Tag: how to

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.

 

 

 

 

 

How a Children’s Book is Made: Part 1. The Truth About Illustrations

How Children's books are Made: Part 1. The Truth About Illustrations

Being an author is a funny thing: everyone has heard of your job. (Unlike my husband – a systems architect.)

But people don’t know what it is I actually do. (My husband and I have that one in common.)

Whether you’re a writer hoping to publish a book or a kidlit lover who is curious about the process, this series is the place to find out what really goes into making books for kids.

 


 

I’m a writer, not an illustrator. So it may seem odd that I would start off a series on making picture books by talking about illustrations.

Yet, when I tell people about being a children’s book author, the number one thing people ask about is the illustration of my books.

It comes up in a variety of ways:

  • How did you meet your illustrator?
  • I want to publish a book – how do I find an illustrator?
  • I’m an artist – can I illustrate your next book?
  • How did you know what to put on each page?

But however the conversation starts, it inevitably leads to me dropping this truth bomb on them:

Children’s book authors do not pick our illustrators.

And then comes the flurry of questions:

  • Wait, then how do you get an illustrator?
  • How does the illustrator know what images to make?
  • But…. what if the illustrator gets it wrong?
  • And why does it work this way?

So let’s tackle these one at a time.

 

How Do You Get an Illustrator?

Editors and Art Directors are matchmakers. Once they acquire a manuscript (i.e. decide to publish it) they find the right illustrator to match with the text.

Sometimes they will ask the author’s opinion. Usually not.

Yes, this can really stress authors out – especially the first time around.

For I Pray Today my editor paired my manuscript up with Amandine Wannert who had already illustrated books for them in the past. I’ve never met Amandine – she lives all the way in France! But personally, I think it was a perfect match for this book.

Book "I Pray Today" on a white background with flowers

 

How Does the Illustrator Know What Images to Make

Ready for another shock?

The illustrator decides what art to put on the page – along with the editor and art director. 

Note that the author is not in that list of people.

Authors can give general guidelines. For instance, when I sent my editor the query for I Pray Today, I told her that the manuscript

“follows a child through his day, from waking with a “Good morning, God,” to getting tucked in at bedtime – always with a prayer on his lips:

Good morning, God. The day is new. I say my first small prayer to You.         

Lord Have Mercy”

The last part is the opening of the manuscript. I never told them what to put on the page with it, yet it turned out perfectly.

I PRAY TODAY interior illustration

Author’s can (very very occasionally) include an art note to explain what illustration needs to go with a piece of text. This is reserved for cases where the text doesn’t make sense without the art. Giving a note helps the editor to understand the text in the same way that a reader would – with both text and art together.

For example, one part of I Pray Today includes the text:

Dad says dinner’s piping hot. I stuff in food, but – oops, forgot. 

Why does she say “oops?”

What did she forget?

Once you see the artwork, it makes perfect sense:

 

I PRAY TODAY interior spread 2

She forgot to pray first! In my manuscript, I included an art note to explain this: [ART: Kid starts eating before prayer.]

That’s the only art note in the whole manuscript because that’s the only one that was needed. Even then, I kept it to just what was needed to understand the text. I still left most of the decisions up to the illustrator: Who is at dinner? Are they at home, a restaurant, somewhere else? How will you show that she forgot to pray?

This came up recently. An adult reader contacted me on behalf of his child wanting to know: what are they eating? 

Good question! I really had no idea, since I hadn’t made that decision. So I sent it off an email to my editor who said:

Good question! And she emailed the illustrator to find out.

I had fun polling my friends on social media while I waited for the answer. Most people guessed chicken nuggets with either fries or green beans.

Well, we were a little bit right:

The Illustrator answers our burning question: what are they eating
the illustrator answers our burning question: Dear Jane, I like this question, it is really cute! Without colours, it is hard to guess… The little girl is eating “haricots verts et pommes noisettes”: french beans (green beans) and hazelnut potatoes (round french fries). Best, Amandine”

 

All in all, it was a lot of fun finding out the answer. (Also, I really want to try those pommes noisettes.)

 

What If the Illustrations Are Wrong?

This is the whispered question that everyone is dying to know but nervous to ask.

Aspiring authors especially seem to struggle with this. It’s scary to give up control of something you have worked so hard on.

Ready for another shocker?

It’s not just your book. It certainly feels that way – as an author, you come up with a concept, agonize over every word, and revise until your fingers fall off. But with a picture book or board book, text and illustration work together. They’re a package deal.

And also: It almost always works out wonderfully. I have worked with three different illustrators over seven books and, each time, I was blown away by their work. Every. single. time.

Goodnight Jesus interior pages

This spread from Goodnight Jesus is a great example. I gave the editor general guidelines for the form of this book, just like I did for I Pray Today. I told them it was a bedtime story focused on giving kisses – a child works their way toward bedtime but giving, and eventually receiving, kisses. But I didn’t specify how that should be shown. In my head, I imagined the child in their family icon corner kissing icons then moving toward bed giving out kisses as they go.

Instead, the illustrator put the child into the icons. I had imagined a static version, but he made it interactive. That makes for a more engaging illustration and book. Plus you can see both the love the child is giving AND the love the child is receiving. That’s a deep theological statement – but boiled down to a child’s level.

The two images together in ways I didn’t consider. Notice how the position of the two babies are mirror images of one another. Even Jesus’ body language mirrors Mary’s – each is cuddling a baby they love. That makes the images work together both on an aesthetic level,and a theological level.

The illustrator didn’t just show my story, he added to it in ways that deepened it. He brought a fresh perspective that allowed him to expand the story in meaningful ways. Which bring us to our next question:

 

Why Does it Work This Way?

Separating the text decisions from the illustration decisions isn’t a cruel thing done by evil editors. They are giving both artists – author and illustrator – the freedom to do their best work. I am not a visual artist. I don’t have the training or experience to make decisions about artwork.

No, the child in your book probably won’t look exactly like your granddaughter. The illustrations may not match what you envisioned. That doesn’t make it wrong.

If you can go in with an open mind, you’ll be able to appreciate the exceptional artwork that has been carefully crafted to enhance your story.

Secretly, I think that the editor’s and illustrator’s jobs are to make the author look good. The editor wants this book to succeed. The illustrator wants to produce excellent illustrations. All of which makes my book stronger and better than I could make it on my own.

So, no, authors don’t have illustration decisions about their books. But that’s just fine.

 

Next time I’ll share what the illustration process looks like for illustrators. We’ll pick up after the editor has paired them with a book text and see what it’s like from that side of the equation.