Why you should keep a journal

I believe that if you’re not keeping a journal, you’re doing it wrong. This statement is mainly directed at creative-type people (whether you’re a writer, visual artist, or whatever), but it can really go for everyone.

Journaling is great for self-analysis, helps get your mind working, and is just an overall amazing tool to keep you focused. In fact, my journal has become a cornerstone of sorts in my efforts to be healthier and happier. So, it’s not just for angsty teenagers, or “sensitive” adults trying to get in touch with their feelings.

Here, rather than write up some kind of abstract pitch as to why you should keep a journal, let me show you how I use mine. (The entries I’m sharing here have been narrowly-selected and lightly-edited.)

The Obligatory Early-Morning Entry

Every morning, as soon as I have enough coffee and nicotine in me to hold a pen, I crack open my journal and write. I start with the date and time, how I slept, and usually follow this with a gripe about my deteriorating body. After that, I write down any appointments or tasks which must be done that day, and round it out with whatever I want to do or should be doing.

Here’s an example:

4/14/17 – 6:20am

Slept like shit last night. This pinched nerve in my shoulder/back/whatever needs to chill. Whatever. Have an appointment at nine. Awesome. Need to get Alex off to school, hop in the shower, then see if I can get at least some work done on my novel. Need to be gone by like 8:40. Weather’s supposed to be good, though. Maybe I’ll just grab my camera and head downtown early.

Dunno. Sounds like a good idea, though. Sure. Okay. Shower, take off early, walk around downtown, then appointment. Get back around ten, grab something to eat, then depending on how I feel I’ll work on the novel for an hour then read. That’s a good enough plan for now. Time to get another cup of coffee and a smoke.

The hardest part of keeping a journal is actually keeping it. That’s true for everyone. So, planning out my day, every day, forces me to write something. If the only entry I manage to write is the date, time, and “Slept like shit. Got nothin’. Gonna watch Netflix,” then I consider it a success.

A first entry like this is also helps me organize my thoughts, and focus my energy in the most effective way I can. That bit above where I start out thinking I want to work on my novel, but decide I’d be better off shooting photos? You’ll find stuff like that cropping up in these entries all the time, and it’s one of the main reasons why you should keep a journal in the first place.

The Less-Obligatory (Though Still Helpful) “Check-In” Entries

As I go about my day, I go back to my journal and note how I’m doing, or jot down a thought or idea that seemed interesting.

10:07am

Christ, that appointment sucked. No energy. Took a lot of photos and got some exercise walking around, but now I’m wiped. Don’t think I even have enough brain to read. Gonna make another pot of coffee, grab a smoke, then see how I feel.

 

These check-ins are usually much shorter than my first entry of the day, and follow the pattern of: what I did, what I’m going to do next, and why. This helps me re-focus, in light of any distractions, and that helps to keep my creative energy and inspiration flowing as the day goes on.

The Slightly-More-Obligatory End-of-Night Entry

I round out my daily journal habit with an end-of-night entry. It’s basically a recap, with a specific focus on what I did, not what I didn’t do. This is another reason why you should keep a journal: it gives you a place to review and celebrate your accomplishments–important stuff for staying positive, which can be hard sometimes…

8:25pm

Tired. Looking forward to curling up under my blanket. Hopefully I sleep better than I did last night. Today sucked, but I got some stuff done. A bunch of photos, a blog post. Took another walk. Exercise-wise I’m doing pretty good. Just so mentally drained, and I’m not sure I ever fully woke up today. Here’s hoping tomorrow will be better.

I rarely get everything done that I set out to do (especially when I have an appointment in the middle of the morning), but I almost always get something done and that’s what I write down.

 

And Finally, Some Tips!

Here’s a few tips which help me. Maybe they’ll help you.

