Tag Archives: writer problems

Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling


Here’s a thing I started recently: Journaling.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.

But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?

Bullet Journaling.

This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.

And … oh. OH.

Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.

Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?

But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.

I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.

So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.

For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.

Here’s how I’m doing it so far:

I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.

I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.

And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).

It comes out looking like this:

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(Typing was invented for guys like me!)

Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.

THAT’S a journal.

What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)

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The Spell is Broken


Funny how editing your novel really shows off your literary limps. The little phrases you lean on, the sensory language you favor, the way you have to end every chapter, for some reason, on a sentence that is its own paragraph. (Why do you do that?)

Today I’m laughing at myself because I’ve just read through and marked up three more chapters, and I’m now keeping a tally mark in the side of my notebook every time I read the phrase “the spell is broken”. The count is five, now, and we’re in chapter 9.

“He shakes his head, and the spell is broken.”

“The spell is broken now, and …”

“He looks at her, the spell fully broken, and sees …”

I mean, come on.

Good news, I guess, is that I’m still able to laugh at myself over it. Bad news is that I’m still in the first third of the novel, which statistically means I’ve got at least ten more “the spell is broken”s before I make it to the end. Ten might be a bit much, but I know I’ve got some more lurking out there in the chapters ahead.

Course, this is why we edit. You take the hard look to see the irritating little things like these. So that you can take the buzzsaw to them in the second draft.

Ah, well. Lunch is over. The spell is broken. Guess it’s back to work.

Seriously gotta come up with better ways to say it, though. Ideas?

 


I Can’t Just “Watch Movies” Anymore


It’s no great secret that being a writer — well, being an artist at all, but specifically being somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling — warps the way you see the world a bit. In fact, part of my general unease of late centers on the fact that the real world functions so very decidedly unlike a story.

Still, it’s hard to help how you think, and while I’m hairline-deep in the editing process trying to make my drivel readable and coherent (a task that seems more in need of a blowtorch than a laptop most days), I can’t help seeing story everywhere I look. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what does that mean when every problem you see looks like it could be solved with a bit of narrative restructuring?

Anyway: my wife and I are sitting down last night watching Wonder, one of those feel-good movies designed to play on your heartstrings at the expense of a satisfying narrative. (See also: Parenthood, This is Us, or any other contemporary drama starring a big cast with a troubled family and scored with the sounds of a sweet, sweet soulful acoustic guitar. My wife will give me heck for not liking the movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just don’t feel satisfied by it. Emotions are not my thing since I’m basically a robot in a skin-suit. But it was fine. HONEY IT WAS FINE.) And, as we’re watching, in my head I’m silently going down the list.

Call to action: check.

Meeting the mentor: check.

Crossing the threshold: check.

(What? This is how I watch movies now.)

And we get to the final third of the movie, and — no big spoiler here — the family dog gets sick, gets taken to the vet, and dies. (Okay, spoiler-for-everything alert — if the family pet is shown to be exceptionally adorable or loyal in the first act, it will die by the third act. Call it Chekhov’s Canine.) I jump up from the couch, pointing like Sherlock Holmes discovering the crime-solving clue, and shout “THE WHIFF OF DEATH!”

See, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and I know that there comes a moment toward the second half of the story where somebody or something close to the hero dies, reminding the hero of their mortality and spurring them to make the change necessary for the resolution of the central conflict. Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” and for whatever reason, I forgot about it, or wasn’t expecting to see it in this movie, or maybe it’s vacation so we were a couple of adult beverages in and I got a little enthusiastic. Anyway, the moment dropped like a a blue whale falling through the stratosphere and I HAD TO POINT IT OUT TO SOMEBODY.

My wife is unimpressed. She’s puzzled, and a little affronted, since she’s in her feelings watching the dad come home, sad-faced and apologetic, to deliver the bad news to the kids. It’s kind of a bolt-from-the-blue moment in the story. The dog isn’t really relevant to the narrative at all. But I saw it — and SEE it — for what it is: a cattle prod up the posterior of the protagonist to get him hustling into the final third of the movie. I try explaining this to her with lots of full-bodied gesticulation and noises about character development and guttural grunting. “THE WHIFF OF DEATH,” I exclaim again, both hands flung out toward the TV in a can’t-you-see-it gesture.

“Yeah,” she says. “The dog died. It’s sad.”

Which is right, too, I guess.

I have no idea how the movie ended; writing was so much on my brain by that point that I had to stop watching in favor of jotting down several book-saving ideas that I had failed to write down earlier in the day because I am an idiot.

Just kidding: (spoiler alert!) everything works out okay for the kid in the end, and everybody in the kid’s orbit learns some important lessons about life. See? It’s uplifting, and not at all like real life!

Now to figure out what we’re going to “watch” tonight.

 


Progress, Quantified


So here’s what’s going on with my current project:

It’s a Superhero story (I’m currently reading Save the Cat, which, if you haven’t read it as a writer, I can only encourage you to pick it up right away, even if you’re not writing screenplays) about a guy in a family of supers who has no powers himself. So he’s a little jaded. When he finally develops an ability of his own, he quickly finds himself at the top of the food chain and sets about a plan to wipe out supers forever.

It’s an idea I love that I kicked around in the ol’ brain for a good couple years before I wrote the first words, and once I did start writing it, it really took on a life of its own, as they say. Lots of twists and turns grew organically out of the thing, which is just one of the measures I use to tell me when an idea is worth pursuing.

