Journaling to Become a Better Writer
Seven Keys to More Authentic Fiction
Your life is not boring. It is the key to great fiction.
How do you capture that spark of life that lifts your story off the page and resonates with readers in their very soul? You delve into your own soul and learn how to wrap words around your unique human experience, that’s how. And the best way to do that is to keep a journal. These seven techniques to apply to your journal will help you marry the authenticity of the real world to the imaginations of your story worlds:
- How do you recognize a story worth telling?
- How do you bring structure and power to a story?
- How do you tap into your own emotions to fill your novel with heart?
- How do you hone your observation skills?
- How do you engagingly describe your world?
- How do you make your characters real?
- How do you find your unique purpose as a writer?
Not your average book on the craft of writing, the author bares pages from her own journal to illustrate her techniques and the level of storytelling skill that can be achieved in your journal. These same excerpts unfold, in real time, the story of the most traumatic plot twist of her life: the stripping away of her family and her search for someone to finally call “Daddy”—a quest which almost claimed her life.
Part writing how-to book, part memoir, part self-discovery guide, this volume will show you what the everyday events of your life have to do with great fiction. Your life, after all, is a story.
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I was inspired to write this book several months ago shortly after emerging from the lowest point in my life. As always, I had turned to my journal to try to sort out what was happening and to look for a way through the mess. Usually, spilling all my woes onto paper is enough to get everything off my chest so I can get back to living. But for the first time in my life, journaling failed me.
So I turned to a very dear friend of mine, Stephanie Prichard, or “Grandma Steph,” as I call her. Steph and I met at an online writer’s group some years ago. We’ve never seen each other face-to-face, but over the years, I’ve learned I can talk to her about anything.
I sent her my journal in whole, pages upon pages, in real time, as the biggest drama of my life was unfolding. One installment numbered 75 pages, and she read them all in a single sitting. We drank countless mugs of imaginary hot chocolate together in a kitchen I’ve never seen. Steph sent me long-distance hugs, mourned with me, encouraged me, advised me, and prayed for me.
“You’re doing well,” she wrote one day. “I’m proud of you. And, wowser, are you a good writer!”
At the time, I was simply journaling the only way I knew how—as the point-of-view character of my own story. On some level, I knew that I was applying fiction writing techniques to my journal. But frankly, I apply fiction techniques to everything I write—college essay assignments, newsletter articles, blog posts, speeches. Overtly or covertly, I’m forever writing story.
But Steph’s words made me stop and examine how much my journal had in common with a novel you could pull off the shelf at the book store. And I realized that I’d not only been applying fiction techniques to my journal, but practicing and perfecting them there. That my journal had, in fact, been the incubator hatching all my writing skills over the course of my entire life.
Once my life reached stable footing again, I decided to write this book. At first, I was just going to discuss the techniques and maybe pull a short passage out of my journal here and there to illustrate what I was talking about.
But I found I couldn’t get at the meat of what I wanted to share without being fully transparent. Your journal isn’t about putting on appearances. And sadly, it is possible to keep a journal for most of your life and deceive yourself the entire time about the way things really are and how you feel about them. (I know I did until just a few years ago.) Learning to be transparent with yourself is the most important thing your journal can do for you—first, as a person; secondly, as an author. And if I wanted to set a real example … it meant I was going to have to open my journal and share it with you.
As such, each chapter in this book is divided into Part 1: Pages from My Journal, and Part 2: Lessons from Journaling. Part 2 will explain a concept or technique demonstrated by the journal excerpt in Part 1. Finally, each chapter ends with a Homework section with writing exercises for both your journal and your novel-in-progress. (Don’t worry; homework assignments in this class are totally optional and don’t count toward your grade.)
In addition, all of the excerpts from my journal appear in order, telling the same story I told Steph. They are edited for length (the one mortal sin of my journal that would be unforgivable in a novel is that I record everything), and for exposition (by cutting out large sections of the journal, some important information needs to be slipped back in somehow), and on a few rare occasions for privacy (but only very rarely). But this is not a drastically revised memoir. Aside from the changes listed, these entries read pretty much as they appear in my journal.
I’m not supernaturally gifted with the ability to churn out my best work in a single sitting. Nor am I suggesting that a few years of journaling will give you that gift. (Pity.) I actually edit my journal several times, just as I edit my novels. When I sit down to add a new entry, I go over the previous entry first and edit it. I also re-read my entries now and again, just to ruminate further on the events, and when I do, I inevitably edit a little, forever striving for just the right words to express what happened and how I felt about it.
With that, I invite you into my journal, and the gifts your own journal has waiting for you. Pull up a chair, have a mug of hot chocolate, and open yourself up to a journey. Not just my journey, but I hope your own journey as well.
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