Keeping a Creative Journal

Last year, I decided to publish three YA novels under a pseudonym. Prior to publishing, I asked a skilled friend of mine to proofread each manuscript. After I had read through their comments and mark-ups, I complimented them on their editing skills. This is when my critique partner suggested that I start keeping a creative writing journal.

I love reflecting on the creative process (hence this blog!) and I’m already an active journal writer (it frightens me how quickly we forget things!), so I was instantly intrigued and wanted to know more. ‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.

My critique partner then informed me that the volume of suggested corrections varied widely throughout the manuscript. Apparently, they would read through several pages without noting a single error only to then find three error on one page. I confessed that I too noted this pattern during my revisions and had chalked the errors up to ‘bad writing days.’

A creative writing journal is a good place to record your daily word count and hours spent writing, but more importantly, it is a place where you can reflect on your creative process. Journal entries are a way to document how you feel about the day’s writing session. Did the words come easily? Did the story go in a direction you hadn’t expected? How do you feel about what you have written?

I’m a daily writer. I find it easy to slowly chip away at a project day-after-day rather than binge write for 8-10 hours every now and then. I enjoy the sense of daily progress and the satisfaction of crossing things off my to-do list. So, I write every day – whether I feel like it or not. (*Insert obvious disclaimer. Life happens. Some days I don’t write because events outside of my control prevent me from doing so).

Here’s the thing though, I can’t help but believe that the pages clustered with typos and errors were written, revised or edited on days when I didn’t want to write. Days when I was tired, unmotivated, distracted or pressed for time. Days where I chose to white knuckle through my writing session rather than take the day off.

Of course, those typos and errors could have just as easily been made on days when I was struck with inspiration. Days when the words came quicker than my fingers could type them. Days when I hurried to get the story down before it had a chance to escape me.

The problem is, I have no idea whether those typos ridden pages were written on ‘bad’ days or ‘good’ days. Keeping a creative journal would allow me to identify the correlations between the quality of the writing and my mood, mental clarity and energy. If a pattern was pinpointed, then I would know which sections of the manuscript would require further – or more careful – editing/revisions prior to sharing them with others.

Using beta readers, critique partners and professional editors will certainly assist in the correcting of errors, but personally, I would like my manuscript to be as clean as possible before I share it with others. Typos are distracting. If I’ve asked my beta readers or critique partners to read my manuscript and to provide thoughtful feedback, I’d hate for them to spend that time marking up typos rather than reflecting on the quality of the manuscript.

Even if a particular pattern is not identified, a creative journal could provide further insight into my own creative process. This, in itself, is reason enough for me. Obviously, this is a new practice for me, and if this tool proves useful, I’ll certainly write a follow-up blog. But for now, I’d love to hear from you! Do you keep a creative writing journal? If so, what do you record? How has maintaining a creative journal assisted your process?

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Desires vs Goals

(Note: The video version of this blog can be found here)

As writers, we all want to write amazing novels. We want to write the kind of novels that readers can’t put down. Novels that take readers on epic journeys far away from their everyday life and that allow them to experience the world through another’s eyes. Novels that challenge readers, that teach them something, that inform them about important issues or that move them in some profound way.

As writers, we want to get agents, sign deals and see our books in stores. We want to go on a book tour and do interviews with smart journalists. We want our online platforms to explode along with our sales. We want readers to send us fan art or emails detailing what our book meant to them.

These secret desires can be rocket fuel on days when inspiration is running thin. Be warned though, these same desires can quickly lead to disappointment and apathy. When these thrilling futures fail to materialise, we may wind up asking, ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet? What’s the point in trying anymore?’ or worse, ‘Maybe I’m no good at this.’

Dreaming about hitting the New York Times Best Seller List or winning a prestigious award can be a fun way to occupy your time while waiting in a doctor’s office or lazily drinking tea on a Sunday afternoon, but there is a big difference between desires and goals.

Getting an agent, a book deal, winning a literary award or experiencing skyrocketing sales are desires. You have absolutely no control (or very little) over any of these events becoming a reality. However, you are fully in charge when it comes to goals.

Goals are specific, measurable and they have deadlines.

Getting an agent is a desire. Querying five agents in the first quarter of the year is a goal. The former is ambiguous and disempowering, the latter is exact and empowering. Goals are specific and measurable. In the case of the above example, you have set the goal to email five agents, and the self-imposed deadline will help keep you on track and focused.

Of course, some goals will involve others, but it’s important that you continue to recognise the difference between a goal and a desire.

Desire: The proofreader will find all the typos in my manuscript.

Goal: The proofreader and I will complete the final round of edits by October.

While it’s fun to imagine the future our current WIP may one day experience, it’s important that we keep our feet firmly on the ground. After all, that shiny ‘one-day’ future will never happen if you don’t do the work.

When working on a project, there is tremendous value in setting goals. However, setting vague goals like “Write a Book” can lead to overwhelm and procrastination. It’s just too damn BIG! Plus, it will be a long time before you experience the satisfaction of crossing that item off your goal list. Instead, it’s much more productive to break that one massive goal into much smaller goals.

Remember: A goal is something you are in charge of.

Instead of setting “Write a Book” as a goal, consider the steps involved in that process. This one goal could easily be broken down into something like this:

  1. Read a craft book such as Save the Cat by Jessica Brody
  2. Spend one week creating character profiles
  3. Spend one week outline the novel using the Save the Cat principles
  4. Write 500-1000 words a day, five days a week. Hit 80,000 words by July 12.
  5. Re-read manuscript in one/two sittings while making note of any large structural issues or plot holes
  6. Spend one week creating a plan on how to revise initial draft
  7. Spend one-two hours, five days a week, revising
  8. Spend 2-3 weeks re-read the revised draft and make any final adjustments
  9. Ask five friends to become beta-readers
  10. Drink copious amounts of whiskey while waiting for beta-reader feedback.

Of course, some of these goals could be broken down further, but you get the idea. For instance, I prefer to complete step ten while clutching my battered copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and crying.

Desires can be inspiring, motivating and energising, but they can lead to dissatisfaction. Goals may be less thrilling, but what they lack in shimmer they make up for in pragmatism. Please, do not underestimate the energy and motivation that comes from real progress. It may not be the Ra-Ra excitement you experience when imagining hitting the New York Times Best Seller List, but those big exciting moment won’t ever happen if you don’t first build the habit of setting realistic and achievable goals.

So, what are you waiting for? Get to it!