Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs

James Scott Bell

I was at Bouchercon a week ago and did a panel with some other legal thriller authors. Before it began we were interacting with some people in the audience, and a woman in the front row made a funny comment about something I said, and I replied into the mike, “I’ll do the jokes, madam.”
We all had a chuckle. The moderator, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”
I shook my head.
“Sue Grafton,” he said.
Indeed, it was the amazing author of the alphabet series featuring gumshoe Kinsey Millhone. 
Which, when you think about it, is virtually unprecedented. Twenty-six mysteries around a single series character in a wide variety of mystery plots.
How, one might ask, does she make the magic happen book after book?
One answer is the novel journal. I read about this in Ms. Grafton’s chapter from the book Writing the Private Eye Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). She calls this her “most valuable tool.”
What this tool does is provide a “testing ground” for ideas, a place for both left and right brain hemispheres mix it up a little. As she puts it:
Right Brain is creative, spatial, playful, disorganized, dazzling, nonlinear, the source of the Aha! or imaginative leap. Without Right Brain, there would be no material for Left Brain to refine. Without Left Brain, the jumbled brilliance of Right Brain would never coalesce into a satisfactory whole.
The novel journal is a free form document that is added to each morning before getting to work on the novel. This is what Sue puts in there:
The day’s date and a bit of diary stuff, how she’s feeling and so on. This is to track outside influences on her writing.
Next is notes about any ideas that emerged overnight. I especially like this part, because the writer’s mind has been working while I sleep and I want to pour out everything I can. The trick here is not to think too much about what you write. Just let it flow.
Third, she writes about where she is in the book. She “talks” to herself about the scene she’s working on, or problems that have arisen. In the “safety of the journal” she can play the What If game. She can debate things with herself. Right Brain and Left Brain can duke it out. She’s playful. “I don’t have to look good. I can be as dumb or goofy as I want.”
What happens then is that she finds she “slides” naturally into her writing day. There is no hesitancy as there might be if she just got to work on the WIP.  
Writing about this now excites me. I have to admit I’ve been lax about using this during this NaNoWriMo month. As I write this particular post (it’s Tuesday) I’m a little over halfway through my NaNo novel and feel the need to mine deeper into my writer mind. So I’ll be journaling away for the rest of the month. 
Yes, it was nice having Sue Grafton show up at my panel and crack wise.
Here are a few more tips on making the novel journal work for you:
Trust. Keep your fingers typing. Lose control. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Stay with the first flash. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Figure out what you want to say in the act of writing.
“We write and then catch up with ourselves.” (Natalie Goldberg)
If you don’t know what to write in the journal, open a dictionary at random. Pick the first noun you see. Now start writing whatever that word suggests to you.
Work out problems in your novel by asking questions and letting your Right Brain suggest answers. Then let your Left Brain assess them.
Be specific. When something unique pops up, follow that lead. Don’t hesitate to write for five or ten minutes on one thing if that’s where you’re being led.
Be willing to be disturbed.
If you’re pantser, the journal will help you decide what to write next. If you’re a plotter, the journal will help you bring to life the scenes you’ve mapped out. And if plot or character takes a weird turn, you can hash it out in the journal until you decide how to use it. 

Give it a try sometime. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. 

29 thoughts on “Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs

  1. I heard Sue Grafton speak in Oklahoma City. Very inspiring. The thing that took root in me from her talk was her discussion of a common question she gets from aspiring authors: Should I start by writing short stories? Her answer was that starting out by writing short stories will only teach you how to write short stories. She said if you want to write novels, then do it. Start there. That answer resonated with me.

    Regarding her journal approach, I do a version of that by writing freeform thoughts in note fashion on forward pages of my manuscript. This could be “what ifs” to “don’t forget to do this” or listing important clues not to forget. My notes also can be thoughts on dialogue or a framework for potential scenes that may or may not happen. Or they could be a summary of my twilight dreams plot solutions that I jotted down upon waking. By the time I get to the end, I delete these notes as I make decisions and eliminate the need for them. That’s my version of a journal. By writing these things down, I can let my mind rest and not worry that I’ll forget. It focuses me to explore a more solid approach to the day’s writing as I make progress toward the end.

    Until your post (& Sue’s journal idea), I never realized how important this “tool” is to my writing process. Thanks for the enlightenment, Jim.

    • Right on, Jordan. The important thing is having an intentional way of coaxing and recording those ideas. There’s the morning, and there’s also what you suggest, jotting ideas down during or after the day’s writing, “forward” as you say. Some people call this a “rolling outline.” I call it, whatever works for you!

