Journaling for Writers during NaNoJoWriMo October

image of handwritten journal entries by John Steinbeck from his Grapes of Wrath journal
John Steinbeck’s journal for The Grapes of Wrath

Fall is here, and that means we’re getting closer to NaNoWriMo.

One way to start thinking about what to write for NaNoWriMo is to keep a writer’s journal, one that’s primarily about prepping to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days during the month of November.

Writers’ journals are a venerable tradition, used by many writers in the past and increasingly popular today. A writers’ journal can be a conventional “dear diary” journal, of the sort Samuel Pepys kept, or it can be a record of where you are in a writing project, where you need to go, what plot points and character traits you want to remember and emphasize — even your emotional response and impressions about your writing.

John Steinbeck kept a writers’ journal from the beginning of his work on The Grapes of Wrath. He used journaling as a way to help cope with and mitigate his anxiety and stress about writing every day. Sample entries include short notes like these:

 

May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.

June 18: I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity

September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too . . . If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.

October 4: My laziness is overwhelming. I must knock it over . . . I’ve been looking back over this diary and by God the pressures were bad the whole damned time. There wasn’t a bit that wasn’t under pressure and now the pressure is removed and I’m still having trouble. It would be funny if my book was no good at all.

Other writers are less interested in their emotional response to their writing, and more interested in counting the words; they often write short notes about the current word count, the daily word count, and what they mean to start writing about in their next session.

567 words this morning; 31789 total. Must figure out who Bryan really is, and why he wants to find the crater. What is his driving need? What will finding the crater do for him?

As a way of prepping for NaNoWriMo, consider starting a NaNo journal. Starting a NaNoWriMo journal now allows you to plan, plot and work on characters and backstory without actually drafting. Consider the NaNoWriMo journal a sandbox for your writerly imagination. A journal can not only be really helpful in terms of concentrating on writing during NaNo November, it can be a great deal of fun.

A NaNo journal doesn’t have to be elaborate; a .99 cent composition book from the corner drugstore, a spiral notebook, or even a small pocket notebook that’s meant to fit in a back pocket or purse are all perfectly fine; whatever works for you. You might be happier and more like to use a journal app that runs on your smart phone. Like a pocket notebook, an app for journaling on your phone is convenient, letting you make quick notes about your WIP while waiting for the bus or during your lunch break. There are journaling apps for Android and iOS. You might even want to use a bullet journal as a writers’ journal.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of journaling, October 1 starts National Journal Writing Month:

National Journal Writing Month (NaJoWriMo) helps you start and maintain a journal writing habit in 30 days. NaJoWriMo is geared toward personal growth, reaching your goals, and recording your life as you live it.

NaNoJoWriMo is a quarterly event (January, April, July and October) meant to encourage people to try journaling. It’s not terribly rule-bound; you can journal as you see fit, with a goal of journaling every day for 30 days. There are daily prompts, as well as lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit. NaNoJoWriMo has a theme every quarter; this quarter’s theme is Unleashing Your Creative Mind Through Journal Writing. That sounds perfect in terms of NaNoWriMo planning. The NaNoJoWriMo website has a free newsletter; sign up for a free downloadable with lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit.

Journaling is a great way to start your writing day, and it can be freeing to be able to write without it having to be your WIP. You might want to keep a journal to remind yourself of the good things in your life (an awesomeness journal). Journaling is a one way to freewrite and start your writer brain, especially if you’re struggling with writers’ block or your well of inspiration is temporarily dry. If you’re in front of a keyboard and screen for much of the day, or working on your WIP on your computer, consider journaling with pen and ink (or pencil) as a way to free your writer brain to work on your story while you write differently.

Breaking Out Of Writer’s Block

By Apryl Duncan

You stare at the blank page. The white of the page embeds itself in your brain, resulting in your mind going blank.

Breaking out of the block doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling challenge, though. Explore the causes and the cure and you’ll be writing again in no time.