  1. I use a physical journal and a pen. For journaling, I much prefer the feel of actual writing, as opposed to typing. Other people are totally the opposite. Try both and see which works.
  2. I don’t share my journal with anyone, nor do I intend to ever do so. It’s not that I’m writing state secrets, but I don’t want to feel like I’m writing for an audience–even subconsciously. I want every letter in my journal to be honest, so it’s off limits to everyone but me. (Hence the “narrowly-selected and lightly-edited” disclaimer at the beginning of this post.)
  3. Related to the above, I don’t take my journal out with me. It stays in my house. I could toss it in a bag and be reasonably sure I won’t lose it, but my brain’s not always reasonable about things like that.
  4. Also related to point number two–in fact, the whole point of that point–is that your journal should be a judgement-free zone. Not that you won’t use it to judge yourself (a journal is great place for self-critique) but that what you write in it doesn’t have to be profound or even good. My journal is full of hastily-made grammatical and spelling errors, as well as full-frontal nonsense. I once wrote a three-page rant on how terrible season eight of the television show Bones was. And a few entries before that? A paragraph on how I should eat fewer onions because of how much they make me fart. We’re not trying for a Pulitzer, here.
  5. Ultimately, there are only two rules: write at least one entry every day, and what you write should be honest. It doesn’t matter if you follow my format or not (though I do think it’s a good place to start), it doesn’t matter if you begin with “Dear Diary,” or if only manage to write “Don’t feel like journaling today,” three days running. Just write something, each day, and make sure it’s the truth.

Now go forth and journal.

Writing, playing, and not sleeping

It’s been a weird few weeks.

I figure I’m getting about one good night of sleep out of three, where “good night” means about six hours of being dead to the world. The other two nights? Yeeeeaaaaahhhh…let’s not even talk about them.

Insomnia blows. And it’s blowing extra hard for me right now because I’m stuck in a writing project I’d really like to finish, but it is kind of impossible to even get into when I’m so sleep-deprived I’m getting motion hallucinations, and the few functioning brain cells I have are busy counting the hours to the next time I can put my head on a pillow.

Wow. I just had a whole, minute-long blank stare at the screen after typing that last paragraph. Jesus, I’m screwed.

Anyway, what little writing I’ve managed to do has been pretty fun. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m having more fun with it than I’ve had in years, which is saying a lot. Or would be, if I didn’t have this nagging feeling that it’s nothing but gibberish and I’m too tired and out of it to notice.

Whatever. At least I got a new phone.

My old one finally hit the glass ceiling of available memory, and Android’s pretty damn cranky when that happens. Updates wouldn’t download, I had to clear cache and reboot multiple times a day–it wasn’t fun. So, I dug deep and pulled a couple hundred bucks out of my ass for a new phone.

A new phone which has a new, much nicer camera than my old one.

Oh, happy day!

Even with the whole lack of sleep thing harshing my mellow, I’ve been having a blast with this thing–going out every day, experimenting with all the available settings, and generally just playing around.

I’ve mainly been posting over on my Instagram and Facebook profiles, but if you don’t follow me there, I’ve thrown a few of my photos into a gallery here…

Some of it’s pretty weird, but, as I said, it’s been a weird few weeks.

The Project Diaries: Revisions

“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway

If I ever decide to get another tattoo, it’s going to be that Hemingway quote–right across the collar bones, and backwards so I can read it in the mirror. If there’s only one truism in writing, it’s that. The first draft of anything is shit, and if you don’t believe this is true of your own stuff, then I’ve got no interest in ever reading anything you write.

Because if there’s a second truism in writing, it’s “tell the truth.” Whatever you write, even if that’s experimental fiction, needs to be composed with honesty. And if you can’t be honest with yourself, then there’s no way you’ll be honest with your readers.

That’s a topic for another post, though. Today, I’m going to focus on that opening quote, and the “joy” of revision.

Revising Sucks

Ask a dozen writers about their favorite part of the craft, and you may very well get a dozen different answers. Some like “being in the room” with their characters. Others most enjoy world-building. Still others get their kicks outlining.

Ask the same group of scriveners what their least favorite part of the writing process is, though, and I’m willing to be you’ll hear the same word again and again: revising.

It sucks.

