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Open a project journal

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Planning

Is the idea for your novel gaining some weight? Is the skeleton getting some skin? Then maybe it’s time to start a project journal. I first discovered a practical approach to keeping a project journal for a new novel when I stumbled across Sue Grafton’s journals. I was no stranger to journaling from personal diaries to catch-alls for ideas, quotes and favorite writing. But Grafton presented an integrated way of using the project journal during the actual process of writing a novel.

Creating a novel or creating a journal?

left brain, right brain writing process

The Seesaw Mind

Most of us look at working on the novel or writing in a journal as two separate concepts. When we’re at the computer we’re banging away at the keyboard, lost in thought, skimming across the imaginative landscape like a rock across water. But the journal, that’s where we test out our ideas, noodle threads and track their progress, emblazon names and sketch out characters. They’re like small sandlots for the mind.

But what if we were to work them in tandem? Couple our mind at play with our better working half? What would happen?

How I use a project journal to write a novel

For me it’s been pure joy. I follow the process Grafton laid out so many years ago. When I sit down to work I not only open up my latest manuscript file but also my project journal. I then work between the two, writing and planning, capturing and writing. When the brain stops feeding one file, I give it the other. This creates an oscillating effect that makes my brain hum. One feeds the other and the resulting energy carries me along.

My journal is kept chronologically. Every day when I start work on the novel, I open two files. The first is the project journal where I key in the current date. The next step is to open the current manuscript file I plan to work in that day. All day long both files are open and go back and forth between the two.

I begin by writing in the project journal and state my intention for the day. Then I freewrite whatever is on my mind about the planned work for that day and add any other thoughts about the plot, character, story, setting, or research. This is also where I’ll type in any napkin scribblings or sticky note reminders. The project journal functions as a timeline and a big bucket for my novel’s progress.

When I feel warmed up and my mind is ready to go, I switch to the manuscript file and start writing. Throughout the day I go back and forth. When the writing gets tough, I talk about it in the project journal and when the scene starts rolling again I switch back to the manuscript file. When I have questions or realize something has to be done, in the project journal it goes. At the end of the day I return to the project journal and reflect on the day’s work and capture any thoughts for the next day’s work.

What you can do today

  1. The first action is to open up a computer file and name it your novel’s project journal.
  2. Go into the project journal and enter today’s date. Now write whatever comes to mind about your novel. Don’t stop until the words fade.
  3. Capture any notes. I even copy specific entries from emails if I’ve been talking about the work with a friend–yes, including the date and time.
  4. Enter your intention for the day’s work. It’s good to “announce” your goals.
  5. Go to the manuscript file and write.
  6. Go back and forth between the two as your mind shifts.
  7. When you’re finished for the day, write up an assessment, capture notes, things to do and intentions for the next day.

Tomorrow: Rinse and repeat. Continue the process even on the days when you feel like your mind is moving through jello. Your project journal will become your best friend on days when the work is slow and your co-pilot on days when the wind carries you forward. Let me know how it works for you or share your favorite method.

—Link: Sue Grafton’s Journal Notes

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  • Katie Tallo

    I really like this idea for keeping my novel on track. Thanks Vikk. I’m starting my novel journal today. Feels right.

  • Vikk Simmons

    I’m glad you find it helpful. I’m a big fan of project journals. They’ve really helped me over the years. 

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  • Vikk Simmons

    Glad the idea felt like a fit. It’s been a great boon to me over the years.