Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs


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?

journaling writing process writing a novel series organization

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.

“We write and then catch up with ourselves.” (Natalie Goldberg)

  • 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 online.




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26 Responses to Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs

  1. Pingback: How to Win at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) - Romance University

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  3. Jack Tyler says:

    Read this two days ago when it was new. Studied the technique. Tried it yesterday. Found it so spectacular that I blogged my thoughts at . Used it again today. A story that has been stuck for months has broken loose with apparent ease. I don’t normally drop my blog address on other people’s sites, but I consider this the single most valuable technique I have ever been shown. I can only wonder where I might be today if I had heard of this fifty years ago. The least I can do is share it in the hope that that enthusiastic kid that I once was will see it at the right time.

    Great work, keep it up!

    • Wow, Jack! How exciting! I’m so excited to see how this technique is working for you! There are so many methods and tricks out there; sometimes it’s just a matter of hitting on the right one, and then things take off. I hope this is the case for you.

  4. SO much better than silly writing prompts that don’t go anywhere. Why didn’t I think of this?! Creative because it’s a free and easy journal; pertinent because it’s my NOVEL journal.

    Computer or long-hand? Well, I do have all those spiffy anything books for writers we writers get as gifts (or buy with good intentions). . .

    Congrats on a post that has me doing something about it the moment I finish my comment.

    • Most people say that physically writing is better, that it makes connections in your brain, increases your chance of remembering what you’ve written, etc. But I have a REALLY hard time writing in longhand. It just takes…so…long. I would suggest at least trying it to see what kind of benefits result. But imo, journaling on a computer can also do the trick. 🙂

  5. I love the idea of writing before you get out of bed. Sometimes I have the most amazing adventure dreams but can’t remember them once my feet hit the floor.

    • I also have really vivid dreams and find that if I write them down immediately, I can keep a pretty good grasp on them. Of course, that requires being AWAKE enough in the morning to get my crap together, lol.

  6. I call mine a bible. There’s one that’s just for jotting down ideas, and then if the idea develops into something, it gets a title and a bible all its own. I got this idea from one of my cps.

  7. Rhea Rhodan says:

    When I get stuck or need to work something out, I use a notebook and fountain pen to keep myself in the flow and away from editing. The fp adds a bit of whimsy and fun my muse enjoys. Thanks for giving me more grist for that tasty mill!

    I hadn’t thought to use Scrivener Project Notes. That’s another cool idea.

  8. Ruchama says:

    I have a copy of the published Journal John Steinbeck used when writing East of Eden. It’s quite interesting and shows how a journal can be used. Also, I’m a big fan of Jim’s. I use his Knockout Novel program and it has made a great difference in my being able to create a usable structure without feeling stifled. The suggestion about looking up random work in the dictionary sounds strange, but the word I came up with turned out to give me a central setting that helped bring my whole story together. His advice and books are simply amazing.

  9. :Donna says:

    I’m getting closer to actually being able to focus more fully on writing my novels so am gathering even more tips and tools. This sounds like a good possibility and I may have to give it a whirl! Thanks, Jim (and Sue!) 😀

  10. Talia says:

    I have something like this! I don’t write in it every day, but I use it quite often. I started it a few years ago, when I had some problem with a storyline I couldn’t quite figure out. I used it to talk it out to myself, and after that I’ve gone back to it again and again. It’s pretty much filled with totally random thoughts about whatever I happened to be writing at the moment. Thanks for the post, I always like seeing different author’s techniques and habits!

  11. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Sounds like Julia Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’, which is fine if you’re a morning person, but not so great if you’re an evening person like me. My morning pages would probably consist of the same sentence repeated over and over again. “All work and no coffee makes John a dull boy. All work and no coffee makes John a dull boy…”

    I DO write a diary and notes and bits and pieces. Just not in the morning!

  12. Beth Gallagher says:

    Really fascinating! Sounds like just the tool I need to chat with myself about plot twists, possibilities, etc. Thank you!

  13. Lisa Taunton says:

    Fantastic post! Loved the part about Sue Grafton. Gave me a good chuckle.

    Love this idea of using a journal.

  14. Thanks for sharing this, Jim. I love hearing about other authors’—especially the successful or prolific ones—processes. This could be really handy for when I get stuck.

  15. Janice Hampton says:

    I’ve been using this for a while now, but I didn’t have a name for it other than freewriting. It especially helps when I’m stuck and don’t know where to go. I just write about any and everything then I’ll start brainstorming and my story will come to me.

  16. Jacque Duffy says:

    Thanks for giving me a great tool for my writing. I’ve been giving some thought to keeping a diary but I like this idea better.

  17. I love this idea. I am going to give it a try! And Sue Grafton! Talk about a life moment there, Jim. So awesome.

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