Here we are at the second post on journals. The next couple of posts will be around the subject of ideas and getting started and then we will get into shorter, more focused, posts on repairing something you have already written. I do think it is important to flag up these preliminary stages, especially for absolute beginners, even though you may be impatient to get on with the actual writing.
I’m a bit confused by what goes in a journal. What about all the other stuff that’s important to a writer, ideas, research, planning, writing practice? Does all that go in the journal, too? Does it have to be all collected in one place; in a single physical object?
Your writing doesn’t have to be in a paper journal, nor does it have to be in one place. You can write onto your computer screen, speak into a Dictaphone, make sketches, create a scrapbook, keep loose notes, fill index cards, take photographs or use any combination of these as a way into fiction.
As I said in the last post, it is only useful if it works for you. I often think Writer’s Journal is a misnomer; that we should be saying Writer’s Notes, because it makes sense to keep several ‘journals’ in different places and for different purposes. Decide how you want your writing notes to work for you and that may help you decide the best place to keep them. You may not be sure until you have tried a variety ways.
Try some, or all, of these:
Keep a Writers Workbook: Use it for writing exercises, writing practice, morning pages, free writing or draft pieces. Good books to try are Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones’ or Margret Geraghty’s ‘The Five Minute Writer’ to get you started. You can keep your writing practice in an exercise book or in a file on your computer.
Create a Submissions File: Use this to keep tabs on work you have sent out to magazines and for competitions you have entered. Record what you sent, where you sent it and when. Record your successes and their publication date.
Keep a Diary of Work in Progress: A new one for each novel or short story, noting your goals and your progress towards them, your research notes, your plans, the difficulties you faced, whatever you find useful. You may find something like this helps to keep you on track when you are working to a deadline.
Begin a Reading Book: Record the stories or novels your read. Note down anything significant that you notice such as how the writer achieved a certain effect and then try it for yourself. This could also be part of your Writers Workbook (above). Perhaps you could divide the book into sections for different purposes.
Have a Word Book: Jot down words and phrases that you like, found texts, or overheard conversations that you can adapt for use in fiction.
Start a Photo Journal: Take photos of people (potential characters) places (potential settings) and things (to use as symbols) Note where and when you took the photos and what you had in mind when you took them. So, for example you might have: “Interesting urn in Newton Stewart graveyard, February 27th 2012, 3pm – use as a symbol for ghost story?” Make a few notes on the detail, if you want to, but only what particularly strikes you. Focus on what goes through your mind; your thoughts or what it reminds you of. Those sorts of details will be more useful to you later than whether the sunset you saw was more red than orange. When you want to write about the same sunset later, you can refer to the detail in your photo and your recorded details will give you a starting point.
Record your Ideas: An entry like “possible idea about an artist” may not mean much months later, so add something that will give you better idea of what you thought you might do with the idea. I jot my ideas down on index cards in an index box and then add to them as other thoughts occur to me.
Add to a Box: I love this idea and use it when I am not sure how I want to structure a longer piece of work. Suppose you wanted to use memories of a place you had lived, in a story or novel, but you weren’t sure how you should use them or even what story you wanted to tell. This is what you do: Explore a single memory on a piece of paper each day (there will more on how to do this in the post called ‘Ideas with Legs’) and place it in a shoebox or cardboard box. After a few weeks you take out the pieces and arrange them on a table and see if you notice anything that might link them, any themes or connecting threads or sense of a structure. You may need to do this several times over. The best thing about this is that it gets you started, even when you are not sure where you are going, the material builds until you begin to see a direction. You can throw in possible scenes you want to use, a conversation you overheard, and so on. And it’s so much better than sitting there wondering where to begin.
Begin a Research Folder: Collect background information here for your story or novel. If there is a programme on television that will help, record words and phrases that stand out while you are listening to it. You should then be able to re-create what you need in your own words when it’s over.
If you do use a paper notebook, I think it’s important that it is plain and practical. I have a drawer full of lovely notebooks, that people have given me, that I don’t want to spoil with scribbles and crossings out. I use plain lined workbooks and exercise books. However, I do like them to be spiral bound so that they open flat and fold back on themselves. Try all sorts and sizes to discover what’s best for you.
If you have an interesting way of keeping notes for stories that you think works really well, please share it with us.
Next post: ‘Lightbulb Moments’ – I don’t really know what to write about and I’m not sure if my ideas are good enough.