The Beauty of Bullet Journals

Can I call what I’ve produced a bullet journal? Not in the strictest of senses, but the general thought is there.

Invented by Ryder Carrol in 2013, bullet journals aimed to help journalers better reflect and declutter their minds using a simplified system of symbols. Since conception, they’ve exploded both in popularity and creativity, evolving in a myriad of ways. I kept hearing the term “bullet journal” or “bujo” get thrown around in various circles, but I didn’t dive into what it is and means until late 2020.

I’ve had a wide variety of notebooks through the years, each creatively dubbed “A Book of Observations, Version x”. These journals started in high school when I realized trying to make a notebook for each project was… put simply, ill-advised. Still, these notebooks were… a disaster. I had no real organizational prowess – I hopped from topic to topic as my mind unraveled. If I wanted to find notes I’d made from an old notebook, I’d often have to spend a lot of time flipping through and hoping I had the right journal.

However, with the pandemic looming overhead and my own mental health crumbling around me, I was dying for a change. I took this term I kept hearing all around me and decided to do some research.

Obviously, something I wanted to prioritize with this new system was making it easier on myself to find specific notes – but that wasn’t all. I’d taken inspiration from the “bujo” community at large and their creative use of spreads. So, after hours scrolling Pinterest and YouTube and Instagram, I started making lists of the things I wanted my newest journal to include.

My first attempt, as most first attempts are wont to be, was messy. It was an easier-to-contain mess than previous journals, sure. However, I’d found myself struck with Shiny Object Syndrome and wanted to include everything I’d seen. This just wasn’t feasible. I needed a happy medium between the way my old journals were and bullet journaling.

With the second journal, I scrapped things that don’t suit me. Spreads I kept were designed in ways that made sense to me and are fun to maintain. The largest sore point in this second journal was the paper – black pages look cool as fuck, but they’re a pain in many ways to write on.

So came version three. I further refined the things I wanted to include and gave myself stricter guidelines. I considered what spreads could be redundant (why have a Year at a Glance page when I never use it and default to my phone calendar more?) and scrapped accordingly. With this notebook, I think I’m starting to get somewhere.

Instead of having a log of everything happening this year, I have a spread of me reflecting on events from last year. I have a kanban/project board I’ll periodically update as projects get finished or published or put into metaphorical drawers. And, most importantly, I start over each month. Hard stop, make a title page for the month, set up my goals and what I want to read, and move on. Coupled with a cohesive table of contents I’m diligent about updating, this notebook makes my brain feel unstoppable.

Can I call what I’ve produced a bullet journal? Not in the strictest of senses, but the general thought is there. I’ve become a massive fan of dotted paper – it has the structure of lines while still granting me freedom. Plus, this adapted method has been a great help when it comes to keeping track of writing achievements or the things I’ve gotten completed.

Each notebook setup has been meditative, in a way, as has my monthly setup. And, most importantly, it’s been fun! That’s the most vital part, I think, in keeping my writing journals.

I’ll end this with a picture of my latest notebook (see below). How do you keep track of what you’re writing? What do you use to keep track of it? How did you find a system that worked for you?

Image description: the opening pages of a notebook against a Grey brick background. The left side is the company mission statement of the notebook brand, Peter Pauper Press. On the right side, “A Book of Observations, Version 12” is wrote in different fonts. End ID.

The Prologue to My Frustrations

Prologues have been a sort of hot topic for a while now. Are they good? Are they bad? People can’t decide between vehement hatred of them and sheer adoration. It’s remained a subject for division in the writing community for a long time.

Me? I’m more of a middle ground. I can be okay with them… if they’re used right. The problem is not many of them are.

So what do I think are the keys to a good prologue?

The first note is they need to be wrote with the same quality as the rest of your book. If you have a prologue, it’s the first bit of writing anyone will see from you. As such, it needs to be just as good as the rest of the book. You cannot afford to slack.

The second note is it needs to have a purpose. As in, if you removed it, would the story change at all? Would it be worse off? This should be obvious, of course, bit also depends what kind of purpose. All too often, I see “prologues” that just serve to infodump the lore of the world. It’s boring and it’s not the best approach to have. And this is coming from someone who loves being steeped in the world a fellow writer has created.

The third note is that not all stories in fact need a prologue. This ties to my second point, really. Some writers add prologues for one reason or another, but all it does is drag out the word count and hamper your story. The general consensus I’ve seen from writers is if they see a prologue, they will skip it. What is it about your prologue that makes it unskippable? Can it not be implemented elsewhere?

I personally used to be 100% against prologues. I would skip them every time I saw them. I have since come around from this, but I still find myself wary of a prologue when I see it. It makes me wonder about the rest of the book – and, in the case of a prologue, not in a good way.

