How do you take notes? I know there are classes you can take that are essentially “how to take classes”—how to write notes, how to highlight a textbook . . . I never took one of those classes, which may partially account for my C-average public school education.

I tend to see notes as a form of personal, even artistic expression. There has even recently been some studies done on the positive nature of doodling.

I’ve been asked a number of times for direction on how to take notes, and I tend to default back to: “Do what works for you.” And that really isn’t me just avoiding the question. I honestly believe that’s the best advice.

A classic jungle pulp you can read by clicking on this image!

A classic jungle pulp you can read by clicking on this image!

That having been said, I’m currently teaching a two-part workshop on writing pulp fiction where we’re writing 6000(ish)-word short stories using the Lester Dent “formula,” and learning about the American pulp tradition in general. I’m writing a story for the class, too, which will also serve as the first in a series of jungle pulp stories I’m writing for Pro Se Productions.

Yesterday I shared my outline with the class, which included all of the notes I have concerning the story’s three principal characters:



Princess Tai

  • extremely smart—picks up English in a couple weeks
  • capable of “juju light”—herbal medicine, a few sleight-of-hand tricks
  • no “real” magic!
  • Tall: 6’ 2”
  • dark black skin, short-cropped Afro
  • BIG light brown eyes—Jameson describes as “chestnut”
  • sees herself as protector—like the chief of police of her village and the surrounding area
  • she will succeed her mother as queen, but is in no hurry to do so—loves her mother
  • can climb like a monkey, and leap from tree to tree
  • seems able to appear and disappear—really knows how to move in the jungle
  • not terribly interested in juju—sees it as a male pursuit
  • curious about the world beyond the Ebony Jungle


Kyle Thomas Jameson

  • American sailor
  • born in Ireland but taken to the New World as a boy
  • merchant seaman from New Amsterdam (before it was renamed New York)
  • his ship was bound for Hispaniola but caught in a hurricane that forced her across the Atlantic. It sank and Jameson made it, alone, into a lifeboat. Some weeks (at least days) later ends up washing ashore in West Africa.
  • shorter than Tai: 5’ 10”
  • dirty blond hair—Tai finds this fascinating
  • always troubled by sunburn and insects
  • went to school, was an avid reader
  • went to sea to avoid poverty. His father died when he was just a kid, his mother struggled to care for him
  • studied the Caribbean, not Africa, so tends to be surprised by everything
  • smart, observant, but prone to hyperbole (he mentions this word to Tai and she finds it funny)
  • he’s 26 years old when first story begins
  • has no idea what day it is when he washes up on the beach, estimates late June or July of 1632



  • Villain
  • jujuman (witch doctor)
  • wanted to marry Tai’s mother, she rejected him
  • he started slowly trying to undermine the matriarchy, but Tai’s mother is too popular
  • he seems the least surprised by Jameson’s appearance—no one else has ever seen a white man and are fascinated by him, but Zembu doesn’t seem surprised at all
  • short, 5’2”
  • covers his skin in ash so he appears gray—a typical ritual thing, so no one thinks this is weird
  • wears weird totems: feathers, small animal skulls, bits of bone, shells, etc.
  • has a persistent cough (from his juju fire chemicals)
  • physically weak but crafty and a capable jujuman (chemistry tricks and sleight-of-hand)


This was copied verbatim from my handwritten notes.

One worry I have about sharing this in such a “raw” form is that there might be a tendency for others to read this and attach emphasis to things based on, say, the order of the bullets. That order was unintentional, or anyway not edited to create some kind of hierarchy—what’s most important about each character. It’s all in the order in which it came to me, and all but a few were drawn from other notes and the outline for the story itself, and in some cases with the idea that this is the first in a series of stories in mind. Not all of this stuff, for instance, will be made clear in the first story, and in some cases, there might even be bits that are never expressly presented in any of the stories.

This way of taking notes—bullet points—can be efficient and freeing. I’m not spending creative energy crafting a sentence, I’m just jotting down reminders. I’m also freely mingling physical description like how tall people are with psychological and emotional states, and with personal histories and experiences. This isn’t a character sketch or description, these are just some things I felt I needed to keep in mind either for consistency’s sake (so a character doesn’t grow and shrink throughout the story) or to help move the story forward, like the villain’s motivation and what people can and can’t do in terms of the invented jungle “magic.”

This is also a place where you can keep reminders for those little character traits, what I sometimes call “twitches” or “tweaks,” like the jujuman’s persistent cough. A few little things like that in each character’s list can help bring them to life, and, as in the case of this guy’s lung problems, illuminate some aspect of the worldbuilding. This guy’s a witch doctor and spends a lot of time standing over a smoky fire, throwing in chemicals to change the color or nature of the flame to thrill the faithful, and God knows what he’s been inhaling all these years.

This story—the whole series—is, like all pulp jungle stories, a fully-conscious Tarzan pastiche, but I’m turning it upside down, so the white guy is more of a Jane/Dr. Watson character and the African woman is the hero—Tai is Tarzan. So the fact that she’s taller than Jameson matters. She literally looms over him, playing into the flip in expected (by 1632’s standards, anyway) gender roles. They also fight off a pack of hyenas in the story, and male hyenas tend to be smaller than female hyenas, so the relative height of characters is a storytelling hook. If it doesn’t matter how tall any particular character is in your story, you may never need to write that down.

That’s one reason that character forms, like I complained about in a previous post on Storyist, tend to make me bristle a bit. And even though Writing Monsters includes a <gasp> monster form, you’ll notice specific advice to leave out anything on the form that doesn’t really matter to your story.

Another nice thing about bullet points is that they can be easily changed.

In the process of writing the story, I guarantee you my outline will change—at least a little bit. I give myself permission to have a better idea, and you should give yourself permission to do the same. Maybe I’ll decide I want everybody to be shorter or taller. Okay, then they are, but I’ll not only change that bullet point in my notes/outline, but do my best to read back and make sure the change is consistently applied throughout the story itself.

Your notes, like all your writing, should be a fluid, living thing, right up until the moment you decide you’re done . . . well, then an editor might “rehydrate” it for you, but okay, it solidifies once it goes to typesetting!


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Sean Durity says:

    I am doing similar work in Evernote. Then, if ideas hit, I can pound them into my phone and it is synched to every device. I don’t have to wait to get to my laptop. I have a “Note” for character names, too, so that when those naming juices flow, I can just record them. When they get more of a role, they can “earn” their own, individual note. EverNote is searchable and linakble, too. I also like pasting in images that inspire ideas about places in my world.

  2. Lidy Wilks says:

    I use the bullet note method too but I don’ have an Evernote app on my phone. I use both word docs and Evernote, using bullet notes from character description to worldbuilding. Any new/refreshed ideas that pop into my head are written down to be typed later when I get to my laptop. You wouldn’t believe how many inspiring ideas I had but failed to remember because I didn’t have anything to write it down. That’s why I always carry a notebook and pen with me, when I didn’t before, and use my phone’s notes app to swype or record my ideas.

  3. Pingback: WHAT PULP CAN TEACH US | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. Pingback: DE-BULLET POINT YOUR DIALOG | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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