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How to Start a Writing Bullet Journal

How to start a bullet journal for writers

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of bullet journaling. My writing bullet journal is my number one tool for achieving my writing goals.

Also, I love the smell of a fresh notebook and an excuse to play with markers.

 

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I hear from a lot of people who want to start a bullet journal but feel too overwhelmed to start. It doesn’t have to be hard, but looking at the art-installation-worthy Instagram posts can sure make it seem that way.

So today, I’m sharing how I set up my bullet journal – step-by-step so you can follow along. Though I’m setting mine up for the new year, you can start yours anytime you like. There’s no reason to wait!

If you don’t know what a bullet journal is, my introductory guide to bullet journaling is a good place to start.

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 1 The Basics

Ready to make your bullet journal? Let’s do it!

 

Step 1: Gather Supplies

First off, gather your supplies.

Notebook. Really, any notebook will do. My first time, I used a spare composition notebook to make a planner (before I had even heard of bullet journaling).

My first bullet journal
My first-ever bullet journal

But you’ll be using this thing for a while, so I think it’s worth splurging on something that will hold up to being tossed around in a bag for months.

This year’s model is a little Clairefontaine notebook. It has silky smooth pages, and it’s slim, so I won’t be dragging around unused pages all year.

My 2020 Writing bullet journal
This year’s writing bullet journal

I’ve used a lot of different notebooks over the years. Last year I used a Rhodia Goalbook, the year before that I used a Moleskine.

Whatever you get, I do recommend looking for something with either dot grid or graph paper inside. It makes it a lot easier to draw boxes, shapes, and get nice layouts.

Things to write with. Like notebooks, any writing utensil will do. I used a cheap Bic when I started out with my composition notebook.

Pens and Markers for bullet journaling
The pens and markers I use in my bullet journal.

Now I prefer a gel rollerball or a fountain pen. They cost more upfront (mine ranging from $9 to $50), but they last for years, and the ink refills are cheap.

You may also want to add some color to your toolkit – I like fineliners, but I’ve also used cheap highlighters and markers picked up at back-to-school sales.

That’s it. A notebook and something to write with is all that’s required. Sure, you can add extras: stickers, stencils, washi tape, markers that cost more than my fancy latte, and the like. If those make you happy and fit in your budget, great!

Otherwise, skip it. I usually do. Even after this many years as a bullet journal evangelist, my supply kit is still pretty small.

So let’s jump right in and get started.

Step 2: Let go of perfection.

Do you have empty notebook syndrome? It’s ok. Lots of other writers also have beautiful notebooks sitting on their shelf unused because they are too precious to use.

But an unused notebook is an unloved notebook. They’re much nicer when they’re used. Yes, my old notebooks look ragged – they’re worn from being drug to coffeeshop writing sessions. They’ve probably got stains from the coffee, too. And they’re full of Big Audacious Plans and, more importantly, the checkboxes and scribbles that let me make those big audacious plans into reality.

Past Bullet Journals
Some of my past bullet journal. The oldest ones at the bottom and newer ones at the top. All show wear and stains from being well-loved.

My old bullet journals are a physical manifestation of work, accomplishment, and creation. None of which would happen if I was too scared to actually use them.

So. Let’s start on the right foot.

Open up the cover and write your name big and large. I recommend adding a phone number and email address. I also usually put in a note that I’ll give a reward for a lost bullet journal.

Write neatly, but don’t aim for an artistic masterpiece. The point is to start with being yourself – imperfect handwriting and all. It’ll make it easier when you inevitably make a mistake later.

Bullet Journal with my name in it

Congrats! This isn’t just a notebook – now it’s a bullet journal. It’s a little bit less perfect, and that’s great.

 

Step 3: Number the Pages

Not exactly scintillating, but it’s really necessary. Put on a podcast or your favorite streaming show. You’ll be done long before the podcast is over.

Numbered pages in my Bullet journal

(Or you can buy a notebook with prenumbered pages.)

 

Step 4: Index

The very first pages of your notebook are dedicated to your index. Three page spreads are usually enough. You can get fancy with headers. Or not.

Indexes in bullet journals

My 2020 Clairefontaine notebook comes with a table of contents preprinted. In the past, I’ve made the index myself. You can also print and tape in the index in my free printable bullet journal pages.

Free Printable Bullet Journal for Writers

Right now, your index will be empty, but it will soon fill up like the old one shown above. Then it becomes a handy reference for finding things in your bullet journal.

 

Step 5: Future Log

Create a place to park future dates and to-dos. I like a simple design – each spread shows six months, so it takes two spreads to cover the year. That’s the layout I used in my free printable bullet journal pages.

Future Log in my Bullet Journal
My Future log looks a little empty right now – it will fill up as the year goes on.

Go ahead and add any dates that you already know – like a conference you want to attend or the dates of your critique group meetings. You can also use this as a place to put reminders of future tasks – like remembering to contact bloggers about a blog tour in September. You’ll be adding more to this as the year goes.

And don’t forget to add the future log to your index so you can find it later!

 

Step 6: Calendex

If you don’t know what a calendex is, check it out on my earlier blog post on collections.

Strictly speaking, a calendex is optional. Lots of people do a normal monthly calendar instead. But I’ve found that the calendex helps me get a handle on my workflow.

It can take a little while to set up, so now’s a good time to put that podcast back on.

Drawing calendex and listening to podcasts

How to draw a calendex: This is probably the most complex layout I use, but it’s not that hard to do.

