Over the weekend, a good friend asked if I might be willing to share a little about how I use journaling in my writing process to turn idea-seeds into plots. No matter where I am on a project—whether I’m just starting out, or coming back to a first draft after some time off, or stuck on a certain sequence, or trying to figure out problems in revision—putting pen to paper has become a fairly reliable way of digging myself out.
First things first: I’m not the sort of person who can dream up new ideas while on the treadmill, or while driving—there’s just something about the physical act of writing out my thoughts that puts me in a focused mindset. Whenever I start writing out my thoughts on a character, or plot element, or world-building detail, it’s amazing how new details and connections start appearing on the page.
So…how do those connections happen? Aside from “magically,” I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. I think it really is like planting seeds: you water them by journaling, and then hope the sun does its thing to make them grow. I can only tell you how I do the water.
1: In order to plant seeds, you must first…have seeds.
What are you trying to figure out? Maybe it’s the earliest spark of an idea, or a character, or a world. Maybe you’re three-quarters of the way through your draft, trying to figure out which threads to weave into an ending, which ones to leave loose. Maybe you’re six drafts in, stuck on that one revision idea that makes SO MUCH SENSE but is causing your eye to twitch. Wherever you are in the process, figure out what you’re trying to figure out. Make a list. These are your seeds.
2: Take them one by one.
Devote (at least) an entire work session to this: even though the journaling won’t directly contribute to your word count, the time spent on it will help you write a higher quantity of quality words whenever you next sit down with the project. It’s worth it. When I journal, I write things out by hand, rather than typing them, because it feels more immersive to me. I start with the first seed, focus on it for as long as it takes for an idea to spark (more on that in the next point), then move to the next item on the list. Repeat until your hand falls off, or until done with the list.
3: As long as it takes.
So what do I actually write? Usually, I start off just by stating the facts: what I already know about the character/situation/etc. If I’m trying to sort out a problem, I’ll write out the facts about what the problem is—what’s happening currently, what’s getting in the way of it working like it should. And then, I dig. I explore. I write about the character’s family, about how she feels about her family, how she feels about whatever else is happening in her world. Or maybe it’s more broad than that: I’m creating a future world, and I want it to feel like this, so what sorts of new developments might they have? How are those developments both a blessing and a curse to the people who use them? How does the world look because of those things? The longer you dig, the more information you’ll turn over. Eventually, something will just start to glow at you, and you’ll be like THIS. THIS IS THE THING. As you move down your list of idea seeds, more of those things start to pop up, and you’ll start to see connections between them. I journal for as long as it takes to see THE THING for any given item, then move on to the next.
4: Don’t stop there.
If you’re anything like me, when you’ve worked through your list and had numerous breakthrough moments, it’ll be tempting to think, “Oh, yes, I now have a great grasp on my project!” And certainly, you’ll be holding more of it in your head than before. But how do you turn that into something? How do you actually make those connections happen on the page?
For me, the key thing is this (especially before diving in to a revision): make a concrete plan. Make a new list of your breakthroughs, then journal about those, with the goal of figuring out some concrete ways to work them in. If you’re revising, that might look like making notes to yourself that say change this reaction in Chapter Fourteen or insert worldbuilding details in Chapter Four, since that’s where this issue is first introduced, then follow up later—things like that, as specific as possible. I make two bullet-point lists: one is a ‘global’ list, things I need to watch out for throughout the entirety of the project; the other is a ‘local’ list, anything specific to a particular scene or sequence.
If you’re just beginning to figure out your plot, structure is your best friend. There are lots of resources out there on structure—this and this, for example. Shape your breakthrough ideas until you see a way to tie internal/character arcs to external/plot ones. Give your characters tough choices, ones that pit ethics and convictions against each other, if possible. You don’t have to know every single turn of the story (personally, I work best when allowing for surprises along the way), but it helps to have at least a few checkpoints to work toward. Journal things out until you can feel the shape of your story starting to solidify.
5: Don’t drown your seeds.
Journaling is only helpful until it isn’t: don’t get so caught up in it that you never end up actually writing the book. Too much water will drown your seeds, right? Take a day, two, a couple of weeks, if that’s what you need—but always with a goal in mind, always looking for a breakthrough you can latch on to so you can get back to working on the actual book. Sometimes you just have to start writing and discover things along the way. You can always go back to the journaling, later, if you get stuck.
I’d love to hear how *you* work through plotting/revision issues—feel free to leave comments here, or tweet to me at @olsonkayla. Happy writing, everyone!