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Stories To Tell is a full service book publishing company for independent authors. We provide editing, design, publishing, and marketing of fiction and non-fiction. We specialize in sophisticated, unique illustrated book design.

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A Lab Journal for Writers

Biff Barnes

I remember high school chemistry (not all that fondly, I must admit) where maintaining an up-to-date lab journal seemed the whole point of the class. I didn’t get it then; the journal seemed an onerous waste of time. But now I do. The journal was supposed to produce some thinking about the experiments we were performing. As the great physicist Max Planck explained, “An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer.” A writer often confronts questions about the nature of the world she is creating in a book. As you work on a particular piece of writing you might want to keep your own Lab Journal.

Photo courtesy of the US Army Research & Development Command under Creative Commons

Writing gurus advise us to keep journals. These are usually based on the idea that free-writing, or prompts may lead us to insights about ourselves or our work. They are therapeutic, organizational and generative. Such  journals offer an opportunity for self-discovery.

These insights are often seen only retrospectively, after one has traveled a long way down the road before experiencing a personal epiphany. That can be immensely valuable. If it works for you to keep such a journal, by all means do it.

But a lab journal for writers is focused on more specific and immediate questions about the particular piece of writing you are working on now. If you keep a personal journal, I would suggest keeping the lab journal in separate whether in a different notebook or in its own computer file.

Any piece of writing poses perplexing problems. The lab journal is where you work them out. It’s a place to pose questions and experiment with possible answers. Let’s look at some of the sorts of things that you might experiment with in your journal.

  • You are using the tools of creative nonfiction in a family history. That requires you to speculate about people’s thoughts and feelings or to imagine dialogue that they might have engaged in at a particular moment in time. For example, it’s the eve of the Civil War and your great-great- grand-parents are deciding whether to leave Frankfort, Kentucky to settle on the edge of the frontier near Leavenworth, Kansas.  Create a speculative interior monologue as your great-great-grandmother ponders the question. Create a speculative dialogue between your great-great-grandparents exploring their situation.
  • You are writing fiction. You’ve written a scene and re-written it several times. It still doesn’t work the way you’d like it to. Conduct a conversation with your character. Pose questions about the things that are bothering you about the scene. Have your protagonist answer in character. Her answers may give you some insights into the scene that will help you through the brick wall you’ve hit.
  • You are writing a memoir. You are trying to recreate the setting for an event that occurred several years ago. You can hear your old writing teacher admonish you to “Show, don’t tell.” Imagine yourself as the set director for a movie. Design the set. What would the camera see? What’s the mood or atmosphere of the scene? Think about the lighting in the scene. Would a colored filter on the lens help capture the emotional tone you want? Experiment until you get the feeling you want. Now imagine yourself as the sound editor. What sounds would overlay the set you’ve constructed?

These are all example of what Einstein would have called a gedankenexperiment or thought experiment. One of the things that scientists know is that experiments, even thought experiments, don’t always produce the expected results or answers they had hoped for. That may happen in your lab journal. When that happens to a scientist, he adjusts the variables in the experiment and tries again. Don’t hesitate to do the same thing as you experiment. There’s room in your journal.

How much of what’s in your journal will eventually get into your manuscript? Probably not much, at least in the form in which it appears in your journal. What the journal will do is help you do the thinking that will allow you to write the scenes in your book in the way you want them to be. No one will see what was actually in the journal.

As you embark upon your lab journal, it’s a good idea to keep something that the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said about writing, “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” Your lab journal, where you work out the questions, problems and issues in your book, is what you do before you wash your hands.