  1. Number the days starting at the bottom. So start with 31 at the bottom, left corner of the page, and count down as you move rows up the page. This way, leftover space is at the top, which looks nicer, in my opinion.
  2. Divide into columns. If you’re using dot grid or graph pages, count the number of dots on your page and divide by 3 (for 5ish-inch width notebooks) or 6 (for full-page notebooks). If you’re using blank or lined paper, you’ll have to get that ruler and measure to divide it up. I suggest doing this after the numbers so you can have the lines begin at the top of the numbers, leaving space for a header.
  3. Mark off extra days on months. Your numbers go all the way to 31, but some months have fewer days. Cross those out.
  4. Grab a calendar and mark off weeks. Not everyone does this, but I find it very handy. I put a line in between Sundays and Mondays.
  5. Add a header!

Bonus tip: If you mess up (August doesn’t have 29 days, even in a leap year), washi tape is your friend.

 

Calendex with a mistake

Much better.

Calendex in my bullet journal

I usually add a colorful paperclip to this page since I know I’ll be coming back to this one often.

 

Step 7: Goals and Plans

Ok, we got the boring stuff out of the way. Now we get to the good stuff. **rubs hands together**

Every year I go through a process of reflecting on the previous year and drafting goals for the upcoming year. I usually do this at the end of the previous bullet journal – it’s an excellent way to complete the year and close out my bullet journal.

2020 writing goals

Then I write my new goals Big and Bold right at the beginning of my new bullet journal. All year long, as I plan my work, I keep those goals in mind. That intentionality is what translates goals into accomplishments.

Walking through a goal-setting process could easily be a whole blog series, so I’ll limit it to just a few tidbits of advice here:

  1. Definitely do some goal setting.
  2. Choose a small number of goals to start with. (I’ve been doing this a long time, and my goals have grown with me.)
  3. Make SMART goals so you’ll achieve them.
  4. Review your goals periodically and make adjustments if you need to.

 

Step 8: Collections

I’ve written a whole post on collections you might want to add to your writing bullet journal.

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 3 Collections to organize your writing

This is where you start to personalize your bullet journal so that it matches your needs and goals. Design your bullet journal to support your goals.

Want to read 20 novels this year? Create a collection with space to list all 20 books.

Want to write that novel this year? Or to write 12 new picture book manuscripts? A collection where you can check of chapters or manuscripts may be just the thing.

Want to finally attend a writing conference? Make a collection to keep track of all the bits and bobs of information – list conferences you could attend, create a budget, jot down the name of potential roommates, packing lists – whatever you need to make that goal happen.

Whatever your goals, making a collection for it is setting an intention to meet your goal and making a way to keep track of your progress.

Here’s what goes into my bullet journal right at the beginning of the year. Since these are useful to most writers, I made templates in my free printable bullet journal inserts.

  • Accomplishments – this is where I track all the small steps that add up to big achievements throughout the year.
  • Ideas – any random scraps of ideas get noted here. That way, they don’t get lost.
  • Blogging – I list blog ideas and write out what I blog on each month
  • Critique group – I keep a collection for each critique group. (I have three!) Each one lists pertinent information like meeting schedule and format. Each month I note what I submit and the critiques I have to do. I check them off as I complete them.
  • Listing of manuscripts – Writing 8-12 picture books each of the last few years means I need a way to keep track!
  • Newsletter – this one is new this year. I send it out quarterly and need a place to park ideas and track progress.

I make sure to go back and add these things to my index.

Bullet journal index filled in

And now I can add them to the Calendex, too.

Calendex filled out

Step 9: Use your New Bullet Journal!

Set up is done, and I can now use my new journal. Yay!

At the beginning of each month, I make my magical monthly spread for the upcoming month.

Bullet Journaling for Writers Part 2: The Magical Monthly Spread

Here’s my January 2020 spread all ready to go.

January monthly bujo spread

Throughout the year, I’ll work on filling in the collections I set up at the beginning. Since they’re tied to my goals, that also means I’m making progress on those.

I make new collections as I need them. I’ve signed up for the StoryStorm challenge, so I made a spread for that.

And I’ll keep updating my future log and calendex through the year to help me keep track of important dates and information.

Calendex filled out

The calendex is also a useful planning tool. Looking at my calendex, I can instantly see that I have a lot of deadlines clustered in the middle of each month. (All those critique groups….) So I decided to shift my monthly blog posts and quarterly newsletters to the beginning and end of months to spread out the workload.

I can also see that I’ll be extra busy with writing challenges some months (Storystorm in January, ReFoReMo in March, …), so I know that those aren’t the months to start working through a new craft book or schedule a meaty blog series.

It becomes even more critical when I’m scheduling work contracts and large projects. I put those in as big blocks like I do the writing challenges so I can instantly see that the month is looking full. Looking at my calendex lets me instantly know when I’m unavailable (or when I need to shift things to make

 

2020 bullet journal
My 2020 bullet journal all ready to go!

That’s it! If you’ve followed along, you should have a brand new Bullet Journal all ready to go.

 

 

 

 

 

My 2020 Word: Metamorphosis

My 2020 Word: Metamorphosis

 

I was slow to jump on the word-of-the-year bandwagon. A lot of my friends love the idea but setting concrete goals and plans has always worked well for me – I didn’t see the point.

Last year I gave it a whirl just to see what the fuss is about. That’s when I realized that the yearly word has a different role to play than goals.

My yearly word helps me make sense of things – like an analogy to help me navigate the year. So as I look forward to the coming year, I’ve been reflecting on what’s coming and how to make sense of it.

My word for 2020 is METAMORPHOSIS.

