journaling and conquering monsters

Why Journaling Conquers Writing Monsters

 

“…I write … [in my Journal of a Novel] consistently because I know that later on, it will help me through whatever bad time I may encounter in the process.”—Elizabeth George in Write Away

Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve written six novels, two novellas, and hundreds of short stories. Even considering that many of those works are utter tripe that shall never see the light of day, their mere completion is a triumph. I’ve seen the hulking beasts that stand between every writer and the end of our stories. Procrastination. Discouragement. Fear. Disorganization. Boredom. Burnout. I’ve seen them, and I’ve conquered them.

Yep, I’ve licked all those nasty boogey men. So, if you’re one of those lucky humans who happen to be in favor of logical thinking, your next thought would likely be that, having conquered all these foul beasts, I now stand a victor on the field of every novel, every story. Nothing stands between me and “The End.” I have seen the enemy, and I have conquered him.

The Monsters Writers Face

However, if you happen to be one of those even luckier humans who inhabit that sometimes less-than-logical mind of a writer, you probably already know that such is not the truth. The enemies of a writer are never vanquished. They lurk in the shadowy background, breathing down our collars as we hunch over our keyboards. Sometimes we type furiously, trying to escape the monster’s breath. And sometimes we freeze solid, every thought in our brains fleeing. The fact that anyone ever manages to complete a story is a victory in itself. Forget good literature; completed literature is the writer’s greatest conquest.

Still, you’d think the battle would get easier as time goes on. You’d think that, as I sit down to work on my seventh novel, the road ahead would be vastly clearer compared to that same road of years past when I wrote Novel #1. Not so, unfortunately. If anything, the monsters breathe harder with every passing “The End.” The happy carelessness of my first novel is long gone. Back then, I had nothing to prove, nothing to surpass. No pressure.

Behold the Dawn, a novel of the Third Crusade by K.M. WeilandNo matter how much I’ve researched my settings, interviewed my characters, and hammered out my plot points, my fingers always type that first draft like a blind man stumbling in a junkyard. While writing Behold the Dawn, a historical novel of the 3rd Crusade, I have the distinct memory of staring, blank-eyed, at the computer screen and thinking, I’ve lost it. Whatever talent I had for this just flew out the window! I can’t make this story work. I don’t remember ever struggling through this mire with previous stories! What’s going on here?!

How Journaling Can Slay Writing Monsters

It was about this same time that I read mystery diva Elizabeth George’s stellar tome Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. Of all her gems of writerly wisdom, the one I remember most is her description of her “Journal of a Novel,” styled after John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden letters.” After explaining other intricacies of her daily writing routine, George comments that:

…I pick up my Journal of a Novel for the last novel that I wrote. For the last three or four novels, I’ve copied John Steinbeck’s activity from East of Eden, and I’ve begun every day by writing in a journal, sometimes about the writing I’m doing, sometimes about what’s on my mind at the moment. So for each novel I now write, I create a new journal entry, but before I do that, I read a day in the last Journal of a Novel for the previous novel. This allows me to see that, whatever I might be experiencing at the moment, I have experienced it and survived it before.

Once I’ve done that reading, I create my journal entry for the new Journal of a Novel, the one I’m creating as I write the current book. This may be a single paragraph; it may be a page or two. But I write it consistently because I know that later on, it will help me through whatever bad time I may encounter in the process.

I picked up on George’s habit around the same time I began Behold. I wrote faithfully in my battered mulberry notebook, generally recording only two or three paragraphs a day. My opening words summed up the journal’s purpose: 1-11-05: I’ve decided to keep a journal of my writing. I don’t have time to go into any depth, but just enough to maybe help me later on. I used the journal to:

  • Record my word count for the previous day.
  • Recorded my frustrations: 4-5-05: “My writing of late seems to be regressing back into the flabby”; 5-30-05: “Well, here we go—another day of plugging along.”
  • Celebrate my triumphs: 2-1-05: “Wee! I had a great writing session yesterday”; 7-13-05: “Oh, I’m loving this! This is why I slog through the bad days to reach the pieces that just sing!”
  • Jot instructions to myself: 1-25-05: “I don’t know how many times I’ve read that the writers who take risks are the writers who break boundaries and write the best and most memorable stories”; 10-25-05: “Music is so important to my writing process. More than almost anything else, Behold has taught me that if I don’t have a strong enough soundtrack, I’m probably going to struggle.”

