Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 9, 2013

Moving past ‘Dear Diary’

Debbie HerbertWriters in the Storm welcomes debut author Debbie Herbert, sharing writing tips on how different types of journals can help you with the initial story, emotion, and even writer's block. And Debbie has generously offered a copy of her debut novel, Siren's Secret, to one lucky commenter. Thank you, Debbie.

by Debbie Herbert

I bet most of us as a child kept a diary that was leather-bound and could be locked with a tiny key (to keep out nosy siblings).  I got hooked on diaries after reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  I loved how she viewed it as her best friend.   Every year my new year’s resolution was to write in my diary every day.

Yeah, you guessed it, about mid- February that diary started having more blank pages than written entries.  And every day was the same old thing – I got up, ate breakfast, went to school, blah blah blah.

Skip ahead a few decades.  I decided I wanted to try writing again and used a journal as a way of easing into a daily writing practice.  But my entries were no better than elementary school ramblings – they contained long lists of things to do, how tired I was from working so hard, blah blah blah.

For inspiration I read Anais Nin.  Ah, now there’s a woman with an interesting life.  But the idea of journaling a la Nin as a literary masterpiece was daunting and promptly shut down my creativity. I eventually learned to be gentle and realistic with my expectations.

The following types of journals and notebooks have helped me over the years in my writing journey.

1.     The on-the-run notebook

I suspect most writers have a portable notebook they carry around.  In mine, I jot down anything that catches my eye or my fancy:  character names, street names, dialogue, bits of description, word plays, puns, etc.  Recent tidbits I’ve written down include: Smut Eye Grill, Fat Girl’s BBQ, Grassbusters lawn care, Booger Hollow Road, Lullwater Street, and the list continues.

2.     Dream journal

I’ve been on and off again with this over the years.  Currently, I’m back on it after attending a dream journaling workshop at RWA13.  I don’t often cull much writing material from dreams, but when I do they are humdingers.  The premise of the first book I sold was based on a dream.

If nothing else, recording dreams will make you more conscious of symbolism, which makes novels so much richer and layered. You can use a free, online dream journal at: www.dreamjournal.net to record your dreams and enter keywords about them.  Over time, you can track your dream’s themes, characters and settings. Also at the site you can read other’s dreams which can provide story ideas.  I read one poster’s dream about a Wiccan Beauty Pageant.  That could make an awesome story!

3. Lists as entries 

My favorite journal device.  I compile such lists as perfume descriptions from women’s magazines and other rich, sensory descriptions. Other types of lists can be more thought-provoking, such as: things that irritate me, things I fear, my bucket list, top twelve milestones in my life, or my top ten fantasy dinner guest list.

4. Writing Tips Notebook

At the start of RWA '13 a fellow writer friend, Mia McKimmy, gave me and Sherrie Morgan a leather-bound journal that has a drawing of a calligraphy pen and the words ‘Just keep writing’ on the cover. I love this notebook and it goes with me now to every RWA meeting and conference to record useful writing information from various speakers.   I also use it when I read or hear a quick tip about writing.  It keeps my craft notes all in one place and has a good ‘feel’ to it.

A recent example of my latest recorded writing tip came from author Cindy Dees after one of those random, serendipitous twitter exchanges.  Cindy had followed me and I followed her back.  That same day, my RWR magazine arrived featuring an interview with Cindy. I tweeted how much I loved the article and mentioned how impressed I was that she wrote 20-25 pages a day.  I mentioned how as a new Harlequin writer, I struggled keeping up with my daily word count goals.  Here’s what she wrote back:  “Don’t worry about upping your word count. Update the intensity of emotions. The word counts will rise as you do bigger emotions justice.” Isn’t she fabulous?  And it’s so true. I wrote it down so I’ll be sure and remember.

5. Book notebooks:

Personally, this isn’t a technique I employ that often, but so many writers do, I had to mention it.  Some enjoy specific WIP notebooks where they have dialogues with their characters, ask ‘what if’ plot questions, and journal other story elements.

6. Traditional/Emotional Journals

I believe writing through a stressful time in your life is not only helpful, but as a writer you can reread entries at a later time and cull the emotional record to incorporate in scenes.

Beyond writing, lots of people use journals for self-development and insight.  One method that has been around since the 1960s was developed by a psychotherapist, Ira Progoff, and is trademarked as an ‘Intensive Journal’ method.  You can read more about the method online and even take a workshop.

Diaries can also be useful in overcoming writer’s block.  Novelist Virginia Wolf recorded in her diary about an internal censor that hampered her writing.  Later, in an essay on ‘Professions for Women,’ she described the censor and how she crushed it.  Other writers have used their journals to hash out their fears causing writer’s block, or entered into a dialogue with their own internal critic/censor.

Experiment and see if using one of these journal devices helps you become a better writer, or if it adds joy to your writing.  Unlike writing novels where I have to be strict about word count goals, I give myself permission to only write in these journals when I’m in the mood.  These are strictly for fun and to help me with specific areas . . . or when I want to word play and write really bad poetry.

Do you use journals or notebooks? I’d love to hear how you incorporate them into your writing.

Debbie Herbert writes paranormal romance novels reflecting her belief that love, like magic, casts its own spell of enchantment. She’s always been fascinated by magic, romance and gothic stories.

Married and living in Alabama, she roots for the Crimson Tide football team. Her oldest son, like many of her characters, has autism. Her youngest son is in the U.S. Army.  Unlike the mermaid characters in Siren’s Secret, she loves cats and has two spoiled feline companions. When not working on her upcoming book, Siren’s Treasure, Debbie enjoys recumbent bicycling and motorcycle riding with her husband.