Let me explain.

This fall we raised some butterflies from caterpillars. I learned a lot of things through the process:

  • start with eggs because of parasitic flies (do NOT google that unless you have a strong stomach)
  • monarchs’ migration is timed by daylight length (we actually learned this at a really interesting talk on the effects of light pollution while traveling through Glacier National park earlier this fall.)
  • be sure to secure your habitat from curious kitties
  • AND metamorphosis works completely different than I thought.


If you’re like me, you learned the butterfly life cycle as a kid.

-> Egg hatches to larva (caterpillar).

-> Larva grows and turns into a pupa (chrysalis).

-> Pupa hatches out as a butterfly.

Ok but HOW EXACTLY does the caterpillar turn into a butterfly? As a kid, it was obvious that a butterfly’s body looked like a caterpillar’s body. So I assumed that inside that chrysalis, the caterpillar sprouted wings and maybe molted skin to reveal a new color. Done.

Basically, I imagined that the caterpillar just got a costume change but stayed pretty much the same.

Wrong.

Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar dissolves back into primordial goo. Then it reforms into a whole new creature from the goo.

This may not be the most scientifically accurate description, but it’s not too far off. According to Scientific American

“To become a butterfly, a caterpillar first digests itself. But certain groups of cells survive, turning the soup into eyes, wings, antennae and other adult structures.”

Whether you use scientific words like “digest” and “soup” or my less scientific terms like goo, the point is that this is not a simple or small process. It is a complete transformation.

 


So what does this have to do with my life?

Like the pupa inside the chrysalis, I’m at a point of major change. Don’t worry, I’m not giving up kidlit writing. (Never!) But a lot of other things in my life are radically transforming – for starters my long term contract projects are coming to an end and I’m looking for my next challenge.

In modern business buzzwords: I’m pivoting to a new career trajectory.

In my butterfly analogy: I’ve turned into goo and I’m rebuilding myself. And the process feels horribly messy and uncertain – much as I expect a butterfly feels. So like the butterfly, I’m having faith in the process.

By 2021, I expect to emerge as a butterfly. Probably I’ll be a little shaky and uncertain at first. But once I’ve had a chance to get used to my new form, I think it’ll be worthwhile. That’s important to remember right now as I slog through goo.

 

2019 Book Gift List for Kids at Every Age and Stage

2019 Kids books for every age and stage

Yay! It’s time for me to gush about some books and convince you to buy them for every child you know. This has become a yearly tradition for me. (For five years now!)

I admit – I get excited going through my Goodreads list and rediscovering the books I’ve read that year. I get less excited trying to whittle it down to a reasonably sized list to share with you.

Some books have descriptions listed afterward to identify genres and features. For instance, kids love series – if you can get them to fall in love with the first one, they’ll often binge read the entire series.

And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.

 

Babies and Toddlers

(Board books: Babies and toddlers)

I Pray Today book cover art  Book cover: When your lion needs a bath     Book Cover: Whose Toes are Those

I Pray Today and Goodnight Jesus (You knew this was coming, right?)

When Your Lion Needs a Bath Series

Whose Toes are Those?

See also: Roundup of 12 board Books

 

Child

(Picture Book: Age 3-8)

Book Cover: 7 Ate 9: The Untold StoryBook Cover: A Friend for HenryBook Cover: Chicks Rule!Book Cover: Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years

7 Ate 9: The Untold Story Humor Series

A Friend for Henry Friendship Autism

Chicks Rule!

Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years Nonfiction Series

Book Cover: The King of KindergartenBook Cover: I Am FamousBook Cover: I Have an IdeaBook Cover: Lubna and Pebble

The King of Kindergarten (great for kids entering kindergarten!)

I Am Famous Humor – Make sure to check out the sequel, I Used to Be Famous

I Have an Idea

Lubna and Pebble (See my thoughts over on Instagram)

 

Book Cover: Rot, The Cutest in the World!Book Cover: When Grandma gives you a lemon tree

Rot, The Cutest in the World! Humor

When Grandma Gives You A Lemon Tree Humor

 

New Readers

(Early Readers: Age 6-9)

 

Book Cover: Ten Eggs in a NestBook Cover: The Trouble with Chickens

Ten Eggs in a Nest (for kids who are reading short books)

The Trouble with Chickens Humor Series (for kids who are ready for short chapter books)

 

Another great option for kids who are past easy readers but not ready for full-novels is graphic novels, which brings us to…

 

Graphic Novels

(Age 3-99. I have indicated the approximate age appropriateness. Most books will appeal to younger children with a willing reader.)

Book Cover: All's Faire in Middle SchoolBook Cover: Anya's GhostBook Cover: Babymouse: Queen of the WorldBook Cover: Be Prepared

All’s Faire in Middle School (age 8+)

Anya’s Ghost (age 13+, may be scary for younger readers)

Babymouse Series Humor (age 6+)

Be Prepared (age 8+, see my comments on Instagram)

 

Book Cover: Roller Girl

Roller Girl (age 8+)

See also: 6 of My Favorite Graphic Novels and Why I Love Them

 

Tweens

(Middle Grade: Age 8-12)

Book Cover: The benefits of being an octopusBook Cover: CogheartBook Cover: The Fourteenth GoldfishBook Cover: Hello Universe

The Benefits of Being an Octopus (See my review on instagram)

Cogheart Series Adventure

The Fourteenth Goldfish Humor Series Science

Hello Universe

 

Book Cover: It Ain't so Awful FalafelBook Cover: Merci Suarez Changes GearsBook Cover: The Mortification of Fovea MunsonBook Cover: Spirit Hunters

It Ain’t So Awful Falafel Historical Fiction

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

The Mortification of Fovea Munson Humor Science (See my thoughts on Instagram)

Spirit Hunters Creepy Thriller

 

Book Cover: The War that Saved my LifeBook Cover: When You Reach Me

The War That Saved my Life Historical Fiction (See my thoughts on Instagram)

When You Reach Me Mystery

 

Teens

(Young Adult: Age 13+)

Note that these books have mature content (roughly equivalent to PG13). This post gives tips for determining if a book is appropriate for your child.

