Bullet Journals for Writers

Life has gotten really full. There are emails to answer, phone calls to make, and have you signed the kids up for summer camp yet? Enter the bullet journal. It’s basically a notebook into which you pour all of your appointments, tasks, plans, goals, lists, musings, and memories. And once you have it written down, you’ve captured it. That little thing that you’re afraid you’ll forget? You can let it go, because it’s in the book.

Bullet journals are completely customizable. You set it up exactly as you need to for your own quirky mind and habits. If you need two pages for a single day, go for it. If you want to see an entire month at a time, in vertical list form, it’s all you. You need a special column for your mom’s doctor appointments? No problem.

Bullet journals are especially appealing for writers, because they involve all the things writers love—paper, pens, stickers, penmanship, obsessing over minutia. The downside is that the journal can be time-consuming to establish and maintain, especially if you fall deep into the rabbit hole of perfecting the pages. DO NOT OBSESS OVER HOW PRETTY THE PAGES ARE.[1]

Here is a rough overview of how to get started (for the full story, see the video here).

The Book

First, you need to pick a notebook. Here’s my preferred bullet journal. It has thick numbered pages, two ribbon bookmarks, a pocket in back, and isn’t it so lovely? I am devoted to mine, but I must admit that a multiple-notebook binder like this one has some appeal, as you could choose to have one notebook for appointments, another for sketches, or your work in progress, or your many lists. You can also go for something cheap and easy to start and see if you like it, and there are websites where you can have a custom journal set up for you, if you don’t like filling in the pages yourself.

The Index

What bullet journalers call an index is really a table of contents,[2] and it’s crucial. This part really blew my mind. How many notebooks have I filled in my life? And why did it never occur to me to include a table of contents? I now use them for all of my notebooks. For instance, if I’m going to a writing conference, I’ll use one notebook for my class notes, follow-ups, and critique notes, and leave a few blank pages at the front for my table of contents. Then, three months later when I’m trying to remember Wendy Mass’s incredible talk on blueprinting your novel, I pull out my New England SCBWI Conference journal and flip right to the correct page. So satisfying.

The Schedule

It takes a little while to perfect your system. I have monthly and weekly calendars, all in the front half of the book, and the back half blank for my lists. My advice is to look around at the endless bullet journal boards for ideas, and try a few things out before you commit to filling in an entire year’s schedule.

The Lists

This is where the bullet journals really shine. You can use your blank pages for all the things that you need to pour out of your brain, and you can also use them for inspiration, to help you reach your goals, and to amuse you. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few types of lists that are particularly useful for writers.

Productivity

There are a million ways to track your productivity through a list. I do a little chart in the corner of my weekly calendar where I track writing days, as well as exercise and overall steps toward world domination. Specific pages for word count, scenes or chapters written or edited, pomodori completed, or blog posts written, can also be useful, as can a submissions tracker or chart of your various works in progress. It is so satisfying to fill in those little boxes, let me tell you.

Brainstorming

Corral your ideas for stories, snippets of dialogue overheard (I can’t be the only one eavesdropping during field trips), character traits or habits, inspiring books or movies, found images and metaphors, and great names.

Work in Progress

I actually do this in a separate notebook (with a table of contents!), but you can do it in your bullet journal, if you’d rather have it handy. I include my outline, themes and story questions, titles, character sketches, scene planning, and anything else that strikes me. Some other ideas that might be fun are sketching out your dream cover, or drafting a dedication and acknowledgements page for your work in progress.

Reading

If you’re like me, you have a towering to be read pile and are constantly encountering more books that you want to add. You can track what you’re reading or want to read, as well as your impressions as you’re reading, and reviews written.

Fun

Make some room for delight, as well. Consider including a spot for words you love,[3] writing prompts, six-word stories, doodles, and inspiring quotes. I have my favorite poems, for easy perusing when I’m in the mood.

Good luck! In the comments, I’d love to hear how you use your bullet journal, or your ideas for lists that writers would appreciate.

For more inspiration on productivity, check out Richelle’s post on Writing Goals, and we have a fantastic start to your to-be-read craft books list here.

Katharine Manning may never master calligraphy, but she makes a darn good cake. She is a middle grade writer and mom who lives in Washington, DC, home of the uber-productive. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files…Of Middle Grade Authors and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and Instagram.

