The Importance of “Off-Stage” Writing: 5 Ways to Use a Secret Journal

You’ve just taken Pamela Protagonista, rebel goth girl, through the perils of cheerleader camp where she has scored a victory over Amanda Antagonistella, who was not as good at karaoke as she thought. The Final Showdown is twenty chapters away and you have no idea why Pamela would go to Kennebunkport nor how she will score a train ticket without Reginald finding out. You’ve made lists and charted character arcs and rechecked the color of Reginald’s eyes, but nothing gives. You are stuck. Hopelessly.

It’s time to take your writing off the “stage” of your manuscript and do some secret journal writing–writing that no one will ever see. At least, that’s what you need to tell yourself. Your story journal will have more in it than charts and lists. It’s a kind of conversation. I use mine to do the following things:

1) Rant. “The writing is going SO badly and there are so many bills and why won’t those women at the next table TALK MORE QUIETLY? Is it all the wine they’ve had? Why do I do this? Should I be a writer at all? Maybe I should have gone into real estate.”

2) Plan. “Today I need to not only tackle chapter four, but thread Amanda’s poodle through chapters one through three. Let’s see if I can hit a word count of 2k.”

3) Play What-If. “What if Pamela hates Reginald? What if he is the cause of her isolation? What if she really wants to be a Broadway actress, but her father forbids her to take acting classes? What if she and Amanda were originally best friends?”

4) Play Why-Maybe. “Why would Pamela hate Reginald? Maybe he humiliated her.  Maybe he thought he was doing something nice, but it backfired and he’s too embarrassed to tell her. Maybe this happened at prom. Maybe he invited her and didn’t show. Why would he do that?”

5) Write fake scenes. Tell yourself these are practice scenes and you’re not really going to use them. Then you can write whatever you want as horribly as you want. Often these scenes will stay in the journal forever. But sometimes you’ll find something the book needs–something you’d never have written “on stage.”

Want support and accountability in your writing? YA Novel Writing: Captivating the Teen Reader begins April 8 at Bellevue College. To register, go to the Bellevue College Continuing Ed website.