain white copy paper and cut it in quarters. Usually that’s about the right size.


Like the art book, this a challenge because my fic brains have evolved so much through my personal trial and error, I don’t think my reasoning through anymore—I just know exactly what to look for; browse stores at random and scoop up what I find. So it’s tricky to breakdown/explain what I do.

(this post is image heavy so I can show as much as I tell)

But, a few general things I always look for:

1) I said above, but spiral-bound (always!) versus hardbound. My fic notes (usually) begin written-longhand on scratch paper. I then type them up, organize them (in applicable Word docs) and paste them into my references.


(Here’s a few of my unused fic brains—two were from WalM, the gray one on bottom is that $1.99 vinyl one, and the polka dot one was Ross)


I learned this trick with experience as I “paste in” so many “pages” that I’ve needed to cut out blank pages to make the pasting fit. This is near-impossible with a hardbound notebook, but spiral makes it easy to rip out whatever you need for space.

(Often I paste adapted notes ontop of older notes, or rip out old pages entirely/shred and paste newer notes on clean pages. Spirals leave organic growth/adaption room. I outgrew about 3 hardbound “fic brains” before I learned this).

I know it sounds unnecessarily complicated but there’s a specific method to my madness. My fic brains (references) are just for me—an author reference organized the way I like so I can keep track of all my notes while I’m writing on the go. That said, one of my “fic brains” was stolen right out of my vehicle only weeks ago!! Luckily, I didn’t lose any fic work because my notes were “pasted in” not written directly in the reference!

For me, this safeguards me against theft or loss because I have the digital backups for when I’m writing on the computer, but I also have the “hardcopy reference notes” on the go (and if my computer crashed, worse case scenario, I’d still have my references to fall back on).


2) Size absolutely matters!!

But, it kind of depends on book or series itself. (you don’t want to tote around more book than you need but buy too small and you’ll outgrow it before you finish.)

A good ”medium-sized” (like 7×5 I think?), 3-subject-baby fits most fiction I find—but, actually, for my full-scale series, I use “multiple references”. I don’t want to tote the whole flippin series in my purse when I’m really only focusing on one book.


(typically the “bigger” WalM size on the left, I use for adult/more complex books, where I know I need lots of notespace. The smaller size is good for short blog topics and such. The one in the middle is one of my children’s book).


I usually use a thicker, larger spiral for my “whole series universe” reference guide—tracking everything from my publication & format notes, to full book breakdowns, to plans for future books in the series or associated works.

I use the medium “purse-sized” notebooks to breakdown each individual novel, where I keep outlines, individual chapter breakdowns, notes and ideas for wip, and threads I’ve deliberately left unraveled for follow-up in future books {then I can mark them off as I close off each storyline later}.

Now and then, I even keep a third reference for some series—usually for very specific canon that doesn’t fit in the universal reference. Different fic series have different needs, I find so I just adapt my “brains” as needs-call.

But again, I don’t spend much $$ on my fic references since they are just for me and I’m gonna change them/mark them up anyway—my main priority is durability, since most of my references are thumbed through over YEARS of constant use and some see lots of “on the go walking time”. I always have a mental backlist what I’m looking for and scoop them up on sales or at discount clearances or back-to-school bins.


(hard to beat $2.99 though)


3) Along the lines of above, I don’t spend $$ on stickers or décor cause my references are purely perfunctory. A “work tool”. That said, I do “decorate” (or at least, personalize) cause they are, in essence, my little “author extended guides” to my book series.


So, for @CrackleDust series “brain”, I printed the logo on photo paper, added a few details for me, then glued it to the front (original hard) cover with spray adhesive. Covered with clear laminate paper to keep the photo paper from smudging or scratching.

Haven’t done the back cover– but eventually I’ll paste a {short} synopsis of each novel on the back as I finish them. An –at a glance– type reference for me.


{{UPDATE 7.1.17—ALL NEW Ice Age logo added! Yays! 😉 )

I had printed mockups of the fic logos anyway (for sizing, print quality, etc) so I thought it’d be cute to clip/paste them in instead of tossing them. Wrote the start date, gives me kind of a visual thing.


Another mockup—this time of my title pg and spoof bio. So “old copy” I can see the mistakes, like the misspelling of MajickBook and an example of my “pasting over” method cause clearly I printed a new Majickal logo and pasted it over the proof after I revised it.