Common Causes

  • Unrealistic GoalsIf you’ve decided that you’re going to write from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every single day – no matter what – then you’re probably pushing yourself too hard.Your writing will become dull and drab. The natural flow you once knew will temporarily escape to Writer’s Block Island with the rest of your writing talents.
  • Stress!We all know how stress can affect your mood. But stress can also affect your writing.For instance, say all you wanted to do was come home from work and write until bedtime. Your boss makes you stay late. Your supper was a half-cooked hamburger and cold fries from a local fast food restaurant. Your dog wants to go out. And all you want to do is crawl in bed and forget the entire day.

    As much as we try to carry a stiff upper lip, we’re still human. External factors can affect our mood and ultimately affect our writing. Our focus shifts to all the bad things that happened in our day and writing becomes the last thing we want to do.

  • Neglecting Our WritingSometimes Writer’s Block comes from not writing! Writing every day is essential to keeping those creative juices flowing.You don’t have to make an impossible deal with yourself to write 100 pages of your manuscript in one sitting. Taking as little as 10 minutes a day helps keep you writing and words will flow from your mind much easier.
  • PerfectionismThe perfect paragraph, word after word, is a carefully constructed piece of art. But hanging yourself up on creating that perfect paragraph will win you an all-expense paid trip to Writer’s Block Island.If you run into this problem, give yourself and your writing a cooling off period. After a couple of days, re-visit your work and see where or even if it needs improvement. Your mind will be fresh and clear, giving you a whole new perspective on your own writing.
  • Research-RelatedA lot of writers don’t realize how research can even be a hang-up. Maybe you can’t finish your crime novel because you don’t know how police would handle a certain situation in reality.Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious and we try to write our way around it. All we really need to do is a little more research.

The Cure!

After you’ve beaten your fists on the keyboard and taken two aspirin for that migraine, try these cures for writer’s block:

    • RevisitRe-read some of your previous works. Maybe it was a journal entry. Perhaps you wrote a poem once. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel. You can still gain insight and even inspiration from something else you’ve written.
    • Change of SceneryHow many times have you heard a song that reminds you of something? Perhaps you heard that song a dozen times a day when you were in college. So that particular song brings back memories. The same goes for scenery in your every day life.If you’re sitting in the same room, day after day, the scenery’s going to get old. That scenery starts to remind you that you’re not writing. That you’re stuck in what seems like a hopeless case of Writer’s Block.

      The solution is simple. Seek out a change of pace. Go for a walk. Take a drive.

    • Rewrite Another’s WorkCheck out a newspaper or magazine article. Now rewrite that story from a new angle. Maybe a young girl was kidnapped. Police are still looking for the suspect and the little girl.Your version of the story might portray the young girl as the daughter of a lawyer. Perhaps one of his clients wasn’t happy with the way his own daughter’s murder trial was handled. So he kidnapped the defending lawyer’s pride and joy.
    • Use Real PicturesFlip through a magazine. Cut out pictures, headlines, even certain blocks of text. Now write a short story based on your clippings.For example, you might cut out a picture of a man riding a bicycle on page 14 of your favorite magazine. On page 22 you cut out a quote that says, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

      Your story could turn into one man’s crusade. Perhaps this man’s riding his bicycle across country because he’s outraged by automobile pollution levels. His point is to raise people’s awareness about the effects of pollution.

      Meanwhile, police keep hindering his efforts because the man’s riding his bicycle on the freeway, a violation of the law. So you have a man on his bicycle and the police quote, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

    • DoodleYes! You were scolded in elementary school for doodling on your paper. Now you have full permission.Free your mind while scribbling. No need to think about your character’s next move. No plot structures to consider. Just a sense of connecting your pen to paper.
    • Object FocusTake a look around you. Does something catch your eye? Even something as simple as a stapler. Describe an object in full detail. Start with its size, shape, color.
    • Building BlocksRomance. Mystery. Thrillers. All genres have their own keywords. Build keywords from your own genre.If you’re a romance writer, you could come up with words like love, marriage, betrayal, lust, happiness. Jot down as many words as you can think of.
    • Life EventsThe birth of a child. Holidays. Graduation. Weddings. We all have our favorite life events. Pick one of your own and write down all your thoughts and feelings about that day. Turn it into a story.
    • NetworkMany authors beat Writer’s Block or avoid it altogether by networking with their fellow writers. Bulletin boards, chats and writer’s Web sites all offer you the chance to meet other authors and work your way through the many facets of fiction writing.Think of talking with other writers as your own personal support group.

