Like a Cake (Journals: Part 1)

IMG_3351“A page of my journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion.” (James Boswell)

Well the big day for my new blog is here and I hope you will come along for the ride. Here is the first of two posts on writers’ journals:

The Problem:

Do I have to keep a writer’s notebook or journal? Is it important? I’ve never enjoyed keeping a diary. It feels like a chore. Aren’t there more fun and useful ways of keeping a fiction writing journal?

You don’t have to keep a journal but it might be useful if you keep it in a way that works for you. Some people are happy writing pages and pages each day but there is more than one way to keep a journal.

I didn’t keep one for years because I thought there was just one ‘proper’ way and it was about observing and writing detailed descriptions of places, people and things. I tried making notes but I never used them. I read somewhere that Somerset Maugham said there is no problem writing notes that you never refer to again, because it teaches you to look closely at something. There is certainly value in that. Janet Burroway in ‘Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft’ says it keeps you observing in words. I did produce a diary type journal during my MA but it was time consuming and useful only in that it reminded me of what I was reading and thinking about at the time.

So, what’s the answer? Well, there are several which we shall look at in this post as well as the next one.I think if you are not a diary-keeping or note-taking sort of person, it is important to keep entries short and to be a little playful.

Try Some of These:

Record things that touch you in some way: “Her dancing shoes have lost their shine.”
Record impressions as they happen, if you can, to keep their freshness: “Twenty five stories below me the figures seemed to move strangely, with flailing arms and legs.”

Record things people say: “You know how I feel about marigolds.”

Capture a Daily Snapshot: (See my Writing Room page for examples)  At some point in the day, record something that has felt significant to you. Try to do one each day and date them. They are good practice and tend to have a built in resonance that is a useful way into a story or poem.

Fictionalize: Write your entries in the third person. When you open an envelope, for example, describe it in the 3rd person: “She noticed the stamp first and then the handwriting. She turned it over”….etc. This will distance you from your own experience and it can be transposed into fiction more easily later.  

Record any dreams that you remember vividly: These are useful starting points for writing stories and poems as they often have a heightened, surreal quality to them. (See my Writing Room page for examples)

Record epiphanies, those profound thoughts that slip through your mind from time to time and disappear forever, because most good short stories end on those and you can work backwards into a story from them. When you come to use them you don’t need to use the same words but the mood is there to recapture.   
Write lists: What do you fear? What do you long for most? What do people do at a restaurant? These lists may help when you are creating characters and looking for character motivation later on. List what you remember about a place as well as what you don’t. What you don’t remember is what you know you need to research or invent.

Write a letter to an imagined relative, or from one fictional character to another, or to reach a deeper perspective on something: For example, “I write fiction because…”

Question a character: “Why do you need to stop her from going?” This will help you understand a character’s motivation in fiction. Try composing imaginary conversations between characters, to find an interesting voice:
     “Did you put this note in my pocket,” I ask, showing it to her.
     “No, I don’t do notes,” she says.

Arrange your entries in ways that interest you: Clump information together in little clouds or shapes rather than in linear ways. You may find that you can create links between different entries and find further ideas.

Use different colours: Doodle.

Next Post: Portable Soup (Journals:Part 2) – There’s so much information that might be useful to a writer: Ideas, research, planning, writing practice. Does it ALL go into the same journal?


About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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