On Keeping a Book Journal, and the Nascent Beginnings of Books

WHEN SHADOWS FALL releases next week, and I wanted to show a bit of the process I went through writing the book. Every book has a different genesis, and I've been trying to keep better track of how the stories come alive for me.

I am not a natural journaler. I had the requisite locked diary as a girl (Dear Diary, why doesn’t so and so like me?) and when I found it a couple of years ago, I saw a familiar pattern: daily January entries faded into a sporadic February into one or two lonely March entries, then nothing at all until July, when I wrecked a friend’s moped and finally – finally! – had something to talk about.

It is the mundane that I’d always found of such little interest. And yet, how I wish I’d stuck to the discipline, that I’d at least put down a few words here and there for all those childhood years. Dinners, friends, sleepovers, heartbreaks. So many things lost, so many ideas gone.

I tried for years to journal properly – even took a class in college that called for a daily journal. What do you think happened? Yep, the night before it was due, there I was with my day runner, trying to recreate a semester’s worth of entries.

In 2003, blogging became a part of my life. It was a journal, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I can go back through the entries on my blog and on Murderati and watch my journey – my highs and lows, my successes and failures. When I stopped blogging weekly, I realized how much I missed it, and it hit me – you’ve been journaling. And you like it.

But I was still horridly inconsistent. I’m like many writers, I think, I have multiple notebooks and snippets of ideas and open file folders and cocktail napkins and half-finished blog entries scattered about my office. I need a method, a practice. And I found it again through two things – daily pages and a book journal.

Again, my fear of the mundane kept me from combining the two. What if, years from now, someone actually wanted to know my unpublicly chronicled thought process on a book? And what if they found my notebooks, and saw some of the ridiculously boring things that happen in my life?

So I kept them separate.

In each folder, for each book, I have a small journal file. I try to document the moment the idea for the book came to me, how I approached it, the emails I sent, anything that will help explain the genesis. And as I write, I keep score – word counts, what’s working, what’s not.

Which brings me to WHEN SHADOWS FALL, which comes out next week. You’d think, after all this time, I’d know what sparks a book idea for me. But for the life of me, I can’t remember. So I’m writing this blog, and now, I will go open the magic box that is the Book Journal and see. Be right back…

Here’s what I found – it’s a copy of the transcript of the email I sent my agent on 5.15.12

So the story idea for Sam #3 pranced into my head two nights ago, and I wrote it down. It's a fun idea, I think, and based in part of a real case in Mississippi, where a man moved from California running from the "Masons" then committed suicide. Don't worry, not a DaVinci Code-esque storyline. I have something much more fun in mind, as you'll see when you read the synopsis.

The title - obviously a working title, but I wanted to go with three words, and have a play on the darken and black from the first two. I like this. Second place is BREATH AND SHADOW - from Sophocles. (A human being is but breath and shadow.)

Ah – I remember now. I was in the shower, and the idea for the book hit me out of the blue. I messed around with the story, wrote up a synopsis, found a title – I can’t work without a title – and sent the email to my agent.

The title, by the way, was WHEN SHADOWS FALL – everyone loved it off the bat, and my agent loved the proposal, and the editor loved it, and suddenly, I was in business.

Except – I had a few other things on my plate, and I couldn’t come back to the story for a year.

A year is a very long time between concept and writing for me. Normally I dive right in, but I had to write my first book with Catherine Coulter, and I can’t write two books at once. So SHADOWS went on the back burner for a year. 

Not surprisingly, the book journal shows a rough start when I got back to it. I just read through the diary, and realized – I am rather hard on myself.

But, all that said – the journaling is now a Godsend. It was with this book that I really got into sharing my thoughts at the end of each day, which has morphed, these many years later, into an actual daily journaling habit!

I was using my blog, but there’s a strange, uncomfortable level of intimacy to sharing a book’s life while it’s under construction, so I’ve switched to a great app called Day One. I record the mundane and the important, the books stuff and the life stuff, all in one place, and I find I can’t move on with my evening if I don’t write my little bit at the end of the day.

Apparently, I’m a journaler after all.

A little added bonus, here's an excerpt from WHEN SHADOWS FALL 

JT Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of fifteen critically acclaimed thrillers and is the co-author of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. With over a million books in print, Ellison’s work has been published in twenty-five countries and thirteen languages. She is also the co-host of A Word on Words, Nashville's premier literary TV series, which airs on Nashville Public Television. She lives with her husband and twin kittens in Nashville. Visit JTEllison.com, and follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick or at Facebook.com/JTEllison14.