A past Maggie finalist in both Young Adult & Paranormal Romance, she’s a member of the Georgia Romance Writers of America. Debbie has a degree in English (Berry College, GA) and a master’s in Library Studies (University of Alabama).

Debbie's debut novel, Siren's Secret, will be released by Harlequin Nocturne in November and is available now on pre-order:

Do you hear the excitement building here at Writers in the Storm for the rollout of our new guest blogger on Wednesday? Did we mention he's sponsoring a contest for our readers, too? Oh, did I just give you a clue? How about another? Laura Drake has been working long hours preparing the bonus (did I say "the"--how about six?) that will be delivered to your inbox in just two days.

33 comments on “Moving past ‘Dear Diary’”

  1. Hi Debbie,

    The idea of different journals to keep lists, random thoughts, etc. is genius! And without even realizing it, I do the same thing to some degree. I keep a journal with notes for my current WIP. When a sudden idea or dialogue pops into my head I jot it down. I carry around index cards as my portable journal. Thanks for sharing these super tips.

    Vicky Green.

    1. Thanks, Vicki. As writers, our minds are always at work and it's so helpful to write down ideas as they come. You never know when you might use them. Personally, I believe just the act of writing them down helps us cull material as needed.

  2. Debbie,

    Thanks for the tips and suggestions. I particularly like the point about paying less attention to word count/page number and more attention to wringing emotion out of every scene. I've noticed, in my current WIP, I tend to "freeze" when I worry about the word count per chapter, but if I just let myself write the story, the words flow.

    Best of luck to you with your Siren series!

  3. Deb,
    I read this, initially thinking, "I don't do this." but then I thought about it...I guess my journal is really 3 x 5 cards...keep them for scene notes for my WIP (so I can shuffle the order), and I have a recipe box full of them with quotes I like, cool characters I run into in real life, character names, plot ideas, etc.

    Wouldn't you know I wouldn't do it according to the rules - but it works, and that's the important thing! Thanks for blogging with us today!

  4. That's a great idea, Laura. Whatever works is the important thing. I could never be as organized as some historical and fantasy writers with their "story bibles." But we all have our own process that we work out over time.

  5. Great advice along with a wonderful blog! I'm an avid journalist or note taker, which ever the case may be, and have advised my students regardless of their author status to record their dreams, thoughts and secrets. Keep writing, V

  6. I love the ideas. Although with some of my best ideas occurring in the shower, it might get a little messy! I always hope I remember what I thought of, long enough to dry off and write it down

  7. Hi Nancy, so many people say they get their best ideas there! Mine usually come in a walk or long car trip.

    Everyone - My local Walmart had leather journals on sale today for just $3 and $4 on clearance. Check out the school supply section for great deals and get journaling!

  8. Debbie,

    If you don't write an idea or thought down, then there's a good chance that it is gone forever. “Where the spoken word is like mist on the morning windowsill, the written word is forever.”

    I used to record writing thoughts and ideas on small pieces of paper that I stuffed into an envelope. I’d empty that envelope on the floor and read each piece of paper when I was editing a draft of a story I was writing. One day I recorded them into a file in my computer and I continued to add to that file. In time this file information were my core ideas for my creative writing eBook THE WRITERS’ STIMULUS (www.thewritersstimulus.com).

    The great thing about writing is that we get better at it until that day comes when we can’t remember how to tie our shoelaces. But the more creative writing you do, the longer you’ll avoid that day when you can’t remember how to tie your shoes.

  9. Hi Debbie,
    Great post! I'm glad you're enjoying the journal, by the way. When I started my first book, I wrote ideas in a notebook that quickly grew into six or seven. If I'm writing a scene and remember jotting something down, it takes forever to find it. I like Laura and Michael's ideas. Starting out with index cards would make them easier to group together, and then put on a computer file. Thanks for the suggestions, guys!
    Mia McKimmy

  10. I was especially interested in the dream journal. My dreams are very complex and always surprises me! Where did that come from? Thanks for all the wonderful advice!!


  11. When my grandmother died, I found ten years worth of diaries she'd kept during 1930s-1940s. It gave me a great deal of insight into my family--especially my father's troubled relationship with his own father--and also into the community I grew up in. I've tried keeping one myself, but never stick with it due to a lack of time. However, the details of life when my father was young had a big impact on my view of him--especially rewarding in my case, since he died when I was only 20.

  12. I've always been a great one to make lists but didn't know that counted as a journal. Guess it should though, I filled an entire binder with them. 🙂

  13. Thanks for the great post, Debbie. My husband has always kept a journal, but I've simply jotted down thoughts on scraps of paper. In the past three years, I have attended several workshops on journaling. Now I'm keeping a journal and doing a 'happy dance' each time I use an idea in my current manuscript.

    1. That's great, Jackie!

      Thanks, Orly. No one thing fits everybody. If someone threatened me with death I MIGHT could fill out one of those character interview sheets some authors love.

  14. Great post, Debbie!
    I have a crazy love for journals and notebooks. Walking into Staples is the kiss of death for my credit card. I've discovered, though, that I can't "journal" - I want to, just can't. I stare at the page and bore myself out of writing. 🙂 But I do keep notebooks for craft related topics and will even attempt WIP journals.

  15. Great post. I pretty much use one notebook at a time, recording notes from sessions with my writing coach, random thoughts, blog posts, lists, ideas for organizing my memoir, revelations, etc. Reading through it always gives me fresh perspective as I reflect on what I wrote. As far as #3, I am going to start blogging my lists sometimes. This post is timely, as I came across this excerpt from Joan Didion earlier about keeping journals. (WordPress won't allow me to paste it here; I'm also using a smartphone. ) thanks!

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