    • Ooo I like the idea of using both the journal and the rolling outline! I usually do a rolling outline after I do a rough outline to allow for changes in the scenes and brainstorming.

      Combining the power of a writing journal with that ought to be awesome!

  2. Jim, great post. Thanks for sharing Sue’s insights and your own.

    I’ve always felt that I could “think” better when I’m recording my thoughts on paper as I go. Always thought that was the analytical part of me. Now I realize that’s the right brain and left brain duking it out.

    My wife and I also do this verbally. I come up with the crazy “creative” ideas. She brings me back to earth. I tell her I’m the gas pedal, she’s the brake.

    Thanks for another great post. And have a great Thanksgiving.

  3. Another good reason for a novel journal is having all the info in one spot. I don’t write daily, or even weekly most times. However, with the different novels I have churning around in my head, I will at times jot down notes or ask myself questions about how to make a particular scene or event happen.

    Trouble is, I write those notes to myself in my REGULAR journal, which is sorted by months and years. That’s fine–unless I can’t remember what month I jotted a particular scene note.

    Much smarter to put a novel journal in the same folder with the manuscript in progress, that way I don’t have to wonder where it is.

  4. I remember reading WORKING DAYS: THE JOURNAL OF THE GRAPES OF WRATH when I was I college. The “editor” took Steinbeck’s writing diary and parallelled it to the work he created while writing the book, showing Steinbeck’s inspiration, doubts, paranoia, etc

    It was so much more insightful (and inspiring?), than any (and there were many), American lit classes that dissected the novel (which is still one of my favorite reads).

    I just wish I could remember to whom I loaned it…

  5. Thank you for the great post! The timing is perfect for me, as I’m about to start a new book and will definitely use this tool. I was lucky enough to hear Sue Grafton speak long ago, but was unfortunately such a newbie that I couldn’t really grasp all of her words of wisdom. I’ll have to check out the book you mention – thanks again!

  6. A happy Sunday to you, Mr. Bell, and to all the other readers and bloggers. I hope your day is one of creative restfulness.

    Thank you for another great tool. I was in our local bookstore yesterday and, as I usually do, I spent several minutes looking at their collection of handmade journals. All those blank pages bound in supple leather fascinate me, but in all the years I have been paying homage at that writers’ shrine, I have never brought one home.

    Perhaps now is the time to let paper, pen, and ink come together.

  7. Last week I found in a box the cracked, tattered little blue volume I used as a writer’s journal about four years ago, finishing my second WIP and contemplating the next. At the time I enjoyed the process, but didn’t think it was helping very much, especially since my handwriting is SO awful (Sister Ann Thomas would smack my hand with a ruler!) But as I read through it I could remember what was happening, and could see in retrospect the twists and turns my mind and the story took. And very surprisingly, I could actually read my scrawl without too much trouble! It sent me scurrying for a new notebook, and this post confirms it. I now have a blueprint, as it were, to make it a more useful tool. Thanks!

    • Good find, John. Every now and then I’ll go deep into my old files and find these sorts of jottings, and sometimes I’ll see something that still seems pretty darn good. If only I had more time…

  8. I love the idea of doing a writing journal. You have a similar suggestion in “How to Make a Living as a Writer” and I’ve considered adding that to my journaling.

    I recently finished “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, and like a good little scribe I’ve been doing my morning pages. I don’t just write about writing though, mostly it’s how I’m feeling and my doubts.

    I like the idea of having something more specific to writing, book by book. I sort of do that accidentally, by have a BOOK TITLE Ideas document that I constantly add to when I have new ideas, but I haven’t tried writing in it before every writing session.

  9. I’ve been stressed about finishing my nonfiction WIP. It has me frozen in place. So last week I decided to do what I call ‘free writing.’ I put fingers to the keyboard and just begin, keeping the overall theme of the WIP in mind. I’ve broken through my self imposed writer’s block. I’m confident some of the raw stuff will make it into the book. Glad the process works for us NF writers too.l

    • Freewriting is one of the first things I learned as a writer, Natalie Goldberg, etc. The nice thing is it can be used at any stage. Glad it helped you break through, Jane.

  10. How fun that she was in the audience! I’ve read some of her books. Great stuff.

    I can see how this would be really helpful. I’ll try it myself. Now that I’m 44k into my novel, I’m having to bring pieces together. Nitty gritty time coming up soon!

Comments are closed.