Mining journal/notebook entries
This post is Part 2 of 2.
In my previous post, I explained the two kinds of writing notebooks usually referred to in how-to-write books: the daily writing journal and the commonplace notebook.
Whichever one you choose, what is your aim in keeping up a journal or notebook? Maybe you simply want to record whatever takes your interest.
But if your goal is to be a published writer, it can be frustrating using your precious time and brain energy to keep a journal/notebook at the same time you are working to write polished pieces. When thrashing out the plot for a short story, you may wonder about the value of setting this work aside to keep up your daily journal writing.
Luckily, you can tie your journal or notebook writing to your writing goals. How?
1: Trial elements of your story.
The trick here is not to write daily journal entries that differ from what you are currently working on. Use your journal writing to explore elements of your story:
- Is a scene just not working? Use your journal to try out other possibilities. You already know that your daily writing is free time, when anything goes. Enjoy this opportunity to explore your story without constraints.
- Do you need to know more about a character? Try out a writing prompt that can sharpen your focus on the character, help you delve into what makes him or her tick.
- Is your beginning or ending problematic? Use your journal to sketch different possibilities.
Keeping your experiments in the separate textual space of your journal allows you to play with one element. It’s like putting one part of a plant under the microscope for a closer look.
Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris, in their book The Weekend Novelist, believe that this kind of daily writing helps you ‘connect with your unconscious’ without taking your focus away from your main writing. They suggest using your journal to confess, create, explore, and play with ideas pertinent to whatever you are working on.
Suggestion 2: Find a story idea.
Some writers never re-read their daily journals. For them, the journal’s benefit is in the daily process of writing and linking in with their unconscious. Not re-reading their entries ensures that their Internal Editor does not interfere while they explore and play.
But for other writers, journal writing works more like a mental compost bin. When they re-read what they’ve written in their journal, they see possibilities for transforming this mental compost into a polished piece. Leaf through your commonplace book or daily journal to find what seems evocative or interesting enough to develop. Perhaps you re-read a poem you’ve copied into your notebook and get a brainwave about a plot.
Suggestion 3: Create a ‘deeper’ story.
Some writers believe you can mine your daily writing for elements that add depth to a story. The writing may suggest themes or at least something that enables your story to resonate below the surface action.
How can you achieve this depth? It often works best if you are using your journal to respond to writing prompts. You choose what to write when responding, so what you choose probably matters to you, either consciously or unconsciously. Use your responses to build a story.
In her book, The Writing Book: A workbook for fiction writers, author Kate Grenville suggests how to develop a story from journal material. Because the story emerges from whatever your unconscious has focussed on, you will write a richer story, something evocative, unexpected and possibly memorable. Relying completely on the conscious mind can result in a logical, predictable story.
- Re-read your journal entries and mark anything that interests you: ideas, descriptions, provocative phrases, etc.
- Sort your highlighted material. Photocopy the pages where you have marked information, then cut out the bits you’ve marked.
- Work out what bits belong together or connect in some way. This connection does not need to be logical—if you sense a link between two bits, keep them together. You will end up with several piles. Each pile functions as a possible category, which could become a theme or major element in your story.
- Piece out a possible story. This process is similar to storyboarding for a film. What can you use from the categories? What individual bits do you want to include?
If you find you don’t have enough material, search through your journal again or complete more writing prompts.
Here’s an example. Susan re-reads her journal entries and marks some passages that she finds particularly engaging. She copies out what she has marked on separate slips of paper. Next she puts like material together and ends up with five piles: nature/outdoors, strange animals, paranoia, tourism, growing old. Now she uses these categories, plus her slips of paper, to map out a possible story.
- Will Susan write about an elderly tourist who visits the safe environment of an Australian zoo to see its strange animals, and then becomes frightened when accidentally locked in for the night? And what happens next?
- Will she decide to write about a character who, concerned about growing old, takes a dangerous tour to an exotic place—and something happens involving a strange animal?
- Maybe the exercise suggests a totally different track. The categories somehow remind her of her friend who while on tour in Thailand had to contend with a runaway elephant.→And this reminds her of George Orwell’s famous essay, Shooting an Elephant, which is about the power of the crowd versus an individual. →And this suggests a theme she can build a story around. She again consults the material in the five piles. Perhaps she ends up writing about an woman at a popular tourist spot, who watches some destructive teenagers (strange animals) but also yearns to have their energy and selfishness (growing old). Can she work paranoia in as well? Perhaps she tells them off, then imagines them following her back to her hotel?
What a wealth of possibilities!