Book Cover: #murdertrendingBook Cover: One of Us is LyingBook Cover: on the come up

#MurderTrending Series (Dark but so good)

One of Us is Lying Series

On the Come Up

 


Need more ideas? Check out these:

2018 List of Books to give to kids: Kids books for every age and stage: Baby to Teen and everything in between

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016 Big List of Books to Give to Kids

Big list of books to give to kids

200+ Children's Book Reviews

 

Road trip! Or: How I Wrote Nothing for a Month and It Improved My Writing

Camper at sunrise overlooking Puget Sound
Camper at sunrise overlooking Puget Sound

The old blog has been a bit quieter than usual. That’s because I was gone almost the whole month of September on a road trip.

6000 miles.

With a dog, two kids, two adults, and one not-so-large camper.

We passed through numerous national parks, stopped in mega metroplises to visit friends and eat pastries, and even made it all the way out to the Northwest most point of the continental US. (From central Illinois. It was a HAUL.)

Glacier National park mountains and valley
I could stare at Glacier National Park all day.

 

Since I mostly talk about my writing here, let me tell you about the writing I did on this trip.

None.

Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not one word.

But it ended up being wonderful for my writing.

Before the trip, I had been revising several picture books as part of my mentorship. I was also working on a new middle grade novel. And I felt stuck on all of them.

When I say “stuck,” I don’t mean that I was waiting for the light of inspiration to fall on me complete with celestial choir. Because that doesn’t exist.

Instead, I take the approach that Maya Angelou does:

“When I’m writing, I write. Then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and say ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” – Maya Angelou

Doing the work of writing brings inspiration, not the other way around. And nearly always, the answer to my writing problem is to sit down and do the work.

Occasionally there are other factors at play, too.

But sometimes even when I do the work, even when I’m appropriately caffeinated, things just don’t… work. Bad writing days are par for the course, but when I’m doing my best to emulate Maya Angelou and all I can muster up is Charles Darwin on a bad day? That’s not good.

“I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders. ” – Charles Darwin on a very bad, no good, horrible day

And this is where I was before our road trip. I was doing the work but not getting much of anywhere.

Ironically, this happened partly because I have been growing a lot as a writer. My own efforts and the mentorship I’ve been working on this summer have meant growing and stretching. I’m more aware than ever of the flaws in my writing, but I haven’t quite improved my skills enough to fix those problems.

I feel like this is may be a universal truth: the better you get at writing, the harder it is. Or maybe it’s just me.

So I found myself with a pile of manuscripts that were both some of the best things I had ever written and also with the realization that they were not quite good enough. But I didn’t know how to fix them. Which had me feeling very poorly and stupid indeed.

And then I took a break. A looooooong break.

I intended to write along the way. I love writing and usually can’t stay away for long, even on vacation. But it was a very packed trip (see previous regarding 6000k miles in under a month with CHILDREN). And also, my writing self was still feeling poorly and stupid. So instead I giggled like a maniac at my landlocked children experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

(In the interest of fairness, they had been dodging the surf for a few minutes before this much large wave rolled in.

When I got back, I was nervous. A month is a long time away and things hadn’t exactly been going great. But I channeled Maya Angelou and sat down to work.

And… it worked!

I unblocked a picture book revision, added a few thousand words to my middle grade work in progress, and finished a blog post that has been on my list for awhile.

Bullet Journaling for writers: Part 4. Writing a novel

A month of relaxing, putting it out of my head, listening to good books and podcasts, seeing and doing enough things to make my introverted self tired for the next year – it helped. A lot.

I routinely do walk away from manuscripts to get some distance. A little distance often helps you find solutions. And I had tried that. But I don’t usually stop writing – I just switch to a different writing project. That works well when ONE manuscript is misbehaving, but not for ALL of them. For that I needed a total break.

Which brings me to a second possible universal truth about writing: Sometimes you have to step away from the page and live for a while before you are ready to write. Hopefully, it doesn’t always involve as much driving.

 

So, when you need a break what do you do?

 

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 4 Writing a Novel

 

Bullet Journaling for writers: Part 4. Writing a novel

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a long time to share how I use bullet journaling to help me write my middle grade novels. I’m in the middle of writing a new novel right now, so it’s the perfect time for me share.

It’s also nearly NaNoWriMo time! If you’re not familiar with National Novel Writing month, you should go check it out. People all over the globe are busily preparing to write a novel in the month of November.

This post is for anyone who is writing a novel. Whether you are:

  • doing NaNoWriMo and writing a novel in a month
  • taking your time the rest of the year (or years)
  • plotting it all out beforehand
  • or pantsing your way through to THE END,

every novelist will benefit from having a bullet journal.

What is a novel bullet journal?

Wait, what’s a bullet journal?