 

[1] Please note that I am currently trying to learn calligraphy so I can make my pages prettier. I am terrible at calligraphy.

[2] Don’t mind me, just obsessing over minutia.

[3] Isn’t “hush” wonderful? I love that word.

Want to Make More Progress in 2017? Write Down Your Writing Goals

It’s the New Year – new calendars, new notebooks, a new start!

I am a New Year junkie. I love the reminders to reflect on the previous year and lay out plans for the year to come. But as a staunch list-maker, I don’t just noodle on my goals for the year, I write them down.

At the end of each year, I pull up my 12-months-old list, x-ing out the goals I’ve accomplished, and mulling over the ones I haven’t. Some goals surprise me – did I really think that was a priority in 2016? And some are oddly outdated, reflections of circumstances that no longer exist in my life, like the year I insisted I was going to get back into shape, only to discover I was pregnant before I could even make the appointment to tour the gym.

I have a friend who writes herself a letter every New Year’s Day, telling her future self about the things she hopes to accomplish, the problems she’s currently facing and the hopes and fears she holds for the coming twelve months. The next New Year’s Eve, she opens the letter and reads the time capsule from exactly a year ago.

It turns out, my friend and I both practice a key strategy for success: writing down your goals.

New research reported here in NYMag.com, appears to show that the simple act of writing down your goals makes you much more likely to achieve them.

Of course, a big section of my 2017 Goal List is devoted to writing. Every year, I think about where I am now – what am I working on? What do I have waiting in the wings? How much time/energy will each of these projects take? Where do I want to go with each? And then I formulate a plan.

Are you ready to set your writing goals for 2017? Grab your coffee, your notebook and some chocolate and follow these tips:

DO be specific: Write a best-seller is not a great goal. Not only is the sales status of your book almost entirely out of your control, but the goal itself is too vague to be of use. Instead try to hone in on what you’ve already got going on. Finish first draft of my dog in space book or Query Yellowstone Adventure YA are more realistic.

DO set deadlines: I love to give myself a rough timeline. On my list this year is Finish first draft of YA WIP by March. Knowing how much I have to go and my current pace, this feels like a reasonable, achievable goal – and it serves as motivation if I start to slow down or slack off.

DO be flexible: Sometimes we can’t or don’t accomplish our goals for reasons out of our control. Sometimes our goals change completely. You can be determined to query your picture book about fairies, but if you hear fairies are done, or you suddenly realize you were meant to write adult true crime, that’s OK. Adjust mid-year.

DON’T beat yourself up: All too often, I’ll check in on my goals halfway through the year and zero in on how much I haven’t accomplished, instead of seeing how much I have. If you need to course-correct, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad or lazy person. It means you have a life! And you still have another six months to get back on track.

For me, the act of writing down my writing goals also becomes an affirmation that this endeavor is important, worthy of my time and attention. And in a business where progress can be achingly slow, it is heartening to see that I really have moved forward as the months have rolled past.

Do you write out your writing goals? How does it work for you? And if you’re trying it this year for the first time, let me know how it goes! Maybe we can do a check-in in June and see how much progress we’ve all made.

Write on!

Ready… Set… WRITE!

running-498257_640If you read Julie’s post, you know it’s National Novel Writing Month again, which means a whole bunch of us are sweating through each day trying to write 50,000-ish words by the end of November.

While I’m not participating this year, I am still trying to keep up my own momentum on my current WIP.

But time has been so very tight for me this fall, and my normal writing routine wasn’t working for me. Instead of getting frustrated, though, I decided to try something new: sprinting.

Here’s how it works for me: I set my timer (generally for 15 minutes, though you can aim for more time if you have it), shut down the Internet, put my document in “focus mode” and start typing. I do not stop until the timer dings.

When I first started sprinting, I would get 250-400 words down each session. But as I got more used to it, I started hitting well over 500. Two fifteen minute sprints a day gets me back to my old goal of 1,000 words a day – all in a lot less time.

Of course, sprinting can be a little scary. I still sometimes have a moment of panic before I start my timer: what if I can’t find the words? But that fear is offset by the freewheeling joy of writing without second-guessing, without going back to edit, without stopping to ponder this word or that one.

There are a couple of different ways to approach sprinting. I like to keep working from where I left off – I find that sprinting forces me to be more focused about where I’m going with each scene. I have to know what’s going to happen each time I sit down to sprint, which means I have had to plot out each scene – and know what its purpose is in the overall story – beforehand.