Always I grounded myself and focused my thoughts on the writing session to come.

The True Power of Journaling

I didn’t, however, discover the journal’s true power until two years later, when I began writing the next novel. I continued my journaling with this new project, and, just as George suggested, I returned daily to Behold’s journal to read an entry.

Almost immediately after typing the words “Chapter One” in this new story, I fell headlong into the old fears and naysayings. I can’t do this! I stink! Everything good I wrote up to now was just luck! Peculiarly enough, I found myself reading almost the very same words in my journal of Behold. In fact, one day I scribbled down “I hate beginnings!” in my WIP’s journal, only to flip to the corresponding entry in the Behold journal and find the very same words staring up at me. I laughed. And I was comforted.

The writing journal was tangible proof this wasn’t the first time I’d been through these canyons of frustration and doubt. I’d been in the pit of despair, I’d fought my way out, and I’d even emerged with one of my best stories. I could do this. I’d done it before, after all.

Now, two years later, journaling has become a vital part of my writing routine. As my untidy black scrawl fills notebook after notebook, all I have to do is look at the notebooks piled on my desk to know I’ve faced these same monsters many times before. I have conquered them before, and I will conquer them again.

Tell me your opinion: Do you find journaling a valuable part of your writing process? Why or why not?

why journaling conquers writing monsters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Love this idea! Thank you (and Elizabeth George)!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. Monsters begone!

  3. I really love this idea and it is very inspiring. I was thinking this morning that don’t want to do morning pages full of angst and pessimism. Rather be positive about life and writing. This is to be my up year since 2013 was a complete disaster and I basically quit writing altogether. I rediscovered one of my old stories and fell back in love. So, this is great timing to begin a journal of the novel. Thank you for once again providing inspiration, a kick, a nudge just when I need it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m a big fan of the idea of writing down something we’re thankful for every day. I like applying this to my writing life, as well as my “regular” life. We’re lucky to be authors. It’s great to keep focusing on that.

  4. I started journalling back in the 1970s after a *minor* nervous breakdown and I continue to this day, although the entries are focused on totally different things. Then it was my frustration with myself and my life; now it’s daily revelations and joys… my current life, all mixed up with my writing.

    Going back to previous entries doesn’t work in my kind of journal because I can never find specific topics. But the writing itself is still valuable. Perhaps I should keep two daily journals… one for life observances and the other just for writing. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always found it most useful to keep two two journals. I refer back to both of them. In my life journal, I’ll always flip back to the corresponding day from the previous year. It’s so informative to see how far we can come with ourselves in just a year.

  5. As one of “those” who has to write by hand every day, even if just a paragraph, I’ve been keeping a life journal for more than 30 years, so it was natural to journal about my writing. I like the idea of setting up a notebook by days so I can compare day 3 of one novel with day 3 of another. Great idea!

    I pre-write a lot, usually on loose leave for a binder (one for each novel) and do a lot of what you describe there. Just part of my process, I suppose. Now, however, I’m going to be mindful of what you practice and suggest here so I can compare more easily. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always outline longhand – usually filling up two to three notebooks. It’s my favorite part of the process, not in small part because of the creativity that’s unleashed by the tactility of pen on paper. Really helps shut down my internal editor as well.

  6. *loose leaf

  7. I used to tell myself, “just bear with it. Things will get better after your first novel.” 🙁

  8. Definitely like this suggestion. It places a whole new perspective on journaling that helps writers break out of using a journal solely for the typical “Daily Diary” purposes.

    Question: Do you use a separate notebook for each “Journal of a Novel” or the same one? Also, do you dedicate a separate notebook for these entries or just add them to your normal, everyday journal?

    I have this issue of not wanting to overload my regular journal with things other than what I’m thinking about at the moment; sporadic entries, in other words. Just wondering if you feel the same.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, separate book for each novel – and the notebooks are exclusive to writing. I do my personal journaling in another book.

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