Also I tend to keep my notes in the same font face; size; spacing, etc that I eventually intend to publish in. The reasoning being it helps me get a feel for how the finished book will “look” visually: if the font is too big, small, looks bad spelled with character names or places, so on. Helps me to make adjustments early because if I don’t like how it looks/reads in my little author reference “brain”—I probably won’t like it in the final copy either.

Sometimes I can tell my older notes from my newer because fonts/sizes will change, etc.


The full color cover art mockup; checking colors, print size, res, etc … looks sooooo good doesn’t it?? 😊


Outline notes—man, those got changed only 27,000 times. Actually these are so neat and unscribbled over that I must’ve cut the old ones out, shredded and pasted-in fresh-typed cause there’s no way these notes would be in such pristine condition otherwise. I’m a very “big black pen/messy writer” with my notes.


Character notes—also suspiciously neat.

Publication formatting notes—these look more familiar to me, obv I jotted them down for my ref while I was busy formatting loads of docs, but didn’t bother to type them as (if in doubt) I can just check my Word settings for the right formatting anyway. 😊 I see some early page counts in there too—handy to know if you’re trying to get it to lay out right.

(But publishing of course is a whole ‘nother ball of wax).


Here’s a fancier version of one of my fic brains—where I did a “history shortsheet” with photos to reference cause it played into my canon.


Another cool fic brain where I did a list of locations I used (some real; some fic with photos I picked to represent them) to add extra depth to the story because it helped me visualize the scenes better.


Finally, this fic brain helped with another complex series where I was also working out my own folklore, legends and mythology in the backdrop, so I did a “brain” literally just focused on that since it affected the series as a whole, but didn’t need to be referenced except on a case by case basis.

Gaelic was the language spoken, so I kept another shortsheet of words and translations I might need to use.


I know I fine-tuned this process like crazy over the years, but I depend on it. Like I said, the system works for me. It allows me to write anywhere, it gives me amazing visualization on the go and I keep it very current and organized with my latest work.

(It also, as I said, allows me to step away from fic projects for months, even years like in the case of Majickal—jumping from 2013 to 2015 without work loss, because my notes and inspiration photos are kept completely to date.)


I have a reference shelf by my office desk where I keep my “fic brains” along with a small library of other reference books I use for my fics. As I retire old projects (publish or decide not to pick them up) I retire the fic brains too and only keep active projects on my shelf.

(then celebrate by framing your glorious cover art, like so! 🙂 )


Much like my art books, the fic brains are little “scrapbook-esque” time capsules … they show where I was in the progression of my writing during different life periods, and how far I went with various projects. Very cool for me to look back on those, as something of a side benefit.

{{I did a lolz post for myself when I uncovered one of my old “teenage fic brains” with a bad romance novel here}}


    1. Most of the tips and tricks are covered in the Art Book post here, since the way I cut ‘n’ paste both is virtually the same. I also organize with tabs and print photos the same too.
    2. Getting your book notes to print to the right size for cutting ‘n’ pasting is a bit tricky (especially if you flip back and forth between various notebook sizes as I do). I used to mess with sizing tables and such, but the simpliest method is to take the measurements of your notebook, then set your doc size in Word to the same—giving yourself a good, wide margin all on sides for trimming/pasting purposes. There’s literally tons of tuts all over the Net on how to set paper sizes and custom margins in Word (all versions) so I won’t cover that here.
    3. As I said, I usually make my first notes to paper and type the pasted ones, but occasionally I do just paste in the handwritten notes (such as those formatting notes you saw above. Another great thing is you can paste in other inspirations if you like, same as the art books. Like how I “upcycled my proof copies” instead of just shredding them after I finished looking them over.
    4. Could you do this project as an app?

    Probably. Heard good things about a desktop writing program called Scrivener but haven’t tried it myself (still, apparently it lends itself to much more writing flexibility/options, such as virtual index-pinboards for note rearrangement, & such). No idea if it comes in app form though or if it’s worth the hype.


Suggestions, thoughts, questions? Lavish flattery? *LOL!*

What do you think writers? Do you have something like this or your own type of system to track/organize your book notes, progress, juggle novel writing and more?

Love to see your ideas come to life! Share in the comments!


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