Maybe not so much during the second draft, when your prose still has that new ink smell, but most of the writers I know end up hating life right about the fourth or fifth round of Move the Comma.

And that, my friends, is where I’m at with the RPG.

A Day in the Life

What does my workflow look like lately? It’s relatively simple and almost all prep work.

At a guess, I’d say we have actual text for roughly half the book. The rest is just notes, written to capture ideas, rather than present them to a potential player. So, the Big Goal of this round of revision is to figure out what’s been written up properly, and what still needs a first draft.

So, I’ve started by building an outline for our RPG’s core rule book. And while outlines aren’t a tool I reach for when it comes to writing fiction, it’s absolutely the way to go for something like this. The outline becomes the book’s “Table of Contents,” and forms the skeleton we’ll hang everything else on. Like so…

  1. Part One
    1. Intro
    2. Chapter One
      1. Intro
      2. Section One
        1. Intro
        2. Subsection One
        3. Subsection Two
      3. Section Two
        1. Intro
        2. Subsection One
        3. Subsection Two
        4. Subsection Three
    3. Chapter Two
      1. Intro

And so on.

By laying out the structure of the book this way, I can then follow the outline and note where we have actual text, and how far along that text is. Like this (black means no text, red means text has been written, blue means it’s been revised at least once, green means it’s good to go)…

  1. Part One
    1. Intro
    2. Chapter One
      1. Intro
      2. Section One
        1. Intro
        2. Subsection One
        3. Subsection Two
      3. Section Two
        1. Intro
        2. Subsection One
        3. Subsection Two
        4. Subsection Three
    3. Chapter Two
      1. Intro

Think of the TOC like a living, breathing To-Do List, where each item tells us not only what task it is, but also quickly relates it’s “done-ness.” One more thing to note: color is inherited from a heading’s children. That is, if there’s a chapter with a section that’s still a “first draft,” that chapter’s heading is set in red. This lets us know at a glance if that section, chapter, or part still needs work.

So that’s partly what I’m doing. Building the outline (with actual chapter headings, section titles, etc.). I’m also taking each section that’s been written and doing a revision pass on it.

What’s Next?

Once the outline is done, and I’ve given the text we have a second draft, the next step is to start filling in the blanks: go to any black headings and write rough drafts for them. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the text end of things is going to go–keep making passes through the TOC and turning everything green.

After that, it’s on to layout and art. But the less I think about that, the better.

The Project Diaries – Shifting Gears

So, that novel? Yeah. Turns out that’s not happening.

Yet.

As I mentioned before, my friend Shawn and I have been working on something I’ve taken to calling “the Project.” And while I’ve hesitated to write about it before–and still can’t give you a lot of details–there are some things I can safely mention.

More importantly, I think there might be some value in doing so, too.

For the most part, production diaries for large, multi-year projects are either written after the fact (as a kind of postmortem for other industry types), or only started once everyone’s sure of what’s happening, and know that they can pull it off.

Given that, why not put on display some of what’s been going on “behind the scenes” with this thing? If you’re struggling with your own flailing and far-too-massive creative undertaking, perhaps this and future posts like it will make you feel better about yourself.

The Project?

Essentially, the Project is a setting, a “science-fiction universe,” that we intend to use in variety of different media–with fiction, and a paper-and-pencil role-playing game being the Big Two we’re most interested in. And, minus a few breaks here and there, we’ve been steadily developing it for the better part of the last three years.

This includes writing the history of our universe, creating the major characters, and detailing the major locations–each requiring all sorts of brainstorming, long phone calls, and writing.

Lots, and lots of writing.

At a guess, I’d say we’ve got over 100,000 words of notes, in various states of well-thought-out-ness, and even more still in our heads to get down.

Which Comes First?

The novel I’ve been working on is part of the “fiction side” of Project (and about 30,000 words of its own so far), but a few weeks ago we made the decision to hold off on doing any more work on it until after we’ve released the RPG, which is a lot closer to being complete, and probably makes more sense as a first product.

