Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Time Management Tuesday: The Black Hole That Is This Writer's Journals

Every writer keeps a journal, right? If you've been writing a while, you may have, say, a foot tall stack of the things. You may have 17 of them, in various sizes and shapes. They may have evolved over the years from an idea journal, to an idea journal/scrapbook to an idea journal/scrapbook/workbook to an idea journal/scrapbook/workbook/repository of everything.

Yeah, that paragraph describes my situation.

Now, those of you writers who do keep journals, how often do you refer back to them? How often do you actually use anything you wrote in them?

The bulk of the individual writing ideas I jot down in the journals are lost forever. Even if I pull a notebook that covered 1989 off the shelf and look at it, which could happen, the ideas I had back then probably don't interest me any longer. I wouldn't go so far as to say writing down ideas is a waste of time, because I think that recognizing ideas is a skill, and the more often you do it, the more often you'll be able to do it. So the very act of writing down the idea is beneficial, even if the idea never becomes a writing project.

The workbook aspects of my journals I use more regularly. I may free write relating to a work in progress, make notes about what I'm going to do on that project tomorrow or, say, when I get home from a trip. What I'm using is recent workbook work, not work from years ago.

Here's the real time-loss relating to writers' journals for me: I may think about a project for years before I start working on it. I may be making notes about it off and on during that whole time. When the day comes that I want to get started doing something serious with that idea, I may have to go back through several years' worth of journals to collect all my thoughts and work. And then how do I collect them?

Well, I started to address this problem last year when I purchased a program so I could start keeping my journal on the computer. The benefit? Instant organization and easy retrieval. I use Debrief's professional edition, which is not actually journal software. (I can't believe I didn't blog about this in depth last year, but I can't find a post.) I couldn't find anything that described itself as "journal software." What Debrief allows me to do, though, is very much what I was looking for. I can create folders for whatever topic I want, and I can add "notes" to the folders whenever I want. I can start a folder relating to an idea for a book, add notes off and on to it for a year, and then be able to find them immediately all in one place. I could even make those notes on things like "characters," "plot," and "setting" and keep adding to them. I can add links to any on-line content, which is important because I like to save newspaper and magazine articles that relate to story ideas, as well as reviews of books I might want to read on the subject. I haven't even learned how to use everything Debrief offers. I'm supposed to be able to outline with it and make note cards, but I haven't needed to try to do that yet.

That's terrific for the future, but what about those decades of journals filled with lost content?

I've started going through the most recent one for ideas for essays and short stories, since those have been what I've been working on for the May Days. I'm also going to be trying to collect what I know is quite a bit of information on my next big writing project. A lot of that I'll just transfer to the Debrief program on my computer.

But what about any old clippings I may have in there? I may find brochures, post cards, or any number of paper related items. Last Friday I bought a magazine file holder and a package of two-pocket portfolios. No way am I going through 17 notebooks, but as I'm hunting for the material for The Project, I'll pull out any scrapbook items I find relating to a few big topics that might turn into future projects. And anything new I want to save will go into them instead of into the void that is the journals. I should be able to find everything I've collected immediately

So how useful and easy to use do other people find journals?


Jessica Snell said...

I have a Word document called "Fiction Ideas" where I jot stuff like that, and whenever any of those ideas start taking up more than a page, I give them their own Word document, with an appropriate title. I might file them further once I know what genre of story it is, etc. Then, whenever I have something to add, I just open up that particular document, and jot down whatever character or setting or other idea I've had relating to that particular story idea.

It's nice, because then when I'm finishing up a book, and looking for the next plot, I can pick whichever Word doc is the thickest, and I have a lot of raw material to start the serious plotting work with.

I suppose having a bunch of Word docs is kind of unhandy compared to a simple program that organizes it all, but it works for me.

Gail Gauthier said...

I've been wondering if a lot of writers aren't maintaining their journals the way you are, and that's why I didn't find much in the way of journal software when I was looking for it last year. There may not be much of a market for it.