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 1 The Basics

In the first part of my bullet journaling for writers series, I talk about the basics of bullet journaling. In case you forgot the details, here’s the short verison:

  • Bullet journaling is a system for tracking information that can be done in any notebook.
  • Set aside pages for an index and add entries as you make them (so you can find things later)
  • Use a future log (to track things that are off in the future)
  • Make daily, weekly, or monthly logs to track information as it comes up – like a day planner crossed with a to-do list on steroids.
  • Collections to keep track of ideas, items, lists, etc.

The earlier series shared how I have modified this system specifically for writers. Instead of a regular daily or weekly log, I use my magical-monthly log. Another post shares a list of helpful collections just for writers.

 

A novel bullet journal is different from a regular bullet journal

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Planning bujo vs. novel bujo
My silver planning bullet journal on the left vs. the teal bullet journal for my most recent work in progress on the right.

Everything I shared before was from my planning bullet journal. My 2019 planning bujo is a silver Rhodia goalbook. I use it for bringing together all the aspects of my writing career: planning for multiple manuscripts, critique groups, blogging, marketing, lists of books to read and review, etc.

I’ve found that I drop fewer balls when all the planning information is in one place, so all the planning and prioritizing go into my regular bullet journal.

A novel Bullet journal has a different purpose: to hold all the details about your novel. It has an index and a lot of collections. It doesn’t have any planning (so no logs). It’s focused so that you can focus on your novel. The bujo for my current work in progress is a teal Scribbles That Matter notebook.

 

Yes, I use a separate notebook.

Bullet Journaling for writers: the stack of my novel bullet journals
The bullet journals for my novels.

Ok, yes, it is possible to put all the novel information into your regular bullet journal in between your ideas for blog posts and daily planning. But that can make it hard to find information – especially when it spills over into a new notebook.

I start a new planning bullet journal every year. If I put my novel information into my regular journal, all that information would be spread across two or three (or more) years of bullet journals.

Instead, for each novel, I buy a separate journal. All the information for that novel goes into that journal. If I want to look up a fact from my first novel, it will definitely be in the sky-blue notebook. If I need to check a detail for the current novel, it’s in the grape purple notebook.

So for me, I keep a planning bullet journal each year plus a separate bullet journal for each novel.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider this: we writers love to buy notebooks and I just gave you an excuse!

 

Hopefully, I have now sold you on having a bullet journal to help you write a novel.  So let’s take a look at some of the things that can go into your novel bullet journal

 

Collections for inspiration and planning

A new novel usually starts here: with inspiration and early planning.

Inspiration or mood board

Bullet Journal for writers: my inspiration page
The inspiration page for my most-recent novel.

 

A lot of writers find it helpful to create a mood board or inspiration board for their writing. If you put those things in your bullet journal, you have a mood board that can travel to the coffee shop with you.

Consider including:

  • pictures that inspire you
  • stickers
  • phrases
  • poems
  • quotes
Quote by Anne Lamott: "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. What Ive learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head."
This quote by Anne Lamott is a good reminder to myself as I’m writing my first draft. In the spirit of it, I decided to let the spacing and scratched out bits go. **twitches**

Protip: adding large things in your journal is easy with a piece of washi tape. Plus, now you have a reason to buy pretty washi tape. The video below shows how I added some pictures and diagrams to my bullet journal for easy reference.


Brainstorming:

Brainstorming is a great way to get the creative juices rolling. I end up doing quick brainstorms throughout my writing process. I usually set aside a collection just for brainstorming. Whenever I need to think up, say, a funny name for a character’s pet chicken, I’ll flip to the brainstorming collection and make a list. When the pages fill up with these lists, I start another.

Consider:

  • character names
  • character motivations
  • setting
  • plot twists
  • backstory
  • endings
  • clues (for mysteries)
  • magical items (for fantasy)
  • literally whatever you need

Mindmapping:

Another form of brainstorming – One exercise I did with my current novel was to create a mindmap. I wrote out all the character names and settings in circles, then drew lines to show the relationships between them. It was really helpful so I could see which characters and subplots clustered together neatly and which… did not. That made it easy to target subplots to cut from an already over-stuffed plot.

Writing Exercises: 

Many books have you work through a set of exercises to help you discover plot, character motivation, or voice. I do these in my Bullet Journal so I can look back at them later. You can check out my 16 favorite writing books here.

16+ Best Books for Writers: Books for Every Writer

Collections to hold onto important information

This is where you get to the core of your novel: character, plot, setting, etc. If you’re a plotter, you’ll probably be developing all of this before your first draft. For us pantsers, you’ll be tracking this information as you write or after the first draft.

 

Character sheets

A Character sheet page from one of my novel bullet journals
A Character sheet page from one of my novel bullet journals. Many books have exercises to help you get to know your character, Story Genius is one of my favorites

There are a million names for this idea – character sheet, character bible, character interview, … Whatever you call it, it’s a place to write down all the pertinent information about your character. Creating your character sheet is a great way to get to know your character.

There are some very long lists of information to track about your character and even some templates you can print and tape into your bullet journal. Personally, I find that more information is not necessarily better – it just tempts me into including too many details that bog down the story, especially at first. For myself, I like to keep it minimal when I start:

  • Name
  • Age (especially important for kidlit writers)
  • Appearance (keep it brief: are they an elephant or a child or a pterodactyl with eczema?)
  • Internal problem/arc* (what is driving them?)
  • External problem/arc* (what is the outwardly visible problem in their lives?)

Sometimes these details change and I always learn a lot about my characters while writing. So I end up rewriting my character sheets with the new information:

  • Speech or body language tics
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Backstory
  • Personality
  • People in their lives – friends, family, pets, …
  • All the idiosyncratic details that help them feel real.
  • ….

