Author Archives: Jacqueline Houtman

The Bullet Journal: A Tool for Writers

Maybe you’ve got a calendar on your computer and/or phone, and maybe your desk or wall or refrigerator. You might have a bunch of lists–shopping, packing, tasks. There are slips of paper where you write story ideas scattered around your home or on your bedside table. Your desk has stacks of research notes. You may even keep an exercise log, a gratitude journal, or a meal planner.

You can have them all–in a bullet journal.

I first learned about bullet journals from a post by middle-grade author Kate Messner in early 2015. Here’s the way she describes it:

“One thing you’ll notice here is the serendipitous nature of the whole thing – story ideas live side by side with phone call notes, brainstorming charts, grocery lists, and jobs I need to do in my role as a skating club parent volunteer. . . I am a particularly task-oriented person, so this system makes me more productive and less likely to fritter away time on social media, which is great, but it also forces me to own what’s important to me each day. If it goes in the bullet journal, it matters, and I’ve found that I’m more likely to honor my exercise plans and small writing goals when I write them down here. I’ve always kept paper to-do lists, but this is different, somehow, in its permanence. Today’s list doesn’t get tossed in the trash tomorrow, and for some reason, that adds to my motivation to keep those commitments.”

I won’t go into the details of the bullet journal here. The basic premise is described on the originator’s website, but that’s just a jumping-off point. The great thing about a bullet journal is that it can be whatever you want it to be. Every BuJo is unique. You can even change the way you use it from day to day, week to week, or month to month.

This one is very fancy, and not mine. (

Some people use separate journals for work and home and writing. As a freelancer, I have to organize one or more freelance gigs, my personal life, family obligations, and my Zumba teaching along with my creative writing. These tasks flow into each other during a given day.  I do keep a separate journal for conferences, so that all those notes are together.

I use a simple composition book with a 4 square per inch grid. No need for fancy, expensive books, unless you’re into that kind of thing.  I write the dates on the cover, also noting on the cover if this journal contains important things that I might look for later, like tax information or research notes you took on a visit to a museum.

These are mine. I attended a lot of meetings about college and financial aid between May and September 2016.

Some people purchase a journal with numbered pages or number the pages themselves, then list those page numbers in an index. I don’t bother; I color the edges to help me find things, like this.  I use paper clips instead of fancy ribbons to make it easy to flip to today’s page. There are lots of other ways to keep track of pages.

Each daily page in my own BuJo includes the date, appointments, and Zumba classes I’m teaching right at the top. If I have an upcoming deadline, I’ll note how many days are left here.

At the top right, I list who will be home for dinner (it gets complicated) and what will be on the table. Down the right side I list people I need to contact by phone or email. Bottom right is errands.  I used to put exercise below the dinner plan, but since I’ve been teaching Zumba, there isn’t really a lot of need to log that.

The main part of the page I divide into sections based on the writing projects I’m working on (freelance assignments, blog posts, manuscripts, talks, etc.), Zumba tasks, and home stuff.

This one is very neat. Also not mine. (PenPaperSoul Instagram)


Sure, I can do most of this on a computer or smartphone, but writing stuff down has some cognitive, creative and meditative advantages, some of which are listed here and here. I like to sit with my journal just before bed and go over what I need to get done tomorrow. Sort of like downloading my brain onto paper so those thoughts won’t be floating around keeping me awake.

The BuJo can be as basic or complicated as you want. There are Facebook groups for those that want to keep it simple and for those that take it to the extreme, with art, calligraphy, stickers, stencils, and washi tape

There is also a Facebook group for writers, who have lately been sharing how they use their BuJos for NaNoWriMo. Bullet journals are a natural for writers, many of whom already keep journals.

In addition to keeping track of daily tasks, there are some writing-specific spreads you can add to your BuJo. You can add inspiration, motivation and organization. You can track word counts and map productivity. You can list books you want to read and check them off as you finish them, perhaps adding notes or reviews or ratings. You can set short-term and long-term goals. You can keep track of submissions (and rejections). You can build worlds and diagram plots. You can list writing prompts and do a daily free-write. You can brainstorm titles and character names. You can plan revisions and track edits.

This is not my book list, although I have read some of these books. (currently studying Tumblr)

Megan Rutell has compiled lists you can use to “supercharge” your writing and offers some great tips and hacks.  Several writers have written about the ways they use bullet journals in their writing, including Laura Shovan, Amanda Hackwith, Victoria Fry, Lyndsay Knowles, and Claire Bradshaw.

Here is a spread used by Kara Benz to prepare for NaNoWriMo.

If you are looking for videos of writers giving tours of their bullet journals, you can start here and here and here and here. Keep looking until  you find what you think can work for you.

There are more ideas than I can list here, but I encourage you to give it a try. Start simple. Explore the ways other writers have used their BuJos. Add features that you think might help you. Feel free to delete features that aren’t as useful as you thought they’d be.

Do you use a bullet journal? Do you have any special spreads, trackers, or techniques that you find especially useful? Share in the comments.

Wicked Bug Winner!

The winner of a  copy of

Wicked Bugs Young Readers Edition: 

The Meanest, Deadliest, Grossest Bugs on Earth

by Amy Stewart


Niccole Paytosh

Congratulations, Niccole. Watch your inbox. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Interview with Author Amy Stewart and a Wicked Bug Giveaway


Today we welcome New York Times bestselling author Amy Stewart and we are giving away a copy of her new book for middle-grade readers, Wicked Bugs: The Meanest, Deadliest, Grossest Bugs on Earth (Algonquin Books 2017).

Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of six books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including four New York Times bestsellers The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. She is also the author of the Kopp Sisters series. Stewart and her husband own Eureka Books in Eureka, California. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the American Horticulture Society’s Book Award, and an International Association of Culinary Professionals Food Writing Award. 

