Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Right Tool for the Right Job
Keeping a Writer’s Journal
By Peggy Kurilla
2002, Peggy Kurilla
One piece of
advice, given to writers so often it’s almost a cliché, is to keep a journal.
What is less often covered is what to write in those journals and how
they can help your writing. In this article, I’ll cover four common types of journals
that can help you refine your writing.
people, the first journal I began, more than fifteen years ago, was a
smorgasbord. Anything and
everything went into that journal: newspaper clippings, sketches, details of my
daily life, short story drafts, research notes, and whatever else struck my
fancy. The only organizing
principle in this kind of journal is to date everything because it provides a
context when you go back and review it.
became more serious about my writing, I read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. In
the book, she recommends doing “Morning Pages” each day as a way to get all
the niggly bits of life out of our minds and onto paper. Morning Pages, she says, clear the way for more creative
work. Though not as structured as
her Morning Pages, my smorgasbord journal serves the same purpose.
A movie review might serve as a springboard for a better (at least to me)
way of telling a story. Working through emotions provides insight into how my
characters might react to a similar circumstance.
index their smorgasbord journals, reserving a page or two at the end of each
volume for that purpose. This way,
they can quickly look through their notebooks for particular topics.
Also, themes arise that may lead to more extended writing—an article, a
series of essays, or even a memoir. If
you want to index your journals, it’s best to start as early as possible.
I currently have almost 30 volumes, and not one of them has an index.
Finding anything in them is difficult, unless I can recall a date or
significant event surrounding the material I wish to find.
On the other
hand, by not having an index, I have a terrific excuse to go back and read
earlier journals and look for seeds of ideas and projects. (And maybe when I re-read them, I’ll create an index as I
go. But I wouldn’t count on it.)
begun a specific project, I dedicate a separate notebook to it.
For a project notebook, I generally use a three-ring binder, with labeled
tabs. For a nonfiction work, I
might list each chapter and a bibliography.
I file materials, ideas, or reference notes behind the appropriate
chapter tab. If I’m writing
fiction, the tabs change to worldbuilding, development, and background or
I still date
development entries for my fiction work. It’s
fun to look back to see how the plot has developed from when I originally jotted
down the idea. And someday it
may serve as the sourcebook for an encyclopedia or compendium related to the
work. At the very least, it will
prevent me from losing track of what happened to each character in a series.
keep journals dedicated to a specific area of writing. The best example is a weather journal. An inexpensive desk calendar or “birthday book” can be
used for this. Each day, jot notes
about what the weather is like. Then,
when you’re in the middle of a scene that talks about snow and it’s 90
degrees outside (38 for those on the Celsius scale), you can flip to your
December and January notes and write specific details about the bone-chilling
type of journal that can help writers is an idea book, or compost journal.
This is where all those unrelated notes about possible projects go.
You can use a three-ring binder with no sections, a file folder, a spiral
notebook, or even a big box. Just
make certain that your jotted notes are complete enough to trigger your memory
later. I once wrote (in my
smorgasbord, which serves as general catch-all): “I have a great idea for a
romantic suspense between a small-town sheriff and the big-city pagan who comes
to live in his town.”
Well, I’m sure it was a good idea. I
don’t remember a thing about it at this point, other than that note.
Knowing my themes and topics, there would probably have been some
conflict between conservative Christian types and the pagan woman, but suspense?
I have no clue. So I chalk
this up to a lesson: be specific in
your idea notes.
of the level of specificity I mean from February of this year:
as a result of some funky judging in the pairs figure skating competition of the
Olympics this past week, I woke up with an idea for Ghaira—probably set in the
country where magic is freely available. They
have a sport that, like figure skating, is a combination of athleticism and
performance. In addition to the
official judges, a few audience members are chosen at random to judge the
competition as well. The average
score given by the fans is factored into the final score, and the total fan
score determines the “Choice” award. Frequently,
the Choice does not go to the winner—it has even gone to a performance that
was technically awful but a dynamite presentation.”
Now, I may
never ever use this as the basis of an entire story or novel, but with what’s
there, I can create an incident for a story if I need to.
these journals must you use?
None of them. Which should you
use? Any or all that caught your eye or interest.
These are tools, and to quote a famous engineer, you always want “the
right tool for the right job.”