Conceptualizing a Novel: Journaling, Plots, and Characterization

It's well known that I love writing journals. I'm a hardcore moleskine junky, but really, I love paper and pen. I become a whole new person on a creative level when I'm given these old-fashioned tools to work with.

Today, I'm going to go over my new way of plotting, characterizing, and organizing my novels. For my birthday, I acquired a leather circa journal. I've been lusting for one of these for about a year. I never really could justify it before.

I'll just say this much: I have learned the error of my ways, and this system is worth every penny. I will say this: Thin, poor-quality stock paper need not apply for use with these journals. It'll rip and tear if you're like me, constantly taking out and putting pages back in.

So, before I go into the method, let's talk about the journaling system. For this method to work, modular paper system is pretty much required. Here's why:

When I'm writing out notes scene by scene, I go back and correct things in first scenes. I take out the page I'm currently working on, flip to other sections of the journal, make notes and reference details on those sheets, before flipping back to its appropriate spot and reinserting the sheet. You just can't do this very well with a regular notebook.

Sorry, Moleskines. You just got outclassed.

Here is the system in action.

Circa Journal 001

My friends, who love me, bought me the red leather journal–and they had it initialed! So glorious! So wonderful.

If you think the outside is pretty, just wait till you see the inside.

I replaced the original rings with green aluminum rings. Blue and Silver aluminum are also available (brand new additions!) The original rings are black plastic.


I just received the green rings in the mail today, so I took photos of the empty journal with three wafer-thin dividers added. The leather journal doesn't come with them. These are extras I bought on my own, along with the green rings.

Circa Journal 002The leather journal I has includes some pocket space for index cards and some paper. The space is tight, but considering the nature of the system, that's perfect for me. Most things will be punched and kept on the rings anyway.
Circa Journal 003Warning: Click at your own risk. If you read my novels, spoilers of minor nature will be found if you read the notes.

I thought it was worth the risk.

This shows an ‘open' circa journal system. I have no covers on this, showing that the rings and paper can form a complete archival system. I don't like throwing out notes, and this will make sure I have plenty of storage space when the notes have been used and a novel has been completed. Better yet, because it still uses the circa system, I can flip through, organize the archives, and switch things around anytime I need.

These are the large green rings I purchased. The larger rings make the pages a little harder to turn, so I decided to keep the 3/4″ rings in my leather journal. The pages flip super easy in the 3/4″ system. which is what I need for really active work.

Circa Journal 004

This shows the circa journal, fully opened, in action. The pages function just like a regular journal, so those who likes ring bound or true bound will likely enjoy this. It has the feel of both types at the same time, partially due to the fact it can lay open totally flat without any issues at all. That's one thing I really love about this system. Right now, I've installed dividers to create covers for the journal. As I mentioned above, covers aren't required. Of course, covers do protect what is inside, so unless you're archiving, I really recommend having a cover of some sort.

I have created three different journals: Two archive journals, and the master work journal.

On top is a single-page circa hole punch, which converts any paper into a circa-usable sheet. Levenger has three models, but since I really like their paperstock, I chose the single-page punch. I don't need any more than that, since I'll likely only punch and include character sketches for personal reference.

Intermission: So, why the circa system? Why the sudden shift over to faithfully recording information on my novels? Simple: I may often pants my novels, but realistically, I'm plotting in my head as I go.

Because I'm now working on connected books, I need to be able to confirm information easily. I used to do this in true-bound Moleskine journals. Now? I'm doing it in the circa system.

My moleskines will still be used as a major part of the drafting process. But, because I want to really limit the amount of difficult editing work, I've taken to doing extensive note taking and preparation before drafting.

Because I'm median in nature, the shift doesn't bother me at all–I still do a lot of pantsing work and creative work as I'm taking the notes. The wonder of discovery is still there.

As is the organic characterization. Why?

I use the same exact thought process. I just take notes instead of storing it all in my head.

Moving on. The specifics of my note taking.

This is the outline and characterization work for the first scene of Witch & Wolf 3. (Support an author, buy Witch & Wolf 1, Inquisitor. At an Amazon near you!)

The Witch & Wolf series is an urban fantasy thriller type. It mixes mystery, murder, action & adventure, and thriller, with a backdrop of magic, werewolves, and our world… but changed.

Or is it?

Unlike many other series, the Witch & Wolf novels are connected standalone novels. Often, a new character is featured in each book. In Witch & Wolf 3, many of the characters from books 1 & 2 make an appearance. Old friends may return in later titles to become the main characters again as they get into more misadventures.

However, I want people to be able to invest in one and only one copy of a book–any one in the series–if they so choose.

Which means I have to be very careful to make sure each title can stand alone. When Victoria (from Inquisitor) returns, returning readers will know her… but new readers will not be left to drown. You'll meet her all over again, in her new circumstances, facing new challenges. Of course, reading Inquisitor will have benefits, but you won't need to read it.

And because of that, I have to be really careful in how I plan each and every novel, or I'll end up relying on previous books in the series. I don't want that.