*If you’re not sure what I mean by internal and external problems and arcs, I recommend reading a book on story structure like Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. You can get a taste from her TedTalk here.

 

Plot

Diagrams of 3-act structure in a bullet journal.

Diagram of 3-act structure in a bullet journal from Page Flutter. I lean toward the pantsing side of the plotter-pantser spectrum. So I often go into a novel with just a rough overview of the plot. When I’m first thinking about the plot of a novel, I will usually freewrite long-hand to work out my ideas.

At some point in revision, I will use diagrams and charts full of plot points and all the things that plotters love.

I like to do my plotting on a whiteboard with sticky notes so I can move plot points around until I’m satisfied with them – or identify holes that need to be filled…

Close up of my plotting whiteboard showing a post-it note with the text "{hilarity ensues}"

But when I’m done, I copy it down in my bullet journal for easy reference while writing. (Also: I have too many cats and kids for sticky notes to last through the entire drafting or revision process.)

 

Family tree/character mindmap

Bullet journaling for writers: a family tree and a mindmap of character relationships
A family tree and mind map I made for just a few characters from Harry Potter.

If you’ve got a big cast of characters, it can be helpful to have a visual to see how they all connect. A family tree is helpful for big families.

A mindmap that shows characters and how they’re related can also help you keep track of tangled social webs. For instance, look at the web I made for just a few of the Harry Potter characters.

 

Setting

Bullet Journal spread: novel setting
One of the settings for one of my novels. Check out the video above to show how I attach the pictures.

This is a place to park all the information about a setting in your novel. You can snag photos from the internet. I often draw diagrams (they don’t have to be museum-worthy – just so I keep my layout of buildings and towns consistent) or I look up building diagrams online and tape in printouts. Maps may also be helpful – either hand-drawn or printed off of google maps

 

Timeline

If your story starts in spring but 5 months go by before the end, you can’t have them picking daffodils in a spring shower in the last scene. (Unless you are on an alternate planet or reality where time and natural cycles work differently. You can make a collection for that, too.)

A timeline helps you to track the progression of time both so it’s believable and so you can nail those details that bring a novel to life: are the characters meeting while shivering under cover of night or sweating in the blazing sun of mid-afternoon summer? You can write it out by hand, but I like to type it into a spreadsheet which I print out and tape it into my bullet journal for reference.

 

Genre-specific information

  • Fantasy – world building details like cultures, languages, governance structures.
  • Sci-fi – technological details and world building
  • Mystery or thriller – Clues, villains, and red herrings.
  • Magical realism/fantasy – how does the magic “work”
  • Historical – all that research about your time/setting/characters
  • Humor – list of running jokes/callbacks
  • …………

 

Tools to help you write

 

Trackers

Bullet journal word count tracker for a novel
The title of my tracking page was inspired by the Anne Lamott quote above.

“Tracker” is the shorthand in the bullet journaling community for any type of collection that lets you track information over time. Consider:

  • word count (as you write)
  • chapters revised (as you revise)
  • number of chocolate bars eaten trying to sort out a plot hole (I don’t judge)

I like to use a simple word count tracker. Filling a page up with sparkly stickers is very satisfying.

If you’re trying to write a novel for NaNoWriMo, it can be helpful to track daily word count.  Here is the official NaNoWriMo wordcount tracker for 2019.

 

Lists and Notes:

Simple but necessary. There’s a lot to keep track of so make a collection and give it a place to live where it can be easily found later (unlike that used napkin…)

Some collections I have used to hold notes and lists:

  • list of changes to make in the next draft (“Side character names are all boring – fix this.”)
  • questions that need answering (“Why does my character hate the villain so much? Need to work out backstory.”)
  • ideas for revision (“If I change the location of the earlier scene, readers will already know the location before getting to the pivotal scene later.”)
  • people to thank in acknowledgment – I keep this running list. It gets long very quickly.

 

References and writing helpers

Wheel of emotion words
Wheel of emotion words. Larger version here.

If you find yourself looking up, say, an emotional thesaurus frequently, print it out and taping it in your bullet journal. That way it’s always handy – even when the internet goes down. (The horror…)

Consider:

  • emotion wheel/thesaurus
  • 3 act structure diagram
  • hero’s journey diagram
  • list of words to cut from your writing
  • anything you find useful

 

Literally anything else that will fit in a notebook

What do you need to keep track of?

 

How to Win Nanowrimo with a bullet journal

 

16+ Best Books for Writers

16+ Best Books for Writers: Books for Every Writer

A few days ago, my daughter leaned over my shoulder and asked what I was reading on my phone. It was a blog post about writing villains, so I told her it was about how to write a better story. Which led her to say:

“But you already know how to write.”

Yes and no. Yes, I already do know a lot about writing and have even gotten a few publications. No, I don’t know everything there is to know – not by a long shot. I can still learn to be a better writer.

No matter where you are on your journey, you can learn and improve. My favorite way to learn is by reading.

 

It’d been a couple of years since I last wrote a roundup of writing craft books – time for an update!

I’ve broken the list down into sections:

  • inspiration for all writers
  • books for fiction writers
  • books for nonfiction writers
  • books for children’s book writers
  • books on the business of being an author

A challenge: we learn a lot by studying our own genre – but I’ve also gained a lot by reading about writing in other genre’s. So consider branching out and reading a book that you normally wouldn’t.

 

Inspiration for all Writers

Book Cover for "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear" by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Writing Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is my top picks for all writers. Writing is hard – not just because producing good work requires substantial labor, but because our own mind often works against us in the form of internal critics, writers’ block, and lack of motivation. Her perspective will have you re-think your writing in ways that bring more joy and less fear.