Reviews and Why They Don’t Matter

Being a voracious reader means I’m constantly searching for books to add to my TBR, just to read them and move them to a different imaginary pile in my head. Reading has been a love of mine since I was two and while my time management has changed drastically, my love for the written word never has. Likewise, my love for writing those words has never changed.

And yet, being a reader and being a writer are two grossly different spheres.

Of course, what we read affects what we write, and in a way what we write affects what we read – research and comparisons and lessons that go deeper than that. But one particularly ugly intersection they have tends to be is in the reception of a person’s work. Particularly, Goodreads, but applicable to anywhere else that one can judge a writer’s work.

As a reader, I am inclined to think readers can judge a book however they wish. As a writer, I try to think the same, but I know how damaging it can look when reception of your work is negative.

But at the end of the day, how a reviewer sees your work doesn’t matter.

Sure, strong positive or negative opinions can sway a neutral audience. If a book has mostly negative reviews, I learn it’s one I’m better off avoiding and vice verse. In a marketing sense, reviews can make or break an author’s work.

But that does not mean we should be breaking reviewers for having opinions.

I’ve seen a lot of authors recently bemoaning their negative reviews, and as a writer I get it. It hurts to have something we’ve spent so much time and energy (and often, money on. It’s our baby! Why is someone harming our baby?

Here’s the thing, though. Once we release our books for public consumption, it isn’t our baby anymore. People are free to shred and 1-star and paper mache and love and write fanfic of and write scathing reviews of the work we produce. And they’re full in their right to do that!

We as writers all too often seem to forget that. We get so caught up in what people are saying about us – about our work – that for some, it’s worth trying to kill people over. For others, it’s worth going on twitter threads and harassing comments and blogs and…

That is not how we should be treating our works. Our readers deserve so much better than that. Our books deserve so much better than that. Instead of obsessing over negative reviews, or calling them names, or trying to dictate who should and should not write reviews in the first place, we should take them in stride and just fucking write.

It is not fair to police a reader’s reception of our work (though bigoted responses are a whole other kettle entirely) just because we do not like it. The best thing we can do is take note of their words, keep any criticism in mind, and move on. To do anything else would be to cheat our readers and, more importantly, cheat ourselves.

Why I’m Not Doing NaNoWriMo

Alternatively, a discussion on self-care.

This year has been rough. Like, “spent most of it in a memory-dissolving depression haze” rough. I made a lot of plans for myself that I simply couldn’t complete, let alone start. And of course, this made one nasty spiral as failure after failure added up and I became consumed by guilt over it.

One of the biggest “failures” came as of this month – and last. I’ve been getting into art more and more as of late. I wanted to challenge myself, so I decided I was going to do Inktober. And it failed. Terribly. I lasted… about a week, and I’m proud of what I managed to make, but then so much happened and I crashed and burned.

It is with this in mind that I decided that I didn’t need to do NaNoWriMo, either.

I suppose if I really put myself to it, I could do it. Maybe. There’s not much going on this month aside from my hectic work schedule. But still, I have been noticing a trend in creative spaces that I don’t think benefits me. I don’t think it benefits anyone. And it’s partaking in events regardless how much it stresses you out or how much time you actually have… almost, fetishizing destroying yourself for the sake of partaking in an event. We’ve seen all the memes about artists despairing in October, and I started seeing them again for November.

But, honestly? Endangering your mental health “for teh memes” or to feel like you’re a part of something isn’t worth it. And sure, NaNo is hard. That’s why it’s a challenge. I’ve done it before, and I’ve won and I’ve lost. But lately it feels almost… expected to do it. It’s all over our social media feeds. It’s a major topic in the writing community.

This year, I’m not doing NaNo. I don’t know if I’ll do it next year. All I know is that I know it isn’t good for me or anyone else to push our limits for the sake of an event that, while it fosters a sense of community, won’t benefit us mentally in the long run.

Instead, I’m taking the time this month to focus more on myself and my well-being, and to check in with myself often. And even if you’re partaking in NaNo, there are things you can do to keep yourself in check:

  • Make sure to stay hydrated. Water is best, but most fluids are beneficial.
  • Take breaks. Staring at screens all day hurts. Every hour or so, stand up, walk around, get your blood flowing. Just for five minutes.
  • Make sure to eat something! If you don’t have the energy to make an entire meal, that’s okay. Just make sure you eat something.
  • Check your posture!
  • Flex your wrists. Carpal tunnel is a bitch.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goal. What’s important is you did your best.
  • If you need to take a day off, or multiple, do so.
  • Most importantly, check in with your loved ones and reach out if you need to be checked on! Reaching out is one of the hardest goddamn things to do, but know that you are valued and loved and needed.