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Keeping the Writing Faith: 6 Ways to Keep Your Novel on Track With a Process Journal

Jennifer Haupt discusses six strategies for using a process journal to stay motivated, conquer writer's block, and keep making progress on your novel.

The following article is the fifth in a five-part series by Jennifer Haupt. In this installment, she discusses six strategies for using a process journal to stay motivated, conquer writer's block, and keep making progress on your novel.

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I have a confession: I’m all-in at the beginning of writing a novel, but then I’m prone to bouts of intense writer’s block after the honeymoon is over. The middle is where I meet up with my old pals resistance, self-doubt, and the “what next?” blues.

My secret weapon for combatting writer’s block at any stage, and often avoiding it altogether, is the process journal. This isn’t a term I made up, and it means different things to different writers. Generally, this notebook is a place to free-write about different aspects of plot, character development and structure—off the sacred pages of your manuscript.

I tend to take a long time to finish a novel. I spent eleven years working on my debut novel, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, including numerous breaks from two weeks to two years long. My process journal is a series of exercises I’ve fashioned over the years, drawing on what I’ve learned from workshops and craft books. It provides me with an organized road map of where my WIP has been, where it’s headed, and possible side roads to explore.

Here are six ways using a process journal can stave off writers block and keep your WIP on-track:

1. Keep track of the basics.

While your protagonist, antagonist and supporting cast of characters will grow over time, the basics of their personalities and personal growth should remain consistent. That’s the foundation of plot. Your protagonist's basic personality traits are formed and expressed through: desire, initial plan, critical weakness that makes that plan fall apart, and "superpower" that becomes stronger toward the middle of the story. Writing these and other qualities down for easy reference can be extremely helpful.

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2. Kick-start your writing session.

I write in my WIP process journal every morning, before I turn on my computer, even if only for five minutes. I track character development, diagram the relationships between characters and the trajectory of plot lines, or gripe about a character who is driving me crazy (and figure out why. I always end my writing warm-up session with a question: What is it I want to accomplish next?

3. Brainstorm with your characters.

One big cause of writer’s block is the fear of the unknown. So why not enlist one of your characters to help out? Try the “what if…” game next time you’re stuck: Choose a character and write down ten “what if” questions off the top of your head, as quickly as possible. Then, set the time for five minutes to address each question/scenario in the voice of your character.

4. Keep your WIP at your fingertips.

Sometimes I can trick writer’s block by simply leaving my office for a few hours to go on a walk or meet a friend for coffee. Even though I sometimes jot down quick notes on my phone or a napkin, I try to slip my process journal in my purse and take it with me wherever I go. It’s nice to have one central home where all thing relating to my novel in process live.

5. Chart your progress.

Each night before I turn out the lights, I spend five minutes summing up what I accomplished during that day and where I’ll pick things up the next morning. This helps to stave off the sometimes horrible feeling of waking up to an empty slate.

6. Calm your mind

Finally, a big benefit of keeping a process journal is that writing by hand is good for the brain. According to Claudia Aguirre, M.D., a neuroscientist and mind-body expert, mindful writing rests the brain, potentially sparking creativity. Additionally, magnetic resonance imaging of the brain has shown that writing by hand increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain much like meditation.

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