 

 

Books for Fiction Writers:

Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron – This book is still my favorite for fiction writing. It dives into what makes a story compelling. You can check out Lisa Cron’s Ted Talk to get a flavor of what the book is about. Bonus: my writerly friends assure me that it’s quite understandable even if you’re not a brain nerd like me.

 

Book Cover: "Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)" by Lisa Cron

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) is Lisa Cron’s newest novel-writing book. While Wired for Story goes through the logic of her ideas and method in detail, this one is more practical. It includes many exercises that will help you plan your story to be successful from the beginning. If you like plotting out novels and find writing exercises helpful for finding voice and discovering your character’s motive – this is a good choice.

 

Book Cover: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last book on Novel Writing You'll Ever Need" by Jessica Brody

Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You Will Ever Need by Jessica Brody  – The original Save the Cat book was written to help screenwriters, but many novelists found that, with a little adaptation, the method also applied very well to writing books. Now Jessica Brody has written a book just for us novelist – with examples and additional information just for novelists. (Though I think a lot can be applied to shorter forms – like picture books.) The method is heavy on plot development – even if you don’t pre-plot your books, it can be helpful for analyzing a rough draft and making changes to improve pacing and story arc. (I used it this way in revising my first novel.)

 

Book cover: "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: The complete Guide to mystery, Suspense, and Crime."

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: The Complete Guide to Mystery, Suspense, and Crime by Hallie Ephron – If you’re writing anything in the mystery genre, this is a great book. Even if you don’t write in the mystery genre, consider giving it a shot. After all, nearly all books have a hidden storyline that’s slowly revealed in clues over time – like backstory or important events that happen off-stage.

 

Books for Nonfiction Writers:

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by Willian Zinsser – This book is in its billionth revision and jillionth reprinting for a reason. This primer will help you think about how to write nonfiction books that readers can’t put down.

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind – This book is focused on a specific form of nonfiction writing – creative or narrative nonfiction. It’s nonfiction told in narrative form so the reader can step inside the story.

 

How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larson – When writing nonfiction you often send publishers a proposal rather than a completed manuscript. That can be daunting if you’ve never written a proposal before. This book has everything you need to know to write a proposal. If you have no idea what I’m even talking about, this would be a good place to start. It’s thorough but written to be an easy read and includes lots of helpful samples from real proposals.

 

The Weekend Book Proposal: How to Write a Winning Proposal in 48 hours and Sell Your Book by Ryan G. Van Cleave – If you want a lighter version to get you started on your book proposal, this might be the book for you. The title is misleading, though. That means 48 working hours. Maybe some people work around the clock on the weekend but I, for one, like sleep and food. Misleading title aside, it’s a helpful book and would be a good choice for someone just starting out with writing proposals.

 

Books for Children’s Book Writers:

Most writing craft books assume you are writing for adults. Principles of good characters, pacing, and plot hold for all books, no matter the age of your audience. But there are also differences between the kids and adult book markets and the needs of these audiences. So if you’re writing for kids, check out these books, too, in addition to the ones above.

 

Book Cover:"Writing Picture Books: A Hands on Guide from Story Creation to Publication" By Anne Whitford Paul

Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul – If you write picture books, you need this book. I read the original edition a couple of years ago and learned so much from it. This past year a revised edition came out with updated examples and new information about the market. A friend invited me to an online book study group to go through the new edition. Even though I had read the previous edition, I still learned a ton. It really is that good.

 

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grades Readers by Mary Kole – I found this book after reading many of the helpful articles on Mary Kole’s webpage. It’s an introduction to writing middle grade and young adult books. If you don’t know what that means or what the difference is, this is a great place to start.

 

Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas – This primer covers everything you need to know to get started writing nonfiction for kids. It was a great book for me when I was getting started and it’s still a great book now that I have a few manuscripts under my belt. Note: this book goes in and out of print which means the price can fluctuate a lot. I recommend keeping an eye out for used copies.

 

Books about the Business of Being an Author

Book Cover: "The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman – This is the only book I’m including on the list that I have not, personally, read from cover to cover. (I’m working on it!) I’m including it based on what I have read so far, the numerous recommendations I’ve been given, and my experience of getting so much valuable information off of her blog over the years. There are lots of books that cover one aspect of the writing business (I list some below), but this is the only one I’ve seen that is comprehensive. If you want to have a career in writing – this book will tell you everything you need to know.

 

Book Cover: "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" By Wendy Burt-Thomas

The Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas – After you’ve finished your manuscript masterpiece, you’ll have to write a query letter so you can begin to query agents and editors (i.e. try to convince them to take on your book). This one-page document is somehow even harder than writing the manuscript itself. This is an entire book that will help you learn how to craft a one-page document.

 

Book Cover: "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market: 2019"     Book Cover: "Writer's Market 2019"

Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market or, if you’re writing for adults: Writers Market – Once you’ve gotten your manuscript or proposal squeaky clean and ready to send out, you’ll need to figure out how to get it into the hands of the agent or editor of your dreams. These books are designed exactly for that. They’re updated every year to keep up with changes in the market.

 

The Book – If you write for children, you should be a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). One membership perk is this free book. It’s available on the website as a PDF or you can pay for a print version. Your first year of membership they’ll send you the print version for free.

 

There you go – 16 of my favorite books about writing. Do you have any I should add?

 

 

Book Reviews are Moving!

While I hope my book reviews move you emotionally, in this case I’m talking about a change in location.