Here’s where I have to get a little vague.

See, the nature of our setting is such that any single novel or short story won’t really capture the essence of what we’re trying to do. It’d be showcasing just one facet or side of a much larger, much more complex polyhedron. And even though novels and short stories are absolutely things we want to put out there, it’s much more important for our opening salvo to show what we’re really offering.

The whole, as opposed to the parts.

The Upshot?

I’m disappointed.

Well, a little disappointed.

I was really digging the novel. And one of the reasons I shifted my own work over to the fiction side–and away from the RPG–was because I got kinda sick of writing about the setting, as opposed to writing within the setting. I wanted to take some time to actually tell stories in this universe we’ve built, instead of laying the foundations for others to build upon.

Of course, the reason I could make that shift in the first place was because the RPG seemed pretty far off. Shawn’s been handling the rules or “system” development, and it looked like we were still several months away from having something he thought worthy of play-testing.

As it turns out, he’s gotten through a ton of the system since the first of the year, so we can start beating on the thing next week.

That means my part of the RPG–writing and editing the text–needs attention again.

lot of attention.

And once we’re confident that the basic rules and text hold up, it’ll be time to start the long slog toward publication–typesetting, art design/production, printing.

And that’s, like, a lot of work, too. I’d say about a year’s worth, if I had to guess.

Going Forward

I’m going to try to write a post about the Project once a week–explain what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what’s coming up in the near future. Hopefully, it’ll be interesting for you. Mostly, I’m hoping it will be cathartic and cut down on my therapy sessions.

Ultimately, though, you should probably think of it as a cautionary tale.

Too Many Interests

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ve really gotta pare down my interests and learn to focus.

For the most part, I’ve been managing to stick to my guns and keep doing the things that need doing: the novel’s getting written, and it’s been a while since I’ve let a weekday go by without posting something here. I’d call that progress.

But oh man, the rest of my time has just been shot to hell by one distracting, tangential pursuit or another.

Photography? I don’t know if it’s fair to call that a distraction anymore. I’m enjoying it, seem to be a little good at it, and I’ve been sticking with it consistently enough to feel like I’m building up my skills. That said, I have no idea what I want photography to turn into.

Is it something I want to do for fun?

Is it something I think I can make money at?

Having gone forty years without even thinking about visual art of any sort, the idea of pursuing one seriously is so alien to me that I can’t wrap my head around it. So, I haven’t really bothered to try. I’m just doing it, and worrying about what it’s going to be later.

Then there’s poetry.

I’ve been meaning to write a proper post about this interest for a while, but it’s probably not happening anytime soon. Suffice it to say, I started digging into poetry a few months ago—its methods, its classics—and enjoyed the experience enough to try my hand at it. And while I can’t say I have much skill at versification, I can say that I like it.

Unfortunately, I’ve neither been reading nor writing poetry with nearly enough consistency to get much of anything out of it. I maybe spend an hour, broken up, every other week on it, which means it’s little more than a depressing distraction.

A distraction, because I’ll have nothing to show for the effort. And depressing because doing any makes me feel like I should be doing more.

Finally, there’s the newest distraction: film making.

Look, Ma! It’s a still from a movie I inexplicably spent half an afternoon making!

Holy hell, where did this come from?

My DSLR camera actually takes decent video, and there are quite a few guides on how to go about doing just that. So, in the spirit of trying to learn the various features of my camera, I decided to shoot a few test videos in my house.

Just to know how, you see? Nothing more.

Two days and five hours of Adobe Premiere later, and I’m looking at a reasonably-creepy, 56-second scene and writing notes about a short film it inspired.

What’s wrong with me?

Whatever it is, it’s getting old. I have things I need and want to do, and while they’re getting done, fighting all the distractions is leaving me exhausted at the end of the day.

And not the good kind of exhausted, like you get after a great workout. It’s the bad kind, like you just spent twenty hours running from a horde of zombies and know you’ll have to do it again the next day.

Whatever.

I’ll just write this on the list of things to speak to my therapist about.