Writer’s Block may attack you at some point in your writing career but always remember:

WB isn’t fatal.

Overcoming WB is not impossible.

WB’s only temporary.

Apryl Duncan is the founder of www.FictionAddiction.NET, an award-winning site for fiction writers and readers. She is an author and professional freelance writer who enjoys writing everything from mystery novels to how-to articles on the writing craft.

The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas To Jump-Start Your Imagination, Jason Rekulak

Review by J. Kristin Dreyer

The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas To Jump-Start Your Imagination
by Jason Rekulak
Running Press
March, 2001
672 pages

8 AM — You sit down in front of your computer, eager to get to work on The Great American Novel (or even The Decent American Novel, for that matter). You open up a new document on your computer.

11 AM — Two loads of laundry, one talk show, and one phone conversation with your best friend later, your document is still blank. You know the ideas are up there somewhere, but you’re not quite sure how to pull them out through your fingers and onto the screen.

Cover of Jason Rekulak's The Writers_block

Sometimes, we all need a little push in the right direction. That’s what The Writer’s Block is for — this amusingly-cube-shaped book is full of creative nudges. Just open it up to a random page, and you’ll find the inspiration you need. Whether you open to a Spark Word (like “marathon” or “vanity”), a motivational thought about writing, or a writing prompt, your keyboard will be back in business in a matter of minutes.

The Writer’s Block is a necessity for any writer’s bookshelf. Or — better yet — keep it on your desk in case of emergencies. It’s like the bag of candy you keep hidden in your desk drawer — just what you need to keep yourself going.

Kristin Dreyer Kramer is a refugee from the Real World (no, not the TV show). he escaped (barely!) from advertising agency life and is now a freelance writer (starving artist). You can find her at KristinDreyerKramer.com.

The Power of Journaling for Writers

By Erica Miner

Anne Frank . . . Virginia Woolf . . . Anais Nin . . . Sylvia Plath . . . Henry David Thoreau . . . James M. Barrie . . . Franz Kafka . . . Samuel Pepys . . .

Some of these authors are best known for their journals; others have used journaling as both a source of inspiration and a stepping-stone to self-enlightenment. But they, among many others, have one important element in common: they have all engaged in that wonderful, creative activity we call journaling.

We all follow journeys of self-discovery at some points in our lives, but as writers we take these journeys on a daily basis. Journaling is a powerful way for us to chronicle these fantastic voyages. And as I like to point out in my journaling workshops and lectures, it’s no coincidence that the words “journey” and “journaling” come from the same root.

Not only do we gain personal insights and discover new layers of our psyches through journaling; it can also help us get our creative juices flowing and often help us through bouts of writer’s block. I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and wisdom about journaling that have served me well, both as a writer and as a voyager through life.

Just to give you a little background about myself, I was born in Detroit and started journaling at the tender age of thirteen, when I was just starting high school. Already I had found my journal to be my best friend, allowing me to confide my deepest secrets, fears, and emotions during that hormone-infused time of life. My recall of that era is so vivid that I am able to recapture my experiences in the novel series I have been working on about a young girl growing up in the volatile 60’s and 70’s — even though those journals have long been lost.

Years later, when I was going through a devastating divorce, journaling saved my life—literally. Suddenly I found myself with two children to raise and support on my own, and on my worst days I was ready to jump out of my ninth floor apartment window — until I started journaling and poured my heart and soul into my writing instead. And I’m not the only one who has had that kind of profound experience from journaling: Oprah herself credits journaling for saving her life. How powerful is that?

Yes, a journal can see you through difficult times. It can also be a veritable treasure chest of creative ideas and personal history that you can use again and again in your writing. I fervently believe we all have a book inside of us, if not more than one. How many of us have family histories just crying to be told, for example? Your journal could become a novel, or a movie — witness Angela’s Ashes or In America. The possibilities are endless. A number of writers I have recently met are penning novels that stem from stories they have lived: one woman is writing a novel about living through the blitz in London as a young girl; another, a man who survived the battlefields of World War II, is turning his story into a screenplay. Even our own personal family histories handed down by elderly family members can make for compelling writing.