 Illustrator Briony Morrow-Cribbs studied art at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, and currently lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, where she owns and operates Twin Vixen Press

About Wicked Bugs Young Readers Edition: The Meanest, Deadliest, Grossest Bugs on Earth (Algonquin Books 2017):

Did you know there are zombie bugs that not only eat other bugs but also inhabit and control their bodies? There’s even a wasp that delivers a perfectly-placed sting in a cockroach’s brain and then leads the roach around by its antennae — like a dog on a leash. Scorpions glow in ultraviolet light. Lots of bugs dine on corpses. And if you want to know how much it hurts to get stung by a bullet ant (hint: it really, really hurts), you can consult the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. It ranks the pain produced by ants and other stinging creatures. How does it work? Dr. Schmidt, the scientist who created it, voluntarily subjected himself to the stings of 150 species.

 Organized into thematic categories (Everyday Dangers, Unwelcome Invaders, Destructive Pests, and Terrible Threats) and featuring full-color illustrations by Briony Morrow-CribbsWicked Bugs is an educational and creepy-cool guide to the worst of the worst of insects, arachnids, and other arthropods. This is the young readers adaptation of Amy Stewart’s bestselling book for adult readers.

First question: Why bugs?

Wicked Bugs is the sequel to Wicked Plants, a book I wrote in 2009 about deadly, dangerous, offensive, illegal, and otherwise horrible plants that have affected humans–mostly for the worst. It was my way of looking at the dark side of the plant world, and telling rather bone-chilling stories that don’t often get told about the surprisingly powerful world of plants!

Wicked Bugs seemed like a natural follow-up. In fact, as I was researching Wicked Plants, I kept running across interesting stories about venom, insect-transmitted diseases, and so forth in the medical literature. I just started keeping a list, and pretty soon, I had another collection of stories.

The irony is that people are very trusting of plants, assuming that anything green that grows out of the ground is all natural and therefore good for you. But I had no trouble rounding up a list of truly terrifying plants. Plants can’t run away and hide from predators, so they fight back in ways that can really inflict a lot of pain and suffering.

For Wicked Bugs, on the other hand, I actually had a hard time coming up with a list of insects, spiders, and so forth that we actually should worry about.  People are generally far more terrified of bugs than plants, but in fact, I had trouble filling a book with actually “wicked” bugs!

 In your introduction, you discuss your use of the word “bug.” Can you tell our readers about it?  How did you choose which critters to include?

 Entomologists will be quick to point out that they use the word “bug” to refer to a specific type of insect with piercing and sucking mouthparts. An aphid, therefore, is a “bug,” but an ant is not. This book covers all manner of slithering, creeping, and crawling creatures, from insects to spiders to worms. In that sense, I’m using the word “bug” in the more ancient sense, dating back to the 1620s, when it was used to refer to any sort of little insect-like creature.

How did you approach research for the book?

 I interviewed toxicologists, physicians, and entomologists. I read a lot of medical and scientific journals, scoured old newspapers, and did original, primary research to try to debunk myths and avoid repeating old, false information. Although this looks like a small, light-hearted book, I do quite a bit of research. For instance, I would never repeat a fact from a modern book along the lines of “the ancient Greeks used wasps for warfare.” I’d need to trace that to the source–and I don’t just mean a more authoritative Greek scholar, I mean the original source text, which, fortunately, has probably been digitized and can be found in a research library somewhere in the world. I’ve hired translators to translate 500 year-old German texts and even Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Tell us about the decision to publish a young readers’ edition of your 2011 New York Times best seller for adults, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.

I do quite a lot of events around the country at science museums, botanical gardens, libraries, and so forth. At those events I will often meet teachers and parents who are really eager to find interesting science books for their kids and students. I confess that because I’m not a parent myself, I wasn’t aware of the changes that Common Core and other educational standards have brought to the classroom, but teachers and parents brought me up to date! They told me that literature and writing are being integrated into other subjects, like science and history. Because Wicked Bugs combines all of those things–science, history, and storytelling–it really fit the bill.

 How does this middle grade version differ from the adult version?

We had the text professionally edited to fit the right age and grade level, and we removed just a little bit of “adult’ content.  We also made it into a full-color edition by using hand-colored versions of Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ extraordinary copperplate etchings. As you might know, copper etchings were used to illustrate scientific books three hundred years ago. It’s almost a lost art today. But Briony took up the challenge, often working from real specimens at her university entomology department, wearing jeweler’s glasses to see every tiny detail.

If there was one single thing that you wanted young readers to get from Wicked Bugs, what would it be?

Honestly, I just want them to enjoy the book. I write for entertainment–to entertain myself, and to entertain readers.

 Do you have plans for any other books for young readers?

I very much hope that my publisher will want to do Wicked Plants! There are other books about bugs out there for this age group, but it seems to me that botany is a very underserved subject for young readers. There’s a definite Harry Potter vibe to Wicked Plants–poisons and potions and so forth–but it’s also an engaging look at botany and a good way into the subject. If anybody out there thinks Wicked Plants would make a good next book, please send me your thoughts!

You have published both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a preference? How does your writing process differ?

Right now I’m writing a series of novels (Girl Waits with Gun, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions) [for adults] based on the true story of one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs and her sisters.

It’s great because the research is really the same, but the writing is very free, because I can make things up if I have to. Also, I’m no longer writing in my own voice, and I do get tired of the sound of Amy Stewart in my head all the time.  Now I’m writing in the voice of a woman who lived in the 1910s, and that’s a great challenge. There will be many more books in that series to come!

And now for the giveaway!

a Rafflecopter giveaway