18 April 2013

Journaling for Your Work in Progress

by Brian Thornton

Riffing on Rob's terrific post from yesterday on how writing about his novel actually helps him stay creative in the writing of his novel. I think anything you can do during the drafting process that will help you keep your characters/settings/situations/plot fresh and mobile in your mind is going to be of assistance in getting to the finish line with your novel.

This is true of other pieces of work as well, short stories, nonfiction, what have you. And for my money the single most effective way to do all of the above is to journal about your work-in-progress.

Plot diagrams are nice. Character sketches are really important. But for me, I need the internal monologue (and yes, sometimes dialogue) that comes from writing about my writing.

Everyone ought to have a writing journal. If you don't, whatever the format, either Word doc or notebook, you're missing out on something that can help keep your chops sharp and your story in your head. I have notebooks full of entries about the books and short stories I've written. They've been fruitful contributors in a multitude of ways, especially when I hit a dry spell and can't seem to keep my plot moving forward, or once it's stalled, get it rolling again.

That's when I go back to the well. And sometimes re-reading what I've written about my various works-in-progress, even if it bears no fruit at the time, comes back to life when I delve into my oeuvre seeking some sort of fresh idea, some spark to get things rolling again.

Take short stories for example.

I've been known to start one, write myself into a corner, and leave it to work on something else for a while. Then there are the ones I've written that went nowhere when I tried to place them for publication.

Those I set aside too; resolving to re-work them later. One of them ("Suicide Blonde") was written specifically for AHMM, so when Linda Landrigan (rightly) passed on it, I set it aside for a while. And when I journaled about my next work-in-progress, I threw in asides about what ideas I had about re-working "Suicide Blonde" to make it a more successful piece. I also solicited feedback from my critique partners and journaled about their input.

Devoting this sort of headspace to the story (and we're only talking about the amount of time it took to write a few lines per night about it) paid off in the long run. I re-worked the story, submitted it for the MWA themed-anthology contest for that year, don't make that cut, then turned around and re-submitted it to AHMM. This time Linda bought it.

As I've mentioned in previous blog entries I am currently hard at work on an historical mystery novel set in mid-1840s Washington DC. I've done two previous drafts (One full and the other a partial re-write) while trying to work out the plot to my satisfaction. After a couple of false starts I really feel like I'm on the road to completing this novel.

So when a friend recently started up a quarterly e-zine (published electronically and available on Kindle, etc., and a paying venue, to boot) and expressly requested a short story from me, I viewed the notion of writing a short story from scratch, research, etc. (remember, I write historicals. They require a ton  of research!), as a potential distraction, and demurred. He asked again, and he's a good guy and one hell of a writer, so it's an honor to be asked.

Plus, I'd reached a slow-down patch in my novel, so I shifted gears and went back to the notebooks, and dug up an idea I'd initially had for a short story featuring Renaissance Italian adventurers attempting to break the ultimate political prisoner out of the Turkish sultan's toughest prison in 1580s Constantinople.

And I began to journal.

I had a couple of false starts to fall back on (I keep all of my "didn't make the cut" drafts, so I can "cannibalize" anything useful in later work. After all, no need to re-thread the needle if you've already done it before!), plus a fair bit of notes from my research (my story idea was based on actual events).

I finished the final draft of that short story last night, putting the final touches to it after receiving feedback on the rough draft I pounded out based on my previous notes/drafts and the  pages I devoted to the journaling process and writing about my writing.

And while it's true that sometimes setting aside a good story until you can get all of its parts working right in your head (and that usually takes time, in this case, years!), I couldn't have pulled together all the complex threads for this story and developed them in 8,000 words had I not written about what I was writing: my process, my ideas for fleshing out the story. What worked, what didn't, and so on.

So there you have it. Want to finish a writing project? Well then get to journaling!

Brian

5 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Very interesting indeed. I have never tried journaling although anyone who has read my last few entries at SleuthSayers might be inclined to disagree. (And i predict the next two will be more navel gazing, though not about my novel.)

Perhaps i should give it a try. Cretainly Suicide Blonde was a success.

R.T. Lawton said...

Brian, I don't journal after the fact, but I do make and keep lots of notes before writing the story. So maybe this is a method of journaling before the fact. And, I never throw away writing, because as you said, it may become part of a different story or a newly finished story.

Terence Faherty said...

Brian, I've kept a journal for many years and make an entry to start my writing day, as a way of priming the pump. My favorite journal line is Sue Grafton's. She called her journal "a letter I write to myself." That's the way I think of mine. It's a place to record ideas, develop them into stories, work out story problems, and, yes, pat myself on the back when I have a good writing day. (If I don't do it, who will?)

DoolinDalton said...

Terence- John Steinbeck did exactly the same thing while writing "East of Eden": wrote a morning "letter to myself" for the same reasons you mention.

Great minds!

Dixon Hill said...

I've encountered writers who championed journaling, in the past, but I never understood why they valued the practice.

Reading your post, I finally see the advantages. Thanks, buddy! You've explained it in a way that makes sense to me. Think I'll give it a try.

--Dix