Thursday, April 17, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

I have a thing for journals. I love quality stationery, mechanical pencils and pens that glide across the page. Right now if you were to go into my office closet or peek in a desk drawer, you'd find more cloth bound books and brightly colored pads of paper than I'll need for some time. These are my tools, and I can't write without them.

The stationery is for charming notes, the pens and pencils to enhance the writing experience. The journals are my most versatile tool used to capture the journey toward completing a novel. I don't use my journal in the traditional sense, a daily entry highlighting the day's activities and feelings associated with my life. I keep one for each book I write and in each I keep tidbits of ideas for my work-in-progress. In it I have vital information that will never find its way directly into the novel, but details that are essential to a tight, well-crafted work.

Here are a few of things I write down.

  • Each character's age and the month of their birthday, along with their relationships with other characters. (For example, I don't want a character to be an older sister at the beginning of the novel, and later claim she's the younger of the two.)
  • The names of all my minor characters and where they fit into the story (Boy can these people get lost in the shuffle.)
  • The book's timeline (If it's Tuesday in Chapter one, what day is it in Chapter twenty? I fear I'll write a story where it's always Friday. Keep in mind, readers love to find these glitches in a novel, but they remove the reader from the story and thus interrupt flow.)
  • Page counts of chapters (While it's fine to have chapters of varying length, I like to know how my story's structure is falling into place. Later I can decide to combine or expand certain chapters to fit the overall structure.)
  • Lists of resources--print, web, and people-- that I can go to for story details (Authenticity of details is a post in and of itself)
  • Interviews completed (For my work-in-progress, I've completed several interviews that have added incredible information I'm using to inform plot, character and setting. I don't know when I need this info until I'm writing and suddenly I need it, and I want to have it handy.)
  • Notes related to revisions that will need to be layered into a subsequent draft (While I revise the writing from the day before each morning before I write again, I don't go back to the beginning, even if something is revealed to me in say the middle of the novel. I capture the notes in my journal and then in revision I'll know to add details or make changes. For example, a minor character in my work-in-progress had children in chapter three, but by chapter twenty-eight it was clear it was better if he didn't. Note to self--remove his children from chapter three)
The most significant use of my journal is during writers' group. During critique of my pages, sitting quiet, unable to speak, I write. I write down the positive things Amy, Lisa and Hannah say, as well as the constructive feedback. I do this for many reasons. For practical reasons, I have to know what's working and what's not. If I don't have the feedback to review later, I won't recall specifically what was discussed. I might think I'll remember, but likely I'll miss something. It also provides me with the ability to review the notes for themes. Is one character inconsistently relating to another character? Do a number of chapter beginnings overdue exposition? Is a particular subplot missing the mark in places? Taking accountability for the things that consistently emerge, absolutely makes for a stronger novel. Thanks to my journal, I won't miss any of these.

The process of capturing feedback is in itself a means of making positive change. Remember I'm a teacher, and teachers know that the act of writing down what you need to change is the first step toward embracing the change. The process of writing it down raises awareness and centers new thinking in a place of conscious thought. And it doesn't hurt to have the details that made your writers' group gasp, cry, or smile written down either. The positive feedback is a source of comfort on days when the writing is hard.

So how do you capture the nuances and tidbits for pulling together a strong work? We've written a number of entries about the art of writing, but I strongly believe in the science of it too. Work habits can either enhance or interfere with the process of writing a novel. Care to share some of the habits that work for you?


Lisa said...

This is VERY helpful. I have a journal for my current WIP and have been tracking the word count for each chapter and writing up a short synopsis of what's in each chapter -- but I'm definitely going to begin adding some of your methods as well. I've been procrastinating about establishing the timeline and also documenting the introduction of each character too, and your post has motivated me to stop procrastinating and do it. Thanks for the great ideas!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Glad I inspired you to take on documenting more details. I've benefited from so many authors ideas, I am happy to pass my process along. Keep writing!


Larramie said...

Details, details, details are so necessary and I enjoy how you record them all in something beautiful.

And, Lynne, I agree that notes will forever be described as "charming." :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Yes, indeed there are so many details to keep track of. And using a journal to capture them is a lovely way to do it.

Thank you for always leaving charming comments!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for some great ideas.

I can never bring myself to sully a beautiful blank book. I buy cheapo spiral bound notebooks from CVS and try to carry one with me at all times. I am picky about pens, however, and my current favorite is the Uni-Ball Deluxe Micro. Blue.

I write down anything that comes to mind and transfer it to the computer later. I like having everything on the computer so I can easily find things later. Thank god for Search and Find.

I, too, like to note details about background that may never see the light of day. In one musing on colors among three characters, two had definite favorites, but the third, predictably if I'd thought about it, came back with "favorite anythings are a crock. I like what I like when I like it and that can change." It was so her.

Shauna Roberts said...

I track most of the same things you do, but mostly on the computer, where papers can't get lost under a pile of books or in the folder for last year's taxes. Also, I can reorganize and sort and revise my notes, and I can use "search" and "find" to get to something quickly.

I do keep ringed notebooks with drawings of costumes, maps, lists . . . stuff that can't be put in the computer easily or is too disorganized to enter yet.

Anonymous said...

I use journals much like you do. Writing really is a sensory craft and there's a certain connection that comes from putting a fine pen to paper. I have a journal for each manuscript and one for blog ideas (if I ever get the nerve to start it!) Sometimes, too, in getting past a sticking point or pulling together a scene, a good long walk answers many questions. It distances me from the story at the computer, so that I'm still with it, but see it differently from afar.

Patti said...

i always do this on legal pads...a sucker for the legal pad (wannabe lawyer), but am always looking for an excuse to justify another journal. DONE!

so, last night as I tried to fall asleep, I was thinking about how I need a writer's group. a flesh and blood writer's group, and I thought i'd come here and ask about how you gals got started and then it dawned on me to look up your first posts. Bingo!

i appreciate the head's up.

~digging out library card~

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Kira & Shauna,

Using the computer is a fine way to capture all of what I call snippets, keeps and details. As long as you've got a system that works~


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Sounds like you have a very similar process. It adds a lot to the creative process. Don't you think?


Glad to hear you found the archives. Our very early posts talked about getting started. Just last meeting we talked about revisiting some of those topics for readers like you just joining us. Thanks for letting us know you found them.


Patry Francis said...

I was just given a particularly gorgeous journal--Italian red leather. Until I read your wonderful post, I wasn't sure what use I would make of it. Now I know.

Anonymous said...

Just the word journal makes me smile. Buying funky or beautiful notebooks is the one thing I splurge on in life, which makes my golf club buying husband giggle. I do most of my WIP writing in my journals these days, transferring scenes over to my computer about once a week. I used to try to keep my personal journaling and notetaking separate from my fiction writing, but I've found that I work better with just one notebook on the go. I just use squiggly lines to indicate when its fiction and cross out the "add" when I've transfered it over.
Thanks Lynne. So fun to read about how other writers work! At the beginning of this year I made a personal committment to use only environmentally friendly "ecojot" notebooks for 2008. They have some inspiring whimsical designs! Check them out online.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


I can visual that beautiful journal, and know with your words included within, it will be a masterpiece. So happy to find your comment here.


Beautiful journals make me giddy. My son shares my peculiarities for quality pens. Nice tools change the writing experience for the better. Thanks for the tip on eco friendly journals. I will check them out.


Thora said...

I love to hear your passion for coloured paper and journals .Inspiring.Do you buy them or make your own?