If that’s too daunting or you’re worried about getting stuck, you can also plan out sprints for specific scenes. Some writers like to sprint through difficult-to-write scenes, knowing that sometimes getting something down is better than getting it down perfectly. Others sprint through character sketches or other important background writing.

I’ve always done my sprints solo, but there is a whole writing subculture devoted to social sprinting. This month, the NaNoWriMo Word Sprint feed (@NaNoWordSprints) will run periodic group sprints, some of which might include prompts or challenges to help you get unstuck.

There are even apps you can download, like WriteOrDie!, which rewards (or punishes!) you for reaching (or not reaching) your goals.

I think my favorite thing about sprinting is that it doesn’t allow me time to go back. I could easily spend half my writing time re-reading and tinkering with the words I’ve already written instead of writing new ones. With sprinting, I’m saving that word-shining for revisions.

I don’t know that I’d want to write an entire novel in sprints. But I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment I have each day after my sprint is done. And I know that as I race one kid to volleyball practice and my husband shuttles another to soccer while I text instructions to my oldest on how to put the rice on without burning down the house, that even if there’s chaos all around me, my writing is still getting done.

I’d love to hear about your sprinting techniques – please share them in the comments!

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Going Dark: How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?

focusAfter being almost completely disconnected for ten days this summer, I found it a bit jarring once I returned to my normal online-heavy life. I’m deep into drafting at the moment, and all that “noise” has been wreaking havoc with my ability to focus. Hearing about others’ progress, chasing the link to yet another craft article or agent’s wishlist, or just keeping up with the daily lives of friends can be distracting. When I’m drafting, I need to keep my head down and my eyes on my own work.

I’m thinking about ways to keep myself wrapped in that vacation quiet by going “dark” (or at least darker!) on social media and the Internet, but I’m not sure how to do that while still maintaining my connections and taking care of business.

So, of course, I turned to my fellow Pennies for their wisdom. Here’s what they said about drafting and the need to go dark on some front:

Sussu: I go deep down in my cave when I draft. I need to retrieve authentic feelings, feelings I have experienced before I can lay them down on the page. At home, we have unplugging periods of time. No one in the house is allowed to plug in any way. No movie, no tweeting, no phone. These periods of complete silence help me go deep down inside myself. That doesn’t mean we are not communicating, because we are, but the communication is different. I also can use these moments to discuss a story and what my family would like to see in my next book. At the end of the day, I’m all fueled up.

Kristi: I don’t go dark on the technological front, but I do on the reading front. Having said that, I do disconnect during the day and “reward” myself with internet connection for a bit after the kids are sorted and in bed. I even try to keep my research down to a minimum and instead create a list of things I want to research so I don’t get too distracted. But I’ve found that reading during my drafting tends to really distract me. If I go dark on social media, I find that I just never catch up.

Rebecca: Like Kristi, I go dark on reading. (Okay, maybe brown out, not pitch black.) I find if I write a lot or a particularly difficult chapter that my brain is literally tired and I don’t want to pick up a book, but just veg in front of the TV or even just “be” to relax. I also feel like I need more blank space to process where I am in the story, and what needs to come next, and what the characters are feeling. I create very long lists of things to research or deepen. I’m 19 chapters into a story right now and still using [nightmare] for a bully I haven’t fully developed and [bg1] for the first bad guy. That way I can concentrate on the two main characters and the plot for the moment, then go back and search and replace once I’m ready to get serious about those characters.

Gita: I find being online incredibly distracting, whether I’m drafting or revising. I really prefer to start a writing day—any day, in fact—without checking my phone or anything else, like I did today. While I’m working, I use an app called Self Control that blocks internet access. I need that quiet to think, reflect: to work from the depths rather from the surface. I personally love to read alongside my writing, but what I read has to be excellent: I only want good words in my head. 🙂 When researching for my (future) Writer’s Desk post, I came across Austin Kleon’s great post on just this topic—he includes Joseph Campbell, Edward Tufte, and Francis Ford Coppola’s take on what Campbell calls “the bliss station.”

