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?
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
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.
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
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.
- pictures that inspire you
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.
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#Bulletjournaltips for my #writingcommunity as we head to #nanowrimo season. . Adding large things to your Bujo is easy. And there are infinite uses: ✔️ Pictures ✔️ Maps ✔️ Plot diagrams ✔️ Spreadsheets ✔️ Timelines ✔️ That napkin you used when you forgot your Bujo ✔️ References ✔️ Research ✔️ Pretty much anything that folds flat. . #amwriting #amwritingkidlit #bulletjournal #bulletjournaling #bulletjournaladdict #writinglife #authorlife #writingtips
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.
- character names
- character motivations
- plot twists
- clues (for mysteries)
- magical items (for fantasy)
- literally whatever you need
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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
- People in their lives – friends, family, pets, …
- All the idiosyncratic details that help them feel real.
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…
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
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.
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
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.
- 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
“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
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…)
- 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?