What about travel journals? My own novel, Travels With My Lovers, started as a journal that I had written over a number of years. A number of my other travel experiences have ended up as articles in magazines. People love to read evocative descriptions of far-off places written from the point of view of an expressive observer. In fact, the entire June issue of Vision Magazine, to which I have contributed an article, is devoted to the “traveler’s path.”

There are so many other ways we can use journaling to enhance our lives. Journals have been kept to help women heal from traumatic illnesses: for instance, actress Lynn Redgrave recently published a book about her healing journey from cancer. I met a woman who keeps what she calls a “dinner table” journal, chronicling her favorite culinary and entertaining experiences and the conversations that went along with them. Parents who take the time to journal the miraculous changes that their babies go through from day to day are rewarded with a joyful record of their children’s early journeys through life.

And the beauty of all this is that you can journal in any way you like, in any form and under any circumstances. The only limitations are those of the human imagination.

So to get you started—or re-started, as the case may be—here are some of my suggestions for making your journaling journey pleasurable and rewarding.

Believe it or not, the type of equipment you use can be a major factor. It’s of utmost importance to choose the type of journal that will inspire you to crack it open and sully the pages with your thoughts and feelings. It can be a bound book of blank pages with a beautiful cover, an artist’s sketch book to which you can add your own inventive touches, a pocket-sized notebook for travel, or a journal with quotes from writers on artists on each page to help inspire you. There’s no limit to the types of journals you can find in stores and on the web.

It’s also important to use the type of writing implement that’s comfortable for you. If you have a favorite pen that feels nice in your hand or even makes your writing look more legible (trust me, even for hopelessly illegible penmanship like mine, there are pens that can do this!) then use it. Of course, if you prefer using your computer to journal, that will work well, too. I am often asked during my talks whether I prefer journaling in longhand or on my computer. I confess that I like to think of journaling as a cozy, intimate activity, and for that, only longhand will do.

Find your perfect time of day or night, when you can quiet your mind and let your thoughts flow. Sit by the fire or light a candle—both are conducive to deep concentration—and let your muse take over.

After you’re set up with that, here are just a few of the many “hints” and techniques I’ve got up my sleeve to get those creative juices flowing:

  • Create your own imaginary world and describe it in vivid detail
  • Write about someone you met only once but still remember strongly
  • Describe your favorite “secret hideaway”

And my own personal favorite:

  • Recount your very first childhood memory

These are but a few of the wealth of possibilities for journaling that I like to impart to my readers. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an e-mail through my website.

The key is just to take pen in hand, or create a private journaling file on your computer, and see where your personal journey will take you. Once you settle into your own “ritual,” you will discover what you have been missing!

© 2005, Erica Miner

Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner turned to writing as her creative outlet when injuries suffered in a car accident forced her to give up her musical career. She has since won awards for her screenplays, novels, and poetry, including the Fiction Prize in the Direct From The Author Book Awards for her novel, Travels With My Lovers. Erica has made a name for herself through radio and online interviews, book signings, and lectures. After a series of successful lecture tours, she has been named a top-rated lecturer for Celebrity Cruise Lines. Erica Miner has a website. Erica Miner is also on twitter and Amazon.

Beating the Block: 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Cure Writer’s Block

By Magdalena Ball

You’ve got writer’s block?  So did I, for more than five years. I had plenty of grand ideas about what I wanted to write —the literary masterpieces which would stun the critics, the lofty poetry.  With idols and role models like Joyce, Woolf, Yeats and Faulker, it isn’t surprising that my meager efforts seemed hopelessly trite and mundane.  We live in a world of instant gratification, but quality takes time, hard work and many drafts.  No one simply brings forth genius in automatic and effortless writing.