Enter my note taking.


Circa Journal 010

On this page, I have written out various bits of information on the character, things I want to develop, his motivations, and so on. Some of this stuff will never actually be revealed to readers–not directly. It'll be inferred, hinted at, and lived, but not directly told. It's information for me, to get a feeling for how Jackson will behave in the novel.

A lot of my notes are speculation on his choices, his feelings, his emotions, and how he changes as a result of his experiences.

That's characterization and development–justification of actions, and paying the consequences of those actions, followed by reacting to those consequences.

Fears, hopes, and dreams play a huge part in how I develop characters.

Yes, I may create unreliable narrators as a result. Why?

People change. People make bad choices. They make good choices.

They do things, sometimes, they shouldn't have done–all because they wanted something bad enough.

When I take notes for a novel like this, I want to capture that.

The plot is the consequences of my character's decisions, partnered to the consequences of other character's decisions–and sometimes, the character making the decision is the planet Earth itself.

I can't tell you how to plot and plan your own novel. It is a personal journey, an adventure you must embark on solo. But, I can share with you what I do and why I do it.

At the heart of every book I write are characters. They are the ones who decide the show–or, at least, how I think they would decide the show if they were real people with goals, dreams, and motivations.

They're always bigger than life. In a way, I create characters who all have the trait to be able to change themselves. That sort of strength isn't always present in real people. We have a tendency to get lost in our fears, and sometimes, we never act.

My characters are almost always forced to make a decision…

… if they don't, the consequences for inaction are often far, far worse than the consequences of taking action.

Therefor, they drive the novel forward.

Second, I consider the plot and the events. I want the story to be fun. I want people on the edge of their seats. Those are the types of books I adore reading. I love feeling breathless and satisfied at the end of a novel. I love when an author completely screws with my head and turns my expectations upside down.

I love when they toy with me, take me on a roller coaster ride, inflict emotional bondage on me because of their glorious book. That's the experience I want to create.

Because that's the experience I really enjoy.

I love capturing the darkness of the world, and then giving all of the characters a chance to chase after a light in that darkness. I don't like hopelessly dark stories.

So I don't write them. Sometimes, a character has to face true evil, true darkness, and experience things that give me the shivers, but I also give them a chance to succeed.

If they use every tool available to them.

I don't give anything away for free, either. Characters live and die by their choices–and the choices of other characters. I've talked about this before, in a discussion over damseling. If a character loves another character so much to risk injury or death for them, if they get in trouble… of course they're going to come running. No matter what the cost is to them, too.

That's what people in love often do.

If a character has deserved the love and respect to be rescued when they get into trouble, that's fine.

That's part of why I take such extensive notes. I'm accounting for all of these character decisions.

A book is not the story of one character. It is the story of one character, and every other character that character has ever impacted, in past, in present–and in future.

So, keeping that in mind, I want to discuss the differences between plot and characterization in this case. I'm outlining by scene. I have already written up an eight page generic plot summary of events I think the character would cause.

P.S.: In the outline by scene, I've already made notable modifications to this because the events I thought would work wouldn't because the characters wouldn't do that.


So, how is all of this information relevant on how to use the journal? Let me show you.

Warning: Spoilers Head! (Ignore the text on the image and look at the rings to avoid spoilers.)

Circa Journal 008

This is an image of me inserting pages into the circa system. Because of how the pages are punched, you can very easily remove and put sheets back in. So, keeping in line with character decisions and motivations, when I work with a scene, I am flipping through the entire book–scene by scene–and checking to see if the characters would make the decisions they do.

One of the things I notice a lot when I edit for clients is that characters often forget their motivations. Things that were important to them a few scenes ago are forgotten or ignored. They're no longer important.

By taking out sheets and working my way through the project, I minimize the chance of this happening by carrying through important themes.

Something for you to think about when you're plotting or pantsing.

Note: The theories here are usable with both types of writing. If you're pantsing, you're keeping track of this stuff in your head, and you may not even realize it! Plotters are just writing it down before they draft… but many neglect to consider these key elements of writing a strong, character-driven novel.

I just used a marketing phrase, but I'm going to hammer it home. It is not marketing vomit. It actually means something. It means that your novel  is founded on the choices, decisions, motivations, successes, and failures of your characters, not on random luck, random events, or shallow stereotypes and tropes.

But that is a bridge you need to build and cross. It's a personal journey, in a lot of ways.

I can't tell you how to capture characters… it is something learned through reading, studying people, and ultimately doing.

Phew. I hope that this gives a glimpse into how I write books, and maybe offer some insight on how you can improve or clarify your personal writing method.

Leave a Comment:

nikkim says August 7, 2014

Thank you, thank you, thank you! You just saved my Arc notebook from death! I have been wanting one of these for a long time because I loved the customization abilities. For a while, I used it as a planner, but let’s face it… With smartphones, paper planners are obsolete. So it had been sitting around gathering dust. Now, I can wipe that dust off and repurpose this notebook!

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