Journaling to Juice Your Novel

As a writer, you know that if you’re crazy enough to travel through territory as vast and foreign as a novel, you’re going to get lost. Often. One of the best tools I’ve learned for finding my way came from a master. John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, was his way of “getting (his) mental arm in shape to pitch a good game” every morning. The journal was really a series of letters to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, that included everything from small details of family life to his accounts of the struggles and successes that led to the book Steinbeck believed his entire literary career had been preparing him for.

My own novel journal for my work in progress, Lake Story, deals less with the problems in my personal life than the ones related to my book. Take a look at this morning’s entry in a screen shot from my Scrivener file and you’ll see what I mean:

I’ve cleaned the writing up a bit for public consumption in this post (something I rarely do in a tool that’s most valuable for pouring white-hot thoughts upon the page) but you can see that the context of this entry is far different than the kind of more refined prose we writers use to structure scenes. The bold lines in red at the end of this section point to the bridge that will lead me to the deep insight I need to breathe life into my characters’ motivations and aspirations.

These journal entries have become the path between the personal and fictive worlds I spend my days in, and while my family may have gotten used to me staring off into space at the dinner table or muttering to myself behind the wheel, there’s special power in getting those thoughts down on the same pages I’m using to contain my tale.

My novel journal’s loose, unstructured format also makes it the perfect counterweight to my latest approach to novel writing. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the comprehensive outline I’m crafting for this book (a resource I’ll probably be featuring in a future post). That document’s strict organization of each chapter’s timeline, mission and expositional overview makes it a powerful intellectual tool, but when it comes to tapping the intuitive energy that springs from my subconscious – to be perfectly frank – it kinda sucks.

So when I stare stuck at my screen and feel the muse begin to stir in my chest, I know it’s time to lead her to my novel journal. It’s the best place I know to tap the juice that can make that gal really sing.

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