The cure for my block was a simple one, and perhaps obvious too, but it took me a lot of lost writing time to work it out. Germination? The gaining of maturity and perspective?  Nonsense — just lost time.  The one and only way to beat writer’s block is to write.  It doesn’t much matter what it is.  Writing a full length novel is perhaps the hardest, most structurally and emotionally challenging type of writing you can do, so if you are having trouble starting, try something quicker and easier to get your work moving, and don’t worry if it isn’t an epic full of depth and pith.  That will come, but only with lots of rework.  In the meantime, here are a few ideas to get you through the block:

  1. Read the newspaper and pick a real life story that captures your imagination. Turn it into a fictional one.
  2. Keep a dream journal. The very process of translating those vague bits of imagery that make up a dream is the stuff of fiction writing.  Pick any dream theme that interests you and turn it into a full blown story.
  3. Pick a period of your life — any period. The year when you stopped believing in fairies, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, your first love (and breakup), the loss of a pet, childbirth — anything powerful, and write it out.  Have fun and change the ending to suit your story better — improve the characters, make that boyfriend suffer as you leave him instead of the other way around.  This is not only cathartic, it can make for very good writing as you recall those deep sensory impressions — the ring of truth will increase your impact.
  4. Pick an era or historical subject that interests you and research it like mad. Then write up a biography, historical paper or fictionalized story based on the original.  Some of the best examples of fictionalized stories based on real characters include Atwood’s Alias Grace or Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.  There are plenty of untapped famous characters whose lives make for excellent material.
  5. Write a pastiche of your favorite author. Try stream of consciousness, a sonnet, a short drama — anything you fancy.  Use it as a springboard for whatever theme you want to explore.  Try varying the form — do a sonnet and then turn it into flash fiction.
  6. Change tack. If you’re blocked on your normal style of fiction, try writing in a different genre.  Give horror, romance, science fiction, flash fiction, a children’s story (if you have children, try targeting their age group — you will have a good understanding of what will and won’t work) or fantasy a try. While this type of writing may not be your cup of tea, it can be quite liberating to write to a formula and you may produce something quite unusual by working across your normal genre.
  7. Try nonfiction. Write a book review, a piece on your last holiday, advice for saving money, for raising a child, for throwing a birthday party, gardening, make up a recipe — anything!  There are plenty of markets for this kind of work and it can be rejuvenating to produce a finished piece.
  8. Join a writing group. This is not for everyone, but if you are a socially inclined person, the pressure of having to produce something combined with the stimulation of being able to obtain criticism and support immediately could be just the sort of thing you need.  There is probably a local group in your area which would involve meeting up in a specific location with other like minded writers, and many of these are supported by a wider network.  The camaraderie, assignments, local submission information and support is worth the trouble to get to one of these groups.  You could also join or set up an online group.
  9. Take an on-line course. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
  10. Buy a book filled with inspiration.There are many on the market.  One of my favorites is Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days, which gives you a mini-assignment for every day of the year and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  Any writing book will provide inspiration, though.  Another favorite, which is a ‘must have’ for any writer is your local Writer’s Marketplace.  This has different names in different countries, but it is an invaluable list of markets, and very thorough.  Just reading the book will inspire you to produce material for submission.  Just read through its pages and stick a Post-it note on any of the markets you are interested in.  Then write for them!  One acceptance will generally pay for the cost of the book, so it is a very worthwhile investment.  In the US you can try the  Writers Market published by Writer’s Digest Books.  For other countries, just do a search at your favorite search engine on “Writer’s Market” + the country you live in and you should get a decent list of publications. The most current edition is also usually available at your local library if you want to just browse and say, choose a market a month to target.
  11. The secret is that writing begets writing. Your first efforts may well be trite, but the more you write the better you will get and the easier the words will flow.  Don’t ever use “lack of time” or “lack of inspiration” as an excuse. Inspiration comes out of the writing process — not before it, and time is an illusion. No one ever has time. Make time. You don’t need much as long as you are consistent and regular. Commit to writing something, anything, every day. If you wrote a page a day, you’d have a fat novel by the end of a year, a full length short story every month, or 2 articles a week. Few authors produce more than this. Even a half hour a day is worth committing to. Don’t make the mistake I did.  Write through the insecurity, the uncertainty and self-doubt and your block will most certainly disappear. Don’t expect immediate perfection, either. Ulysses took James Joyce 10 years to write. If you visit the archives containing his handwritten drafts, you’ll see that the first jottings were nothing like the finished product.  The main thing is to keep writing. Your own masterpiece is just around the corner.

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader and is the author of The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything.  Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications. Magdalena Ball also has a website, and blogs.

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com