I love my iPhone. If I’m being honest, it’s the first thing I reach for when I wake up. If I had a dollar for every time I check it during the day, I’d be a millionaire in a month. But as much as I love my iPhone, there’s just one thing I simply cannot use it for: planning.
Call me old school, but I prefer to write things down. And apparently, there’s a reason. Studies have found that reading and writing on paper is actually better for your brain.
When it comes to planning, I use something called a bullet journal. A bullet journal—or BuJo for short—is an analog system created by Ryder Carroll that’s part planner, part journal and part scrapbook. You create it so it’s essentially whatever you need it to be at that exact moment. Need to brainstorm ideas for a Mother’s Day party? It’s got you. Need to write down your daily schedule? It’ll do it. What about keep track of how much water you’re drinking each day? It’ll help you do that too. In fact, I’ve done all of these things in my BuJo and more.
All you need to start one is a notebook and a pen. Once you number your pages and create an Index to keep track of what’s on each page, you’re pretty much free to run wild. And if you have ever checked the #bujo hashtag on Instagram, you’ll see the amazing things people do with their bullet journals. It can be a bit intimidating to a newbie. The first time I tried it a few years ago, it didn’t take. But after spending tons of money each year on pre-printed planners I never used because they didn’t fit my life, I revisited bullet journaling again last year and fell in love.
I fell so much in love that—in addition to my everyday bullet journal—I created one specifically for writing projects. I’ve always kept notebooks when starting each book in my Detective by Day series, but they were never organized. It was more just me using the pages as a brain dump where I scribbled whatever came to mind and then struggled to read my handwriting later. So it made sense to be more organized by creating a bullet journal. Plus, I figured, if I made it look pretty, I’d be way more willing to write. I’m that writer who finds writing to be a painful experience. (Spoiler: It still is. As Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written.”)
When I developed my writing BuJo, I essentially put my informal story development process on paper and combined it with other things I realized I needed. Then I grabbed my ruler, felt tip pen and colored highlighters and got to work. The finished product isn’t perfect looks-wise but it’s perfect for me. It includes:
- Yearly calendar: I found a printable online and then taped it in the journal. Book 3 in my series is due July 1 so it’s helpful to see an overview of how many days I have to make this happen.
- Monthly calendars: Again, I found pretty calendars to print. I use these to keep track of my progress. I ordered some neon color coded dots from Amazon. I’ll stick one on each day that I wrote, include my page count and then pat myself on the back!
- Milestones: I work better when I can break a big task into something smaller, so I have a box for major milestones like Outline and First Draft. I’ll color them in when they’re completed. I also have a separate page where I keep track of when I hit page count milestones as well.
- Story Breakdown: This is essentially my story in one place including the logline, victim/crime details, themes, setting and time frame.
- Act Breakdown: I used the three-act structure when writing so this just lists each act’s investigative question/focus and end of the act twist. I stole this basic idea from Hallie Ephron’s book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.
- Character List: I write a series so I have several main, recurring and new characters in each book. This helps me easily keep track of everyone! For my main characters, it’s essentials like age, height, etc. For new characters, it’s more their role in the investigation be it suspect or witness.
- And finally, I have my favorite thing in my BuJo: the character name list. I listed the entire alphabet one page and filled in any names I’ve used throughout the series that start with that letter. I discovered tend to love names that start with J or M. Names that start with C? Not so much. It makes it easy when I need to name a new character.
This is what works for me. It might not work for you but that’s the beauty of a bullet journal. If you do one, figure out what you need to help make finishing your latest project as painless as possible, so—like Dorothy Parker—you can proudly say that you “have written.”
What about you? How do you keep your life (and your writing) organized? Anyone else BuJo?”
**This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Guppies First Draft newsletter.**