I love reviewing books for so many reasons:

I have been reviewing books on my blog for a couple of years now. But over time I’ve noticed a shift in how people engage with book reviews.

I’ve been sharing book reviews informally on social media for a while. I noticed that social media review get more reach than do blog posts. Reading will happen no matter where I share, but if I want to reach readers and shine a light on good books, I need to go where the people are.

 

After a lot of thought (and some handwringing) I have decided to shift to reviewing books on my social media accounts – primarily Instagram. My account is open, so you can view it without creating an Instagram account, though I do reshare to Twitter and Facebook as well.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

This book… *Sharp exhale* 📚 I read a lot, y’all. This is my 69th novel or novel-length book in 2018. So when I say this book is a rare gem, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve read a lot of middle grade books that deal with tough topics, but this left me gutted. 📚 I mean that in the best way possible. 📚 This is one of those books that gets you so deep in the feels that you end up screaming at the characters on the page. That will have you sobbing or throwing the book across the room. 📚 This book GETS IT in a way that’s hard to describe if you’ve never had your back against a wall. If you’ve never had to claw your way to a better life with nothing but determination and your fingernails. 📚 I will be thinking about THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS for years to come. . #booksofinstagram #books #bookrecommendations #bookreview #kidlit #kidlitpicks #middlegrade #thebenefitsofbeinganoctopus @annbradenbooks

A post shared by Angela Isaacs (@aisaacswrites) on

 

I will still do some larger book review posts – like my yearly holiday season list of books for all ages and lists that cover topics that aren’t addressed other places.

2018 List of Books to give to kids: Kids books for every age and stage: Baby to Teen and everything in between

Here’s to more reading!

Nevada SCBWI Conference and Mentorship 2019

Last night I got back from a jam-packed weekend in Las Vegas. I was there for the Nevada SCBWI Pitch Perfect Conference and to kick off my mentorship program with Jim Averbeck.

 

I also snuck in a few hours of sight-seeing.

 

I love writing conferences – I always learn a ton and come home excited to work on my manuscripts. In fact, I wrote so many notes that the fountain pen in the next photo was over half empty when I got home. To put that in perspective, that’s the ink equivalent of a couple of ballpoint pens or more. That’s a lot of writing!

 

But it’s also just plain fun to hang out with people who love books as much as me.

This was my first writing conference outside of Illinois, so I can now say that writers everywhere are some of the kindest, loveliest humans on the planet. I’m running on fumes today because I stayed up every night chatting with my fellow conference-goers. It was definitely worth it.

Three days into my mentorship, I’m also excited to jump into revisions. Getting critical feedback on your work isn’t easy – but right now I’m excited to see these picture book manuscripts turn into something amazing.

**cracks knuckles** Ok, let’s get to work.

 

I Pray Today: Free Lesson Plans, Activities, and Resources

I Pray Today book: free lessons, activities, and resources for classes or families

In addition to writing children’s books, I also write and edit curriculum for all ages. One thing I love is using that expertise so that my readers can enjoy my books even more.

I Pray Today is written for the littlest booklovers – babies and toddlers. But the themes and ideas are big ones. So I have pulled out those ideas and used them as the basis of lessons and activities for older children.

There are lessons and activities for preschoolers to middle schoolers. Each is tailored to the understanding and interests of a particular age, but flexible enough to be used with a variety of ages.

They’re easy to use, and bonus material and resources can be used to build on the lessons.

 

GET THE LESSON GUIDE NOW

 

And be sure to check out the lessons I wrote for Goodnight Jesus.

Resources for Goodnight Jesus

Women in STEM Picture Books

Picture Books about Women in STEM

Each month I spread a little love for some lovely books with monthly book reviews.

March is women’s history month, so this month I’m sharing women’s history books that focus on something I love: STEM. Check out these real stories of amazing women all of whom pursued their passions and became experts in science, technology, engineering, or math despite all the odds.

 

Science: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley

Book Cover Art: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, doctors told her mother she would never speak or be able to fit in. They told her to send Temple away. But her mother did not give up. Neither did Temple. As she grew older, Temple found that her visual thinking and attention to detail were strengths. She revolutionized farming and found her voice as a speaker who travels the world.

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures on Indiebound

 

Math: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Tiemdow Phumiruk

Book Cover Art: Counting on Katherine

Katherine Johnson loved to learn and loved math. But growing up in the segregated South – she had to fight to continue pursuing her passion. Her perseverance not only let her reach her dreams, but also made spaceflight possible.

This is the same Katherine Johnson who was featured in the book-turned-movie Hidden Figures, which I have recommended before. While there is a middle grade edition of Hidden Figures, I was delighted to this important story told in a picture book format for younger kids.

Counting on Katherine on IndieBound

 

Technology and Engineering: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu

Book Cover Art: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Long before there were computers, Ada Byron Lovelace had too much imagination and love of learning to listen when people told her a woman could not be a scientist. She meets a man named Babbage with a similarly impossible dream: a thinking machine. But how to give it commands? Ada goes to work developing a code to talk to this mechanical computer. She ends up inventing computer programming before computers even existed.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine on IndieBound

 

Science: Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala

Book Cover Art: Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles

Joan always loved reptiles – while other girls carried around dolls, she had a pet crocodile. When all the men were called away to war, she got her chance: she got a job working with the reptiles she loved. Eventually, she became a leading expert in reptiles sharing her knowledge so the world would understand just how loveable reptiles could be.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor on Indiebound

 


You can find more book reviews on my book review page.

200+ Children's Book Reviews