And now, as I find myself neck-deep in rewrites and edits, the story is growing out of control like a Mogwai tossed in the deep end of the pool. Every day or two, I have an idea for something I want to add to the story, some twist to throw in the road. Every time I re-read something, the characters seem to be speaking to me: that doesn’t make sense, I should be doing THIS instead.

Gremmy

Playing whack-a-mole with ideas like this is frustrating: obviously not everything that springs to mind can make it to the page. Every widget you add over here throws things out of balance over there, and if you’re not careful, the story will go to pieces trying to accomodate everything. But it’s also encouraging, because it makes every writing session exciting. Every page is Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

So every day is taxing work — pruning here, shaping here, splicing here, all without end — but it’s also fulfilling and of late, it’s actually been enjoyable. Like I wrote yesterday, the words are coming easier and faster of late. Given the loggerheads I was at with my other project, I’m taking all this as just another sign I’m on the right path, moving in the right direction.

Maybe I’ll even set a deadline, soon.

(I haven’t given myself a deadline in over a year.)

*flies into panic*

*jumps out the window*

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. Today’s prompt was “the 6th, 7th, and 8th word of the page of the nearest publication. That happened to be “at the top”, from my current read, Otherworld, by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller.


Metaphor Monday: Jumpin’ Jellyfish – it’s notebook time!


Guest post today, which means — rarity of rarities! — we actually have Metaphor Monday on Monday!

Make sure you double back to Glenavailable’s Scenic Writer’s Shack once you’re done here.

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Jellyfish evaporate in the sun.

So do ideas if you don’t write them down.

That’s why for a large number of years I’ve kept a series of what I ambitiously refer to as ‘writer’s notebooks’ Those saddle-stitch bound, dog-eared ones from three decades past are long gone now of course, but I still have in my possession two dating back to the early 2000’s. Both spiral-bound, one sporting a bubblegum pink cover the other aqua-marine, together they’re overflowing with what might best be labelled ‘fragments’.

These fragments include overheard snippets of dialogue from real life, television and movies, lists of unusual people and place names, beginnings or middles of ideas for stories, life quotes, mixed metaphors, creative insults, lifted descriptive passages from news articles and novels, jokes, self-deprecating remarks, even a couple of useful phrases to pull off a 1980’s era Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation (” I got my uzi-nine millimetre!”). And all of it written in a penmanship so poor much of it is bordering on illegible.

I was leafing thru ‘aquamarine’ just the other day.

In it I found the aforementioned assorted bric-a-brac wordery, including obituary type notes for the late English actor Dudley Moore (1935 – 2002). My scribble included the date he passed away (which, checking now, I realize I had gotten wrong), the fact he was only five feet two inches tall and the description of him as a sex ‘thimble’. Clearly at the time I regarded this quip as worthy of recording but up until this moment I’ve never found the opportunity to repeat it.

On other occasions however I’ve had cause to be thankful only a relatively short time down the track from the original transcribing that I made the effort to jot down, often in the dark while watching a television screen, of some overheard one-of-a-kind wisecrack or pearly good utterance.

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The 29 acre island of Little Ross (complete with lighthouse) located off the southern coast of Scotland.

One relatively recent example of this occurred while viewing the despair-ridden and blood-splattered nightly bulletin known as the six ‘o clock news. On came one of those lighter human interest stories they insert to dilute the ‘stiff whiskey’ of the other stuff. Mention was made of a remote island lighthouse near Scotland called Little Ross that was up for sale. Highlighted was the tragic backstory of the lighthouse which included the murder of a previous lighthouse keeper back in 1960.

A summary of this news snippet made it into my most prized black-speckled notebook. This in turn launched an on-a-whim research splurge conducted on-line and amongst the shelves of my local library which culminated in the writing of a short story about two lighthouse keepers who drive each other to distraction due to the late-evening piano playing habits of one of them. And in direct homage to the bits ‘n pieces power of the writer’s notebook, this story then went on to appear in a November issue of the digital literary magazine RUMBLEFISH PRESS.

I have another notebook (apricot orange with horizontal white stripes and multicoloured section dividers) I use to record names. Unusual names. Names of distinction. Class names. So when Sloane Stephens mercilessly crushed Madison Keys in the U.S Open Women’s tennis final back in September… notebook time!

Sewer police

Only last night I was looking at a documentary on the making of 1949 British film noir THE THIRD MAN. In it they mentioned the sewer police featured in the chase scenes filmed amidst Vienna’s underground canal system were not hired actors but real-life lawmen whose ‘beat’ was the subterranean depths of the below-the-city waterways. The words ‘sewer police’ struck me as  unusual enough to warrant recording, so once again … notebook time! (The black speckled one).

Might ‘sewer police’ make it into a piece of writing I embark upon in the near or distant future? Who knows? And that’s part of the mystery and charm of writer’s notebooks. You can never be certain if there’ll be any future use for the snippet you’ve thought worth preserving. But similar to playing the stock market, naturally you live in hope your investment will pay a nice dividend somewhere down the track.

Writer’s notebooks that are intended on capturing and recording random ear and mind candy comprising everything from flavoured phrases and witticisms to funny, touching and dramatic dialogue and quotable quotes (“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” came from a viewing of the 2016  Catherine Zeta Jones-starring DAD’S ARMY last week and it’s extremely tempting to remark that line was one of the few highlights of the entire movie) are at the very least a way of clocking in. They’re also a way of furthering one’s lifelong love affair with words and can always be surfed later for inspiration.

Viva la writer’s notebooks!

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