I was at a Bouchercon some years ago and did a panel with some other thriller authors. Before it began we were interacting with some people in the audience, and a woman in the front row made a funny comment about something I said, and I replied into the mike, “I’ll do the jokes, madam.”
We all had a chuckle. A few moments later the moderator, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”
I shook my head.
“Sue Grafton,” he said.
Indeed it was the amazing Sue Grafton, author of the alphabet series featuring PI Kinsey Millhone. Which, when you think about it, is virtually unprecedented. Twenty-six mysteries featuring a single series character in a variety of plots.
How, one might ask, does she make this magic happen book after book?
One answer is the novel journal. I read about this in her chapter from the book Writing the Private Eye Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). Sue calls this her “most valuable tool.”
What this tool does is provide a “testing ground” for ideas, a place for both left and right brain hemispheres mix it up a little. As she puts it:
Right Brain is creative, spatial, playful, disorganized, dazzling, nonlinear, the source of the Aha! or imaginative leap. Without Right Brain, there would be no material for Left Brain to refine. Without Left Brain, the jumbled brilliance of Right Brain would never coalesce into a satisfactory whole.
The novel journal is a free-form document that is added to each morning before getting to work on the novel. This is what Sue puts in there:
The day’s date and a bit of diary stuff, how she’s feeling and so on. This is to track outside influences on her writing.
Next is notes about any ideas that emerged overnight. I especially like this part, because the writer’s mind has been working while I sleep and I want to pour out everything I can. The trick here is not to think too much about what you write. Just let it flow.
Third, Sue writes about where she is in the book. She “talks” to herself about the scene she’s working on, or problems that have arisen. In the “safety of the journal” she can play the What If game. She can debate things with herself. Right Brain and Left Brain can duke it out. She’s playful. “I don’t have to look good. I can be as dumb or goofy as I want.”
What happens then is that she finds she “slides” naturally into her writing day. There is no hesitancy as there might be if she just got to work on the WIP.
Here are a few more tips on making the novel journal work for you:
- Trust. Keep your fingers typing. Lose control. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Stay with the first flash. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Figure out what you want to say in the act of writing.
- If you don’t know what to write in the journal, open a dictionary at random. Pick the first noun you see. Now start writing whatever that word suggests to you.
- Work out problems in your novel by asking questions and letting your Right Brain suggest answers. Then let your Left Brain assess them.
- Be specific. When something unique pops up, follow that lead. Don’t hesitate to write for five or ten minutes on one thing if that’s where you’re being led.
- Be willing to be disturbed.
- If you’re a pantser, the journal will help you decide what to write next. If you’re a plotter, the journal will help you bring life to the scenes you’ve mapped out. And if plot or character takes a weird turn, you can hash it out in the journal until you decide how to use it.
- Special note to Scrivener users: there’s a novel journal tool built into the program. It’s called “Project Notes.” Select this from the Projects menu. The nice thing about this is that you can add sections to it. You could have your daily, diary-type entry in one section, and notes on characters, plot, theme, and so on in other sections. Plus, you can use the highlighter to mark insights you want to emphasize.
Do you use journaling to help with your process? What does it look like for you?
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on