Mark: I do stop reading MG books because the voice does tend to get in the way. I like reading adult fiction while I’m writing MG though. There might be some phrase or beautiful passage that helps me sprinkle some new ideas into my project. I’m finding it hard to get going on my next revision, but I’m trying to be patient with myself and use the time to think and reorganizing in my mind. I think it’s actually probably a good thing that I’m forced to think before diving back in. I can reflect on how to approach my fixes this way. Plus I use the opportunity to distract myself with shorter projects and problem solve on those for a time. I liked what Jeff Zentner said in Gabrielle’s interview. That he sits with it for weeks, even months, before writing. I like that idea. Daydreaming about your story is part of the process.

Julie: I’m terrible at this! This winter, I started getting up and drafting for 60-90 minutes BEFORE I was allowed to check Twitter/Facebook/email. This has given me a big productivity boost. And I know some people who are even more rigorous about it–one of my husband’s colleagues, who is a designer, only checks email twice a day at 10 and 2 so that he has three big chunks of creative time during the work day. I may try that in the school year because I spend way too much time stalking email and hanging out with you guys on Twitter/Facebook.

How do you increase your focus and tune out the “noise” of online life — or life in general? Do you need tunnel vision while you draft? We’d love to hear your tips — sound off in the comments!

How I had a Productive Summer

Or as I like to say, how I made the most of interrupted time.

Think back to June. Was this you?

“I have an incredible writing project planned for this summer. I’ll write a first draft. Complete revisions. Write, query, get the book published, and go on a worldwide book tour. All before school starts in September.”

Well, that did sound a bit like me (minus the book tour. Do you think I’m delusional?) I set a deadline of August 30th. to finish revisions on my WIP. The timing was perfect. It had been resting for weeks (per Stephen King), I was dreaming about the characters and plot holes, and I gave myself almost three months to complete them. What could go wrong?

Duh, summer!

Picture this:

image

Monday, the second week of June, CBS This Morning just finished. I skipped to my writing desk and opened my laptop. Aaahhh. #amwriting.

Duh, summer!

Son#2 stomped downstairs.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Smshidhgehisld,” he said. I translated it as good morning, and since I was in such a deliriously happy mood, I may have imagined he said I love you. Unfortunately, it was most likely “why is it so bright outside?”

But to be honest, I was too excited to get to work to make sense of it.

I sipped coffee, ignored Teen Titans Go on TV in the family room, and opened chapter one. I reworded the first paragraph.

Duh, summer!

Son#1 shuffled downstairs. He’s not a morning person.

“We have no milk!”

As a kid lit writer, no milk was something my main character would complain about, but duh, summer! I sipped more coffee, took a deep breath, and turned the computer off. There were more important issues to tackle. Really, the thought of cereal without milk, or having to eat waffles for breakfast, was inconceivable. Right?

Between taking care of every day needs, vacations, hanging out with the kids until they remembered I was an adult and therefore boring, and the unexpected houseguests (which came in the form of a copperhead snake that sent my son to the hospital), I realized revisions would not be possible. But that didn’t stop me from trying, getting frustrated, and trying again.

Then sometime toward the end of June, a light bulb went off. I actually saw stars and it was not from being hit in the head sparring. I realized there was writing time during the summer. It was just in five or ten minute intervals.

Instead of saying what the hecks, packing up my writing materials, and being completely unproductive this summer, I learned how to make the most of those cherished minutes I found during the day.

Here are a few activities I did during those times:

  1. Writing exercises. Fifteen minutes, or five. There was no rule. I found writing for even a few minutes energized my creativity and brought out the joy in writing.image
  1. Catching up on writing articles. I read and took notes on the dozens of saved newsletters, links to blog posts (like the amazing ones from The Winged Pen), and Facebook posts about writing.
  1. Making notes for future stories. Just because I was deeply involved in one story didn’t mean ideas for future ones dried up. I wrote them down as fast as they came and expanded on a few when I had extra time.
  1. Research. I scanned the Internet, books, and watched TV. I talked to people about subjects, places, and names. All of which will help me dive deeper into my WIP as well as future stories. How else would I have learned about phillumenists. I had no clue there was a name for a person who collected matchbooks. What a unique character quirk.
  1. Read. Of course that goes without saying.

So this summer, instead of being unproductive, which to me meant cranky, I did a little bit of everything. And all those tips will make the revision of my WIP even better.

I would love to hear what you did this summer and how you found ways to be productive. Please leave them in the comments below.

IMG_2142 - Version 2 A third degree black belt in taekwondo, HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.