Organization: The Practical

Last week a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question:

Wolf Section

“How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?

“I think this is a practical question as well as a philosophical one, maybe, and I’m interested in the answer to both implied questions.  How do you keep track of things?  Books like the Wolf series must generate a huge amount of background material and etc. that you need to access to keep consistency over time, at the very least, so I’m wondering: what works for you?”

There’s quite a lot here, so I’m going to start with a basic, practical reply, then move to the philosophical

First, let me clear away an element that I suspect many of you are waiting for me to mention.  There are novel writing computer programs out there – the one I’ve heard mentioned the most often is called Scrivener – that apparently contain all sorts of tools that promise to make organizing a novel and associated materials simple and easy.

I’ve never used any of those programs, so I can’t say from experience whether they would help me or not.  I’ll save whether or not I’d be tempted to use such a program personally for the “philosophical” side of this discussion.  However, I encourage those of you with direct knowledge of programs such as Scrivener to talk about them in the Comments.  As I see it, the more information the better!

Now, turning to my personal experience…Back in the days when I was starting “the Wolf series” (aka the “Firekeeper Saga”), programs like Scrivener did not exist.  In fact, word processing programs contained far fewer bells and whistles than they do today.  Spellcheck was the one everyone was excited about, but even that was slow and the internal dictionaries were small and easily confused.

Searching the document was possible but, especially if the document was large, such searches were slow and cumbersome.  Many novelists I knew broke their documents into multiple files, some chapter by chapter, to make searches useful.  I tended to go with roughly hundred-page blocks, shaped around complete chapters.

These days, breaking up the manuscript isn’t necessary.  However, having a novel’s text all in one file doesn’t remove the need for some sort of organization for related materials – the outlines, notes, character descriptions etcetera that my friend mentioned above.

When I started writing novels, I scribbled down my notes in whatever sort of blank book I had available.  However, I rapidly realized that a notebook with any sort of binding restricted me because it was impossible to shift materials around.  Also, there was no place to put visual materials, such as photographs and maps.

Therefore, when I signed the contract for the Firekeeper novels and knew I would be writing a series (as opposed to Changer, which started as a stand-alone and only later acquired a sequel), I decided that I would need a tool to help me keep my materials in order.  Jim and I went to an arts and crafts store, and there I purchased a very large, very heavy scrapbooking binder.

The one I selected met my two main requirements.  First, the ring binding meant that I could shift materials around as needed.  Second, the oversized cover meant that I could include visual materials that were larger than the size of a standard sheet of paper.  A bonus was that the notebook itself was very solidly made, complete with metal thingies on the cover to keep it from coming apart.

I then bought dividers and set them up for different sections.  Sometimes those sections (such as Characters) duplicated a computer file.  That didn’t matter, nor did it matter that these print materials could become outdated.  Sometimes I skim more efficiently when I am not looking at a computer screen.   Using the ring binder also meant that I could include my scribbled notes.  While these were often superseded when I started writing, those scribbled bits often reminded me of trains of thought that I might want to return to someday.

Areas such as “Wolves” included not only research notes on wolves, but also photos taken from a wide variety of sources: calendars, cards, flyers, and such could all be accommodated.  I glued smaller pictures onto a sheet of paper to minimize the number of tiny scraps floating around.

“Timeline” included not only my reverse outlines – see here if you want to know what I mean by “reverse outline” – but lists with things like names for months in various regions, and a timeline with various significant dates in the history preceding the events chronicled by the novels.

“Reviews” has nothing to do with reviews of the books, but my reviews of various research materials I had read, whether I owned them or had borrowed them and, if so, from where, in case I wanted them again.  This saved me more than once from re-reading a book I already had read or hunting for a book I had borrowed.

“History” included printouts of documents I had written as background for the series, including a treatise on inheritance law (crucial to Through Wolf’s Eyes) and related materials.  I also included proposals for novels in the series, so I could refer to them as I wrote and reassure myself I hadn’t lost my sense of purpose.

“Maps” included maps, both visual and verbal.  “Words” included interesting words or turns of phrase, especially idiomatic expressions or the like that caught my fancy and might be used to stimulate a frazzled brain.  “Places” ended up subsumed into “Maps.”  If and when I write another Firekeeper novel, I’ll probably get rid of this section and use it for something else.

“Miscellaneous” proved to be a valuable section, containing everything from a “relationship chart” my genealogist aunt sent me, to details about odd types of currency (including bricks of tea) or the typical staff to be found in a wealthy person’s household.

Why bother with all of this, especially in hard copy, when computer files are easier to update and can be electronically searched?  I’ll leave that for the “Philosophical” section next week.

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3 Responses to “Organization: The Practical”

  1. Annaka Says:

    This is a great topic!
    I definitely see the value in keeping track of such background materials in easily-reorganized hard copy.

    As useful as I find computers, there are certain tasks for which I really prefer something concrete. I have a strong spatial memory, and that works best when interacting with hard copy.

    I actually do use Scrivener – but not for this kind of thing.

    For me, its strength is structural.

    You can break the novel down into multiple layers (I use broad sections of the book, chapter level, and scene level).
    You can tag each section with various information, and use that to get a good high-level notion of what’s going on (e.g. seeing who is in what scene/chapter throughout the book, etc.).
    You can write top-down if you want to (basically encoding your outline into scene-level cards, and then fleshing out each scene), or you can use the structure to help you build an outline of your story after it is finished.

    I am not an outliner, but I like being able to easily see the structure of what is happening when.
    I used to do something similar with Word’s navigation pane (using different header levels), but Scrivener does it much more smoothly, and gives places to stash information that you don’t want in the final text.

    It does include some areas for high-level background materials, but I usually limit my use of those areas to things like TODO lists.
    I think it’s handy to keep background materials separately, to make it easier to flip back and forth.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks, Annaka. I use my reverse outline to keep track of how a story is developing. Good to know that structural tracking is one of Scrivener’s strengths. Thanks SO much for taking the time to explain.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    I have no direct experience of author-support software, but Pat Wrede devoted a fair chunk of time in Wrede on Writing to test driving it a year or two ago. IIRC, she was looking to replace something that